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‘Death of a Nation’ is dead in the water

Dinesh D'Souza, who will speak on campus tonight, is the director of "Death of a Nation" (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

“Quality Flix” reads the opening logo in Dinesh D’Souza’s latest documentary. The first strike against “Death of a Nation”: false advertising. It was the first of many to come; this is a documentary that purports to expose Democrats as the true fascist racists in American society through a series of reductio ad absurda and reductio ad Hitlerums. Further strikes include claims, quotes and implications like:

– ”Joseph Mengele saw himself as a progressive … someone who was striving for the future benefit of humanity”

– Hitler wasn’t anti-gay (there are a few thousand bodies that would attest to the contrary)

– Political correctness is equivalent to the Nazi’s ideological suppression

– Obamacare and Obama’s regulation of banks are “the clinical definition of fascism”

– …and D’Souza’s own conviction of campaign fraud was an orchestrated tool by deep-state Democrats to attack their ideological opponents (why isn’t he serving his five years probation? Because Trump pardoned him, of course).

Let’s get this out of the way. Yes, I’m a Democrat, and yes, I’ve been a Democrat for my entire life. We searched far and wide for a completely objective critic with no opinions on politics whatsoever, and unfortunately, we came up short — we’re not sure they even exist. But no matter if you’re a Democrat, a Republican, a Fascist, a Communist or a member of the Church of All Worlds, “Death of a Nation” is nonsensical drivel. The claims above are prima facie ridiculous, but it’s the bizarre, defensive argument they fit into that is the real offender. “Death of a Nation” makes one of the most simplistic arguments in any political documentary, lacking in nuance and zeroing in on connections that D’Souza clearly thinks should produce an “aha!” but instead produce a “…what?”

Case in point, the film spends a puzzling amount of time (almost an hour) trying to claim that Nazis were actually on the ideological left rather than on the right. D’Souza does this by zeroing in on Nazi economic policy, drawing parallels between it and the rhetoric of American progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. It draws numerous comparisons between Jacksonian Democrats and the Nazi party, claiming that Hitler got his idea for the Holocaust from Jackson’s slaughter of Native Americans, and asserts that the KKK and the Nazi Brownshirts are two sides of the same coin (that’s one of the few claims that D’Souza makes that most people would agree with). Despite the occasional bold statements, the argument itself is actually strangely simplistic, consisting primarily of “Nazis bad, Nazis have things in common with Civil War Democrats, therefore Democrats bad.”

The format of a film indicates that D’Souza has only ever encountered quality documentaries as they were described to him through a game of telephone. Michael Moore narrates his own documentaries, he’s heard, so he’ll do the same (never mind that Moore’s voice is the pleasant, mildly gravelly sonic equivalent of the smell of oak, and D’Souza’s always sounds like a waiter just messed up his order). Other documentaries show their narrators walking from place to place, so this one includes dozens of shots of D’Souza pacing around cities staring blankly up at buildings. Other documentaries show brief reenactments of historical events, so D’Souza includes long stretches of sappy, overly dramatized scenes, directed and acted with the subtlety and skill of a Hitler/Abraham Lincoln porn parody. Other documentaries have interviews, D’Souza has heard, but a broken clock is right twice a day, and at least these interviews feel professional (despite the choppy editing that makes it look like he put his interview reels through a cheese grater).

All of this incompetent filmmaking is especially painful because, for much of its runtime, “Death of a Nation” makes points that are hardly things we needed a documentary for in the first place. We don’t need a documentary to tell us that Civil War era Democrats were disgusting, racist monsters: we know that already. Even then, the film is rife with strawmen, the most unsubtle of which is its lack of distinction between today’s Democrats and the Democrats of more than a century ago. “Death of a Nation,” in its effort to tie modern Democrats to the party of the KKK’s founders, largely neglects to mention that modern Democrats and modern Republicans are completely reinvented entities from the time of the Civil War. The documentary only barely acknowledges this temporal distinction over an hour in. D’Souza’s narration recites the well-backed historical narrative that Democrats became the party of Civil Rights with a tone of suspicion and condescension, glossing over it in about a minute with the only refutation being the assertion that racist Dixiecrats died as Democrats. He calls the idea that the Democrats and Republicans switched sides a “big lie.” I’d be curious to count the number of ostensibly Democratic Confederate flags at modern Democrat vs. Republican rallies, or poll modern KKK members, and ask which side they tend to vote. This “big lie,” supposedly conspiratorially constructed by liberals to exonerate themselves from Nazi ties, appears to have come true.

The inanity of D’Souza’s arguments arises largely out of imprecision as to what, exactly, he means by “Progressive.” At one point “Death of a Nation” calls Woodrow Wilson a “Progressive,” despite the fact that his abhorrently racist attitudes would never pass muster for any reasonable definition of the word in 2019 (in 1910 the standards were very different). The one definition we ever get for “Progressive” comes over an hour in, and is defined simply as “progress towards a centralized state and away from the American founding.” Making LGBTQ+ marriage illegal leads towards a centralized state, and so does keeping marijuana illegal. Are we to believe that these are “Progressive” positions? (Using this definition, he even tries to paint Richard “Hail Trump” Spencer as a Progressive, a “tool of the media to pin the white supremacist tail on the Republican elephant.”)

The documentary fails not only to distinguish between the Democratic Party of 1861 and the Democratic Party of 2019, but also between the words “Progressive,” “Socialist,” and “Democrat,” defining both “2019 Democrat” and “2019 Progressive” as synonymous and indifferentiable with “1861 Democrat” and “1861 Socialist.” This may sound like nitpicking, but D’Souza’s film can’t seem to grasp that, in any well-constructed argument, definitions matter. “Death of a Nation” is full of vague terms for big ideas that, without an internally consistent definition, make D’Souza’s argument at best meaningless, and at worst utterly false.

And I should be clear, this is not a politically motivated criticism. I disagree with most of the arguments made by the American Right, but I’ll acknowledge that the Right does have a decent number of arguments with strong premises, robust definitions and consistent logic. Credit for good arguments is due where credit is due. But this is a bad argument, slapped together with shoddy filmmaking workmanship, a crumbling ideological lean-to that claims to be a shining castle. There have been good Republican-leaning documentaries in the past; the first major film in which Mr. D’Souza was involved, an expose of Michael Moore’s tactics, was actually one of them. I hope that one day they are made again.

Near the beginning of “Death of a Nation,” D’Souza runs a victory lap around Democrats that thought that Trump could never win, showing clips from Colbert and Oliver mocking the then runner-up. At the end of the day, I am uncomfortable with how much the Left mocks and makes fun of the Right, but if the Right embraces this type of content, whether they win the presidency or not, the laughter will continue. “Death of a Nation” is a joke.

Contact Noah Howard at noah.howard ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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