Fear And Loathing In 2016: Obama's America

This past weekend I went to see 2016: Obama's America, the new documentary by right-wing author Dinesh D'Souza that opened nationwide after a limited release last month. I saw it twice, in fact, in two different theaters and chatted with a few fellow movie-goers to get their impressions of the film. And even though 2016 is rife with basic factual errors and logical inconsistencies, and steps on its own anti-Obama message with moments of unintentional comedy, the faithful that the movie preaches to love it, warts and all.

The most charitable thing I can say about 2016 is that it's poorly timed. The movie argues that President Obama's true ideology (inherited from his absentee father) is a “failed Third-World collectivism” that seeks to reduce America's stature in the world, as evidenced (in part) by Obama's determination to “lower NASA's horizons” so that it no longer exists as a symbol of American greatness. And this might be a compelling argument had NASA not just successfully deposited a Volkswagen-sized robot with a rock-vaporizing laser on the surface of Mars a few weeks ago.

Similarly, D'Souza's film argues that this “Third-World anti-American” viewpoint of the president's leads him to be “weirdly sympathetic to Muslim jihadis” captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Meanwhile, outside the movie theaters, news broke this weekend of an air strike that killed a senior Taliban official in Pakistan. (The obvious counterexample, Osama bin Laden's demise, doesn't merit mention in the film)

But again, to merely point out these untimely real-world inconsistencies is to do this movie a favor. 2016 is an outgrowth of D'Souza's 2010 book, The Roots Of Obama's Rage, a controversial and much-derided tome in which D'Souza laid out his hypothesis that Obama's actions are best explained by the aforementioned “collectivist” worldview he inherited from Barack Obama Sr. As Slate's Dave Weigel pointed out after viewing the movie's July premier, some of the blatantly false and risible elements of Roots didn't make it into 2016, but there's still plenty of nonsense to fill out an 89-minute documentary.

The first 20 minutes or so of the movie aren't actually about President Obama. They're about D'Souza himself. He leads us down a hurried biography of his life, starting with his birth in Mumbai, focusing heavily on his education at Dartmouth and Stanford, and moving on to his time spent working for the Reagan White House. (D'Souza prides himself on being a die-hard Reaganite, which I'll come back to in a moment.) The intended message is unmistakable: Dinesh D'Souza is smart. He knows his stuff. Trust what he's about to tell you, no matter how insane it might sound.

Then we ease into the crazy. Parts of the first half of the film could be described as “playful.” D'Souza bounds from Indonesia to Hawaii to Kenya, retracing the arc of Obama's existence and hamming it up for the camera as he learns to hula dance and climbs onto the back of a moped in Jakarta. Interspersed are segments of Dinesh D'Souza: Journalist, in which he interviews a psychologist who specializes in child abandonment and an academic who knew Obama's mother and stepfather.

This thin veneer of competence gets completely washed away, however, when D'Souza visits the Obama family in Kenya, showing up at the home of Obama's stepmother seeking an interview and offering three goats as payment. It doesn't go well. D'Souza and his entourage are turned down and told to leave by security personnel.

But he did manage to score an interview with one member of the extended Obama family: the president's half-brother George Obama. A community organizer who lives in the slums of Nairobi, George figures prominently in D'Souza's theory, with the documentarian using him primarily as a vehicle to attack the president for not “lift[ing] a finger to help a destitute close relative.” (George has told reporters that he chooses to live in poverty to identify with the people he tries to help.) In the interview, D'Souza asks George why he thinks his powerful brother hasn't helped him, to which George responds: “He has a family of his own. I am of older age. I can help myself.” D'Souza tries again, desperate to get George to validate his theory of the president's callousness, but George won't cooperate. “He's got other issues to take care of,” George says.

From there we're treated to a reenactment of Obama grieving over his father's grave (Obama himself provides the narration, courtesy of the Dreams from My Father audiobook), which serves as the dramatic, intellectually vacant set-up for D'Souza's primary argument: that Obama has adopted his father's political and economic philosophy and is inflicting it upon America, enforcing a sort of global penance for the sins of colonialism as a way of securing his deceased father's love and respect. This is where things really go off the rails.

D'Souza provides us a dossier for each of “Obama's Founding Fathers,” drawn from the well-worn rogues gallery of intellectuals and fringe characters (Frank Marshall Davis, Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright, etc.), combined with the standard-issue warning that “we haven't seen the real Obama.” He whips up some apocalyptic rhetoric about the debt, saying Obama will use it as a “weapon of mass destruction” to tank the country, and his discussion of the debt with former U.S Comptroller General David Walker is accompanied by -- and I'm being completely serious here -- high-pitched slasher-film music. (The fact that Walker also lays blame for reckless spending at the feet of George W. Bush does nothing to dampen D'Souza's enthusiasm.)

He whacks Obama for “blocking” the Keystone pipeline (not true) while loaning “billions of dollars” to Brazil to pursue offshore drilling (also not true). There's a bit of Glenn Beck-inspired paranoia as snaking thorns of red, black, and green encircle the Middle East and North Africa, forming the new “United States of Islam.” This in turn leads to fearmongering about Iran's nuclear ambitions, and attacks on Obama for a) doing “nothing” to impede Iran's nuclear progress (not exactly true), and b) seeking to reduce nuclear stockpiles globally.

Here's where D'Souza's Reagan boosting comes back to bite him. The documentary attacks Obama for signing the New START Treaty with Russia, which calls for steep reductions in both countries' nuclear stockpiles, and mocks the president for his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. “Dreamy idea,” D'Souza quips, sparing no sarcasm. Unmentioned is the fact that the abolition of nuclear weapons was also the stated dream of... Ronald Reagan, who first proposed the original START Treaty with the Soviet Union. As Reagan told the nation in a January 1984 speech: “My dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth.”

So 2016 suffers a great deal from logical inconsistency and factual error, but what did the audience think? After a well-attended showing in northern Virginia I chatted with two women from Arlington, both white and above middle-age, who came to the movie having never heard of Dinesh D'Souza but wanting to know more about President Obama. “I thought it was dramatic and scary,” said one, who thought D'Souza offered “a very reasonable explanation for what's happening.” They did not agree with D'Souza's claim that Obama is “weirdly sympathetic” to jihadists, given recent news about terrorist deaths, but the message on the debt resonated with them: “When they get up in the future projections of what's going to happen and if we continue on the road we're on, it's very scary.”

On Friday, after a sparsely attended showing Washington, I talked with Ray, a white, middle-aged DC resident who first came in contact with D'Souza through Glenn Beck's Fox News program and was plugged in to conservative commentary (he went to see the movie after reading conservative columnist Thomas Sowell's rave review). Ray thought 2016 was “very well done” and reinforced his belief that the president is motivated by anti-colonialism, though he was slightly dubious regarding some of D'Souza's facts. When I asked if he saw any tension between D'Souza's attack on Obama's rhetoric on nuclear weapons and his Reagan boosterism, Ray said: “Well, every sane person wants a world without nukes.” And when I mentioned NASA, it was Ray who brought up the Curiosity landing. “Obama said the right things,” after the probe touched down, Ray said, “but does he believe it? I don't know.”

And that really gets to the point of 2016. The facts, the scholarship, the logic are all secondary to reinforcing the idea that -- despite four years in office and a policy record to judge him on -- Obama is still an unknown and threatening quantity. D'Souza's exploitation of that belief is over-the-top and galling, but that's clearly what 2016's target audience wants to hear.