As a former conservative intellectual, I've been heartened to see so many of my erstwhile allies taking a strong stand against the populist vulgarian attempting to seize control of the Republican Party.
But as a former conservative intellectual, I've also been disappointed (but unsurprised) to see this same group of pundits engaging in far less soul searching and second guessing than the moment demands.
There have been some notable exceptions, mainly among writers (David Frum, Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam) who declared themselves "reform conservatives" long before the rise of Donald Trump. But beyond this small group? Not much.
Far more common have been instances of denial, blame-shifting, and — even worse — reenactment of the same deeply irresponsible intellectual habits that helped to prepare the Republican rank and file to follow the lead of what one critic has aptly dubbed "the most successful demagogue-charlatan in the history of U.S. politics."
There are plenty of examples from just the past couple of weeks. Kevin Williamson's expression of outright contempt for Trump's white working class supporters is an obvious and extreme case. Another is the collective effort of numerous conservative pundits to cobble together a justification for the hyper-partisan and transparently unprincipled decision of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to deny the president's Supreme Court nominee a hearing or vote.
But perhaps the single most revealing (and under-appreciated) example of intellectual rot on the right is the work of Dinesh D'Souza — and in particular the willingness of conservative writers (especially those affiliated with the movement's flagship journal National Review) to promote his propagandistic films instead of forthrightly denouncing them as the pernicious garbage they indisputably are.
I'm old enough to remember when D'Souza wasn't a national laughingstock — when he wrote books that, while highly polemical, aspired to be taken seriously as arguments about ideas. But he has long since abandoned such ambitions in favor of transforming himself into the Leni Riefenstahl of the clinically paranoid far right.
First came his 2012 documentary 2016: Obama's America, which portrayed the steadfastly moderate and sometimes overly aloof commander-in-chief as a radical leftist in thrall to Third World anti-colonialist ideology who does everything he can to undermine America's strength and standing in the world. Looking back on the film two years later, National Review's Jay Nordlinger was inspired to praise its creator as "an interesting man — and a lavishly talented one."
This was followed in 2014 by a bit of solipsistic agitprop called America: Imagine the World Without Her, which conservative pundit John Fund described in NR as "the perfect film to take the family to on the Fourth of July."
Between the appearance of that film and Hillary's America, due out in July, D'Souza was indicted by federal prosecutors for violating campaign finance laws. He pled guilty and served a sentence of eight months in a boarding house.
To judge by the trailer that he unveiled earlier this month at the CPAC conference, D'Souza portrays himself in Hillary's America as an American Solzhenitsyn, a political dissident unjustly imprisoned by the unabashed totalitarians who control the Democratic Party.
If NR were serious about opposing populist bomb-throwers, it would denounce such trash in unambiguous terms, realizing that it degrades the conservative movement and, worse, encourages the pathological habits of mind that prepare the movement's grassroots to be swayed by the poisonous extremism peddled by Donald Trump. But not only has NR failed to condemn D'Souza. One of its leading writers, Jonah Goldberg, actually makes an appearance in Hillary's America, happily lending his intellectual authority to this sham of a movie.
But wait, my liberal readers will proclaim: What do I mean by Goldberg's intellectual authority? Isn't this the same guy who wrote an insulting joke of a book titled Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning?
Indeed it is, one and the same. But here's the thing: Liberal Fascism isn't a joke. It's something far more pernicious than that — a potent blend of truth and deception, informed scholarship and an interpretive framework designed to skew the historical record in a way that actively warps readers' understanding of it.
Did early 20th-century American liberals see themselves as contributing to the formation of national cohesion and mobilization? Indeed they did, as did political actors across a range of countries that were undergoing a process of modernization at roughly the same historical moment. Did these modernizing movements sometimes intertwine with morally troubling ideas (eugenics, racism) that also became important elements of fascist ideology in Germany, Italy, and Spain around the same time? Yes, undeniably.
All of this is widely accepted by historians. What makes Goldberg's treatment unique is his decision to conflate these tendencies with "liberalism" as such — along with his ahistorical insistence on treating fascism as a movement of the left instead of the far right — in order to draw ominous continuities with the present-day Democratic Party. The reader is meant to come away from Goldberg's book believing that today's Democrats are "liberal fascists" — and that the contemporary conservative movement and Republican Party are America's only hope of defense against their totalitarian ambitions.
It therefore makes perfect sense that Goldberg participated in D'Souza's latest film, since Hillary's America and Goldberg's book employ identical methods, mixing indisputable (even banal) historical claims with highly misleading conspiratorial demonization of political opponents.
What is the "secret history of the Democratic Party" that D'Souza's film promises to reveal? That the Democratic Party supported slavery, that it fought Reconstruction after the Civil War (and thus ended up on the same side as the Ku Klux Klan), and that Democrats in the early 20th century ran urban political machines and labor unions.
This will not be news to anyone who knows anything about American political history. Modestly informed viewers will also know something that D'Souza's movie appears never to mention — which is that the country's two parties underwent a realignment a half-century ago that was precipitated by the Democratic Party's decision, at long last, to champion the equal rights of African Americans and use the power of the federal government once and for all to break the power of white supremacy (backed up law and enforced by terrorism) in the South. This shift is the primary reason why black Americans still vote overwhelmingly for the Democrats while the (majority white) South supports the Republican Party, which began actively courting white Southerners the moment they began to feel alienated from the Democrats for opposing segregation.
D'Souza has no interest in such surface-level complications, and neither does Goldberg, who proclaims in the preview that the word "progressive" means "social engineering and social control," and informs viewers that contemporary Democrats believe "government is the one thing we all belong to."
These inflammatory statements perfectly set up the series of rhetorical questions with which D'Souza concludes the trailer — questions posed over the kind of absurdly overwrought Wagnerian soundtrack that Hollywood likes to deploy in action flicks about evil forces seeking to destroy the human race.
What are these Democrats hiding? What if the goal of the Democratic Party is to steal the most valuable thing the world has ever produced? What if their plan is to steal America? Who will stop them now?
I'll be blunt: Hillary's America is an intellectual outrage. It should disgust and alarm anyone (left, right, or center) who cares about ideas, history, fairness, or truth. Until the leading institutions of the conservative movement take a stand against those within its own ranks who peddle such civic poison, all their high-minded denunciations of Donald Trump will sound like so much self-interested whining.