Conservative scholar Dinesh D’Souza’s film 2016: Obama’s America offers a vision of America so extreme that it is hard to see the documentary as anything beyond propaganda. Since its release, the film has made $21 million and become the fifth highest grossing political documentary of all time; the reason for the film’s success has as much to do with the inflammatory anti-Obama message as it does with the film’s engaging storytelling.
D’Souza (co-writer, narrator, and director of the film) based 2016 off his book The Roots of Obama’s Rage. The crux of his argument resides in an accusation that President Obama is mirroring the anti-colonialist beliefs of his father, Barack Obama Sr., in an effort to weaken the financial and political influence of the United States. In telling this story D’Souza traces the footsteps of Obama’s upbringing, traveling Obama’s path from Hawaii, to Indonesia, to Kenya. D’Souza is not a birther but he manages to create the vision of Obama as a pseudo-immigrant, more shaped by his formative years abroad than by his adulthood in the United States.
The sharpest takeaway from 2016 is D’Souza’s assurance of Obama’s hidden radicalism, a radicalism he believes Obama will finally display in full force if and when he is elected to a second term; a radicalism D’Souza believes will lead to a rise in Islamic powers, and a weakening of American influence abroad. Where the film falters is in its tenuous claims, and its endless insinuations, used to construct ideas about the president and his goals yet still leaving rocks unturned and questions unanswered. In a phone interview with D’Souza I met the same scholarly voice I recognized from the film, and sought answers to the questions that 2016 left lingering.
Elena Sheppard (ES): Let’s begin with a question about the recent events in the Middle East. Do the attacks in Yemen, Egypt, and Libya mirror your predictions for the type of global reaction the Obama presidency would cause?
Dinesh D’Souza (DD): They show something big is going on in the Middle East and I think what’s going on is radical Islam is on the march. The radical Muslims have come upon a very big insight and they’re basically correct about it, and that insight is we don’t have to go to other peoples’ countries and knock over their buildings, we might still keep doing that, but really what we need to do is use democracy as the transmission belt for our guys to come to power. Let’s take over the Muslim world one by one, and so we’re seeing a systematic effort to do that …
Now there’s an interesting problem because Americans instinctively support democracy and yet in an important part of the world, democracy is the vehicle for the rise of radical Islam. So in the film, in a critical scene, we talk about the possibility that in a second Obama term we might see a new phenomenon called the United States of Islam. What does that mean? It just means the restoration of Islam as a global power, something that hasn’t occurred in four centuries. That’s what I think the Muslims are doing and the strange behavior of Obama – very consistent with what the film predicts – Obama is more concerned to control America’s influence in the region than he is to block radical Islam. So if you just watch him, his natural instinct is always to tame America … I’m not saying that Obama is a secret Muslim, or that he’s a traitor, I’m just saying that he subscribes to an ideology that would like to see America have a smaller footprint in that region. He wants us to have a smaller footprint in the world because he feels we’ve been stepping on the world. That’s his ideology, that’s what he believes.
ES: So do you think we are witnessing the United States of Islam, like seen in the film, coming together now?
DD: Well it’s a long way from being realized, but when I say it’s a long way from being realized it is one country away from being realized and that one country is Saudi Arabia. Iran is already in the hands of the radical Muslims, the Shia Muslims, Egypt is almost there, and the Saudis are next. If Saudi Arabia falls then it’s hard to see Bahrain, or Jordan, or the UAE holding out, so I think the radical Muslims are agitating because they see an incredible moment of opportunity.
If you look at again Obama’s behavior … Obama knows that there’s a power struggle going on right now between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and he’s supporting the Brotherhood. He’s warning the military, “you guys better step aside and turn over power to those guys or we’ll cut off aid.” This is not the behavior of a man who is bungling his way into allowing the radical Muslims to seize Egypt, he knows that they’re seizing Egypt and he’s helping them to do it.
ES: The film is based off of your book The Roots of Obama’s Rage. As Obama is popularly known as the cooler than cool president, what do you characterize as his rage?
DD: His rage is sublimated, it’s not Clint Eastwood rage from Dirty Harry, it’s Charles Bronson rage from the vigilante movies of the 70s when Bronson would take in horrific information, but he would never change his expression, so you would just see from his actions that he was fueled by a vengeful rage. And I think that’s what’s going on with Obama. Obama’s dad was more in the Dirty Harry mode, and Obama is more in the Bronson mode, but the rage is evident in what he’s doing.
ES: I’ve read a lot of speculation about who may or may not have backed the film. There is hearsay out there that this is bought-and-paid for political advertising. Who financed 2016?
DD: 2016 is not funded by any campaign or PAC, certainly not by any campaign, or Romney, it’s a completely independent effort. Twenty-five guys from all over the country, but a number of them from my neighborhood in California, put up $100,000 each for us to make the film – $2.5 million. And then we borrowed the money to market the film. So that’s it, there is no conspiracy … these are just normal guys who liked what I have to say and wanted to invest in the movie.
ES: How much has the movie grossed at this point?
DD: We’ve grossed $26 million at this point but the economics of the film are weirdly that we are basically at the break-even point. Because the theaters keep half, we get half, so we have $13 million but because we borrowed $10 million to market the film, and we have $2.5 million from original investment … The film will be profitable, it’s kind of going into the profitability mode, but it’s not like we’re swimming in the money.
ES: A lot of the film centers on the ideas of American exceptionalism and President Obama’s anti-colonialist position. What do you believe makes America so exceptional? And if anti-colonialism is not the answer, what do you think would be the most productive way for the U.S. to engage with other countries, particularly Middle Eastern countries?
DD: What makes America exceptional is if we are an empire we are an empire of liberty – actually that’s Jefferson’s phrase – so in other words, we use American influence in the world but it’s to make other people free, to make them better off. A good example would be Japan and Germany after World War II. Yea, we forced democracy on them but look at them, it’s been very good for them, and they’re our close friends now. This is a case that is very different from the British going to India, the British ruling Kenya, which was for the benefit of the British. I’m not saying that the Indians got nothing out of it, but I am saying that the intention of the British was entirely to benefit themselves.
Obama’s anti-colonialism is essentially a system of global redistribution: redistribute America’s wealth to other countries, and redistribute America’s power to other countries. I think that’s a terrible mistake, not only because it makes America poorer it weaker, but because it makes the world a more dangerous and, I think, impoverished place.
What is the solution? The solution is for America to affirm its values and to find allies in the Muslim world that we can work with. For example, in 2009 there were massive pro-democracy demonstrations in Iran and what made those pro-democracy demonstrations amazing was that they were pro-American and anti-government; and Obama refused to support them. Later, there were pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt, but those were much more problematic because they were being driven by the Muslim Brotherhood which is the largest organization of radical Islam in the world. So, we should have been a little more cautious about jumping in and waving up and down and praising them because we knew who was driving that and what the outcome of that might be. And yet weirdly, Obama was much more sympathetic and favorable to the pro democracy movement in Egypt that was overthrowing a pro American dictator than he was about the pro democracy movement in Iran which was trying to overthrow some very anti American Mullahs.
ES: Do you think Romney would be on a more colonialist mission that could bring all these issues back into check?
DD: I think that Romney would be an open defender of American interests, and it’s not that Obama is anti-American interests it’s just that he understands American interests very differently.
ES: There is a big moment in the film when you discuss how one of Obama’s first actions as president was to remove a Winston Churchill bust from the Oval Office. If I’m not mistaken, he replaced that bust with a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. As the first African-American president, couldn’t this switch be perceived positively? Obama symbolically bringing one of America’s most historic and important African American leaders into the Oval Office.
DD: Absolutely. That is a good thing and I support it completely … Obama has every right to decorate the Oval Office however he wants. He has every right to put his own heroes up there. Now, here’s the issue: the Churchill bust had been on loan from the British, it was supposed to symbolize our special relationship with Britain. And the British came to Obama and said, “We would like you to keep the bust, we’re not insisting you keep it in the Oval Office, so if you don’t want it in the Oval Office, put it in Biden’s office! Relocate it. No big deal.” Innumerable federal buildings do that, but Obama was weirdly determined that the bust be returned to Britain.
Finally in total embarrassment the British took it back. And it’s now sitting in the home of the British ambassador. So may point is, Obama intended to snub the British on the Churchill bust and the only question I’m asking is why. It’s a valuable clue to understanding Obama’s anticolonial ideology. That’s why it’s in the film. I’m not saying that he doesn’t have the right to put Martin Luther King up there, of course he does … He acted undiplomatically and I think I can explain why.
ES: You said before that you think Obama has a different vision for America. Do you think he has deliberately bad intentions for the country? Do you think his intention is to spiral things downward?
DD: No. I think he thinks what he’s doing is good for America and good for the world. I want to emphasize that, and I emphasize it repeatedly in my writings. He thinks what he’s doing is good for America, but it so happens that what he thinks is good for America does not square with what most Ame- – even most democrats! – think is good for America. That’s why he has to camouflage his intentions because if he were to say, “look, I think it would be good for America not to be number 1. I wouldn’t mind if we were number 18 or number 35 in the world. Again, not because I hate America but because I just don’t see why a country with 5% of the world’s population deserves to have 25% of the world’s energy; eat 20% of the world’s food; have all this influence they can throw around in the world. What gives us the right to have all that? We don’t. So in the name of global fairness we need to cut ourselves down to size a little bit and that’d be a good thing for us and the world.” Now, if he said that even most democrats wouldn’t support him, so he can’t say it.
ES: Is there anything that President Obama has done during his time as president that you have supported or approved?
DD: Well I think that, this is not his intention, but I do think that he has helped race relations in this country. He’s helped race relations in part because he’s not a Jesse Jackson, he’s not an Al Sharpton, he doesn’t play the race card; he’s not a shake down man. And I think Americans, white Americans, are very relieved to have an African American who doesn’t do that. So, I think that Obama has been good for race relations.
The bad news is, people are so happy to have an African American president like Obama that they have become a little blind and uncritical to who he is and what his policies are. Obama can get away with a lot of stuff, because people feel such a sense of almost moral accomplishment in voting for him.
ES: You have said that the, “Cultural left in this country is responsible for causing 9/11.” How would things be different if our media were perceived to be slanted more towards the right? Would a terrorist attack like 9/11 have been avoided? Could we be avoiding situations like what is happening right now in the Middle East?
DD: You have to understand what America’s image is in the rest of the world. America’s image in the 1950s and 60s was the image of a society that combined prosperity with social decency. That’s the image of the Hollywood movies of the 50s, the Westerns, the war movies, I Love Lucy, and so on; that was America’s reputation in the world. The problem today is that America’s reputation in the world is defined largely by Hollywood and so what happens is in many countries, this is not just the Muslim world, people look at American culture and they go: “look at these shameless people. Is this how they live? Is this how they use their prosperity?” What I’m saying is, my 75-year-old Mom is appalled by this in Mumbai but she’s not a suicide bomber. She just looks at it and goes, “ugh this is terrible I’ve got to turn the TV off.” But in the Muslim world, the radical Muslims see all this and they’re able to say to the ordinary man in the street: “Hey look at America it’s the great Satan. These are the kinds of values that they represent and they’re trying to impose their values on us. We’ve got to fight back.” And so in other words, the projection of the values of the cultural left abroad has become a great recruiting tool for radical Islam.
ES: Which types of films and TV shows are furthering this projection?
DD: All of them. Well I don’t mean all of them, I just mean when you collectively look at American popular culture as projected abroad, it is totally out of step with the traditional values with which most of the world lives. And so that’s what it is. It’s not a particular thing, it’s the combination of vulgarity, and promiscuity, and triviality, and the killing off of real feelings, and the sort of shamelessness. This is how most of the world responds to American culture, even while being intrigued by it … one of the big phrases in most of the world today is, “modernization yes; Westernization no.” And part of the reason is the desire to say, “yea we want prosperity and we want cell pones, and we want the internet, but we don’t necessarily want all the aspects of Western culture that we see out there.” Now, I go out of my way to say, this is not a correct description of American culture. I mean there’s a culture in the South, and Midwest and even on the coasts that is frugal, self disciplined, and very admirable. But that’s not the culture most people see.
ES: Do you think that being born in India has allowed you to see the American culture from both sides? How it’s perceived abroad and then what the actual reality is here?
DD: Undoubtedly. I feel like I have that bifocal vision on America from the outside and from the inside. By the way, so does Obama, and he’s a global guy in the way he understands the world and I think I am too. And so maybe one of the reasons that gave me the confidence to make the film was I think I have a unique perspective on this guy. In a way I understand him better than other people who are trying to fit him into American history – Obama’s the new Martin Luther King and so on. That’s part of the reason why in the film I sort of run my story alongside Obama’s story, to contrast the two.
ES: I also wanted to ask you about your situation with the Associated Press. All that fact checking drama, I read the piece on your site responding to the claims. Is that a situation you find yourself in often with the media?
DD: It’s happened again with the Obama campaign on BarackObama.com. The White House was ignoring the film and hoping it’d go away, and then a couple of days ago they launched a big attack on it. Again, they allege that there are factual errors. First of all, two of the alleged factual errors aren’t even in the book, they’re in my earlier book The Roots of Obama’s Rage. But none of the four are actually errors. I’ve just written an op-ed … answering the White House, or answering the Obama campaign … on these bogus allegations. But it’s very similar to the AP thing in that it’s sort of, an ill-aimed javelin that’s supposed to expose the factual errors in the film but actually is only revealing its own factual errors …
ES: Our final question. What is the America we would experience in 2016 with Obama as president, vs. the America we would experience if Romney were to become president?
DD: My concern is that with another term of Obama the American era might come to an end, and what I mean by that is that we’ve all been living in a very special time for America. This special time began in 1945 at the end of World War II. Living in the American Era means living in the number one country in the world. If you go abroad the American passport is the best, and American dollars can be used anywhere pretty much, and American culture is all over the world. If the American era ends then America ceases to be a special country so being American is not very different from being a Finn, or a Canadian, or Somali for that matter. I think that’s what Obama wants. And he might actually be able to pull it off. I’m not sure if he can but I think he’s going to try. That’s the prospect facing America and if Americans want that – want decline – they should vote for Obama. My goal for the film was to lay out who I think he is, and lay out what his agenda is and then let people decide.
ES: I remember going abroad during the Bush era and having my passport be an embarrassment because people were so angry at the U.S. I think Obama has sort of mollified that situation and that perception.
DD: Yes. There was definitely an anti-American wave and I think that was partly because Bush was seen not just as an American but as a shoot first and ask questions later type of cowboy. Reagan was a cowboy, but he was cautious cowboy and he was a genial cowboy. And there was an aspect of Bush’s style that was certainly very troubling to people in America but very troubling to people abroad. Obama by contrast is visually very reassuring to people abroad, they don’t see him in the Bush mode, so in that sense he has marginally improved perceptions in the world. But on the other hand, I think his actions have undercut America’s real influence in the world, and that’s what I’m more concerned about.
You can read more about Dinesh D’Souza’s film on his website DineshDsouza.com.