Dinesh D’Souza interviewing President Obama’s half-brother, George Obama

2016: Obama’s America
directed by Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan
Rocky Mountain Pictures

Dinesh D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America is now second only to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 in box office numbers for a political documentary. But almost no one in blue-state America has seen it.

D’Souza, who is at least as self-aggrandizing as Moore, is offended that the talk shows, networks, and liberal media are ignoring him and his film. He seems to be in the throes of a narcissistic crisis: wishful fantasy has become reality. He would like to believe, or at least have his audience believe, that he and President Obama are engaged in a fierce personal dispute. “It’s not every day that a guy provokes the rage of the President of the United States,” D’Souza writes on his blog, “now the President has launched a ferocious attack against me and my film.” D’Souza directs his readers to the Obama-Biden campaign site, where one indeed finds a scathing response to the film, obviously written by staffers and not by the president of the United States.

D’Souza’s exaggerated sense of his own significance is one of the striking features of his documentary. He narrates, he stars, and his own life story gets almost as much screen time as Obama’s. His conceit (in both meanings) is that he’s “a lot like Obama.” Like Obama, D’Souza lived as a child in a third-world country (India), has dark skin, went to an Ivy League college, and has an inter-racial family: his wife is white, as was Obama’s mother. And the two men are the same age.

D’Souza claims these commonalities give him insight into Obama. Although no Freudian jargon is used, this film is clearly D’Souza’s psychoanalysis of Obama’s Oedipus complex and how it shaped the personal identity from which his supposed radical anti-colonial ideology emerged. D’Souza predicts that if this president is reelected he will use the next four years to further that ideology, undermining America’s military and diplomatic power, destroying the economy, and allowing a new United States of Islam to dominate the world. It will be the end of America’s “Empire of Ideals,” D’Souza says, using Ronald Reagan’s phrase.

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D’Souza began attacking the president as a Fanonian anti-colonialist in a 2010 Forbes cover story. In that article, D’Souza characterizes the president as an ideological heir to his Kenyan father. These ideas are expanded upon in his bestselling book The Roots of Obama’s Rage (2010), which buttresses the psychological thesis with quotes from Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995).

The radical anti-colonial interpretation of Obama is one step up from the lunatic fringe of “birthers” and other conspiracy theorists, but still far below what one would expect from a serious political or psychological scholar. Knowledgeable critics identified several factual errors that challenged D’Souza’s credibility. Nonetheless his book became part of Republican political culture and fodder for the presidential campaign. Rich conservatives led by a devout Mormon bankrolled the effort to get D’Souza’s book made into the documentary.

D’Souza is not a filmmaker, but rather a think tanker, prolific author, seasoned debater, and until recently president of a small conservative college in New York City. He is something of a celebrity in conservative political circles and reportedly dated Ann Coulter and was engaged to Laura Ingraham before settling down.

D’Souza seems to be in the throes of a narcissistic crisis.

With the help of John Sullivan—the co-director, who presumably made the cinematic contribution—what could have been another talking-head documentary becomes something that can be called a film experience. Although the conclusions were all detailed in the book, the film portrays its rags-to-riches hero, D’Souza, undertaking a journey of discovery. The journey allows for vivid third-world cinematography and visual hypertext.

When D’Souza narrates, proxies enact his story as an Indian everyman who went from the streets of Mumbai to Dartmouth College, where, as editor of The Dartmouth Review, he honed his radical conservative views. Then it’s on to conservative policymaking circles in Reagan’s White House. As D’Souza describes his own childhood in Mumbai, we are shown what looks like an Indian family in a modest home. When he discusses the sequence of empires that have conquered the world, we see his proxy Indian child reading a book in which the empires are listed in chronological order. Presumably this is the young D’Souza pondering the might of empires, particularly the British, which dominated and exploited his homeland, India, as it did Obama’s supposed homeland, Kenya. We see D’Souza’s college-age proxy at Dartmouth, where he parties and interacts with a ponytailed liberal classmate. The benighted liberal tells D’Souza that India seems to him to be a “cool” country. The D’Souza stand-in scoffs at this liberal idiocy. What’s cool, he asks, about dowries, arranged marriages, and the caste system?

D’Souza’s Indian-everyman script, however, does not ring true. D’Souza is a Portuguese name, and his family comes from Goa, the enclave left by imperial Portugal on India’s west coast. He was raised as a Catholic and went to Catholic schools. In Mumbai, his father was an executive of the American corporation Johnson & Johnson. All this suggests that D’Souza’s own roots might be those of the colonizers rather than the colonized. There is no evidence that in his family life he shared any of the adversities and disruptions that Obama faced.

No matter that he is not “a lot like Obama.” Having established his Dartmouth Review persona, D’Souza takes us on his psychoanalytic journey into Obama’s past. He travels to Hawaii, Indonesia, and Kenya to piece together the puzzle of Obama’s racial identity and political ideology. It is probably true that Obama is, to many Americans, more of a psychological mystery than other presidents. This gives D’Souza an opening to exploit: he claims he is helping us to get to know our president.

In Hawaii we see the university where Obama’s mother met Barack Hussein Obama, the scholarship student from Kenya. She was eighteen and he was 23 when they married. His mother was already pregnant with the future president and had no idea that her new husband had a wife (or consort) and two children back in Kenya. Obama told the whole story in Dreams from My Father, an extraordinary unbuttoned account. How his father left on a scholarship for Harvard when he was only two. How his parents divorced and his mother married an Indonesian, and young Barack spent years in Jakarta. That marriage also failed, and he was sent back to Hawaii to be raised by his grandparents. He saw his African father only briefly, when he was ten. Obama Senior, brilliant and charismatic, backed the wrong wing of the Kenyan anti-colonial revolution and his life ended badly in alcoholism. He was killed in an automobile accident.

This kind of childhood is not familiar to most Americans, and what Obama felt consciously and unconsciously about his father, stepfather, grandfather, and subsequent father figures constitutes an Oedipus complex that might confound the most empathic psychoanalyst. What he thought and felt about his mother is even more obscure. His memoir is an effort to sort some of it out.

The last moments are almost art, but the message is right-wing propaganda.

D’Souza fastens on the idea that Obama idealized the father who wasn’t there, identified with him, and fashioned his ideology and political ambitions in his father’s image. When the documentary takes us to Kenya, we repeatedly see in the hypertext an Obama proxy: a young man, kneeling and weeping at his father’s grave, resolving his Oedipus complex by identifying with his dead African father, resolving to succeed where his father failed. The most powerful device in the documentary is Obama’s own voice. He recorded an audio version of his memoir, and through much of the documentary we hear the president’s voice seemingly attesting to D’Souza’s formulations.

To any serious psychoanalytic scholar, what D’Souza has achieved is a ludicrous parody of real understanding. His psychoanalytic formulation is an absurd oversimplification and distortion, not half-truths but half lies. To buttress his theory about Obama’s idealization of his father, he turns to the psychologist Paul Vitz, a religious conservative like D’Souza who has written a biography of Freud claiming that his atheism grew out of his Oedipal relationship to his father. Vitz made the same “pop psychology” argument about Sartre and Hitler.

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Another of D’Souza’s central arguments has to do with Obama’s racial identity and white America’s reaction to it. In the documentary, he consults Shelby Steele, his former colleague at the Hoover Institute who, like Obama, is biracial. Steele’s thesis is that most old-school African American politicians, such as Jesse Jackson, hate white Americans, play on their guilt, and demand some form of reparations. Obama, in contrast, is open to friendship with whites and does not make them feel guilty. Whites are so grateful that they are willing to hand over the country to him and feel blessed when he takes it. Steele and D’Souza believe this interracial psychology got the unknown politician from Illinois elected.

During the narration of this interracial theory, the hypertext presents a related scenario. A young black man with a friendly smile enters a bar and takes a seat between two young white men who are drinking beers. They get up without a word and leave. The black man looks dismayed. Is he the victim of white racism? Then the two white guys return carrying a lighted birthday cake and all the white occupants of the bar join in singing happy birthday to the proxy—Obama. Racism has been overcome.

D’Souza believes that the white Americans who voted for Obama are idiots like his ponytailed Dartmouth friend. That much is clear when we reach the end of the documentary with its dire predictions about the collapse of American might. Suddenly and unexpectedly we see a very blonde young girl with braces singing a round with Obama’s words about “hope and change.” The camera focus shifts and we see the whole schoolroom of white children and their teachers caught up in the intensity and jump-for-joy enthusiasm of the round. These gullible white children—proxies for American liberals—are being taught to adore their president. Then the camera cuts away from the school, and the screen is filled with the image of a single wide-eyed, dark-skinned Indian infant—proxy for D’Souza—gazing at us in bewilderment. These last moments are almost art, but D’Souza’s message is right-wing propaganda: you credulous fools are giving away your future.

Whatever happens in the election, D’Souza’s narcissism has been massively gratified, and he will be smiling all the way to the bank. This documentary, made for a little more than $2 million, has already grossed more than $32 million, proving once again that most Americans go to the movies to escape reality.