Newt Is Nuts!
Why is Gingrich pushing Dinesh D'Souza's crazy theory about Obama's "Kenyan anti-colonialism"?
The release of a new book by Dinesh D'Souza prompts a perennial question: Why do people keep publishing books by Dinesh D'Souza?
There's a simple answer. Newt Gingrich provided it to me and National Review's Robert Costa on Saturday night. After the premiere of his documentary America at Risk, Gingrich mused about the brilliance of D'Souza's Forbes magazine cover story about the "roots of Obama's rage," based on his upcoming book with that title. The roots, according to D'Souza, were in mid-1960s, Marxist-inspired, Kenyan anti-colonialism. Gingrich repeated those words—"Kenyan, anti-colonial"—and called the article "brilliant."
"I'm going to actually get it, post it, and send to people regularly," said Gingrich. "It's the most interesting insight. You guys," he said, nodding at Costa, "might want to do a conference on it, unless AEI does it."
Getting Newt Gingrich to endorse your article is, in the year 2010, a nuclear trigger. Within a few hours, Gingrich was condemned by every Democrat with blogging software. The D'Souza thesis became the latest conservative idea denounced by Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman who likes to defuse grenades by jumping on top of them.
And that's the answer to the "Why publish D'Souza?" question. It should be obvious by now that there is literally no conservative argument too "crazy" to be obsessed over by liberals. Every time a new one surfaces, they try to run it out of the mainstream by drawing extra attention to it. In 2008, Obama campaign's strategy was to refuse to comment on rumors or conspiracy talk—until the campaign launched a Web site in June devoted to debunking all of it. In 2010, the Democratic strategy is to freak out, all the time, about everything. It's not going so well, but that's largely because the economy isn't going so well, either.
Still, it's jarring to see D'Souza making the latest attack. His book, The Roots of Obama's Rage, is a mess. His most memorable previous books were messes, too. Every time he publishes a new mess, it gets the full Pastor Jones treatment in the respectable press. That's had basically no effect on his ability to get published or his ability to get onto the stage at conservative conferences. But it is good for liberals. D'Souza was the first modern conservative author to discover—the hard way—that if you want to be a pundit, there is no downside to making a reprehensible argument. The downside comes for the people who may agree with your politics but not your argument.
The start of the D'Souza phenomenon came in 1995, when he published The End of Racism. Written to ride the wave of books and articles that called for white America to get over its racial guilt, it included lines like the "American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well." It was so sloppy and unconvincing that it killed the genre for a few years; it's a 700-page doorstop by a one-time AEI scholar that no one cites today. The next D'Souza implosion came in 2007, with the publication of another book that killed its genre. The Enemy at Home consisted of an argument that the "left" was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. That was an irresistible hook for a publisher, especially after the public had turned on the Bush administration and the war on terror. But D'Souza made such a hash out of it that the people who had danced around the left-and-9/11 idea realized how deeply stupid it was. Victor Davis Hanson joined the mob and pointed out, as politely as he could, that D'Souza's enemies list was "nonsensical."
So The Roots of Obama's Rage is D'Souza's third pseudo-academic swing for the fences. In the book, and in the Forbes article that Gingrich plans to spread far and wide, he strikes out. D'Souza's point is that Obama's Dreams From My Father and his father's 1965 report on socialism tell us all we need to know about why his love for America is a little limp, but he pads out the book and the article with a lot of meandering and dross about how he came to this conclusion. As in The End of Racism, he performs a pre-emptive ad hominem rebuttal to critics.
"I'm a native of Mumbai, India," D'Souza writes in the new book, "so I grew up in a different part of the world, as Obama did. I'm nonwhite, as he is. He had a white mom and grew up in an inter-racial family." (In 1995, he wrote: "I feel especially qualified to address the subject of multiculturalism because I am a kind of walking embodiment of it. I was born in Bombay, India in 1961.") This is the literary equivalent of putting on eyeglasses so a bully won't hit you.
Well, the hits are deserved. D'Souza admits to readers that this is his third crack at a Grand Unifying Theory of Obama, after a Hobbesian take he called "Obama's Leviathan" and an argument that "Obama got his big government philosophy from the civil rights era." Only after seeing Obama give a definition of "American exceptionalism" that didn't sound right did D'Souza go back to Obama's books and realize that the president was cribbing his politics from 1960s Marxist and anti-colonial theory.
"This is intellectual terrain I know well," he writes. Obama "demonizes his predecessor and his opponents," according to D'Souza, because he looks to former Kenyan Prime Minister and President Jomo Kenyatta as an inspiration. That creates a mystery about why George W. Bush criticized Bill Clinton or Clinton criticized Bush's father, but never mind: D'Souza's rolling. D'Souza looks at Obama's 2008 campaign and sees "social and cultural whitening" and the "triumph of lactification," a word he invents to describe said whitening. While everyone else read Dreams From My Father and saw Obama burning with disappointment in Barack Sr., D'Souza sees a man burning with "hatred derived from the debris of the anti-colonial wars." Even the title of Obama's book becomes ominous, when D'Souza takes his third crack at analyzing it: "[T]here have been cases of men who are so preoccupied with their dark dreams that they have difficulty adjusting to contemporary reality. The dream, as it were, becomes a time machine."
Read this book, or the version mystifyingly splashed on the cover of Forbes, and you have to think that D'Souza has ruined a very fun game for conservatives. He's taken a not-so-subtle political trick—the intimation that Obama must be hiding something about his past, something that reveals why he's been such a left-wing president—and made it much more difficult. That's because the quest to find anti-colonial sentiment in Obama's biography reminds us that, in fact, Obama has never tried to cover up this part of his past. If he had, the first lines of his star-making 2004 DNC speech screwed that up.
"My father was a foreign student," said Obama, "born and raised in a small village in Kenya. He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack. His father—my grandfather—was a cook, a domestic servant to the British."
There's nothing in that speech about Obama Sr.'s 1965 musing about confiscatory taxes, but here's the man making his national political debut by hinting at the "source of his rage": colonialism. He seemed to have gotten over it. And if pulling that one quote from this speech to make a point seems cheap, it's less of a stretch then poring over, literally, a few dozen pages of a best-selling memoir to argue that the man who favored a smaller stimulus than Paul Krugman and a wider war in Afghanistan than Joe Biden is a closet Mau Mau.
What will be the impact of D'Souza's book? If 1995 and 2007 repeat themselves, Gingrich will be the exception—people in the rest of the movement will realize just how tissue-thin this research is. If they realize that, they may then look askance at Glenn Beck's search for similar evidence of Obama's radical history. They may even question the wisdom of questioning Obama's birthplace. Could the search for some skeleton key in Obama's past be a distraction? It could be! If it were a book, it could be called the The End of Birtherism.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Newt Gingrich by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.