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The Crisis of Honesty in Conservative Media
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The Crisis of Honesty in Conservative Media

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Conservatives in America have long decried their blacklisting from popular media, in which liberal and progressive viewpoints predominate. One recalls the secretive Hollywood group ‘Friends of Abe’, where Republican voters who happened to be actors, directors and screenwriters could converse without fear of having their careers ruined by the fiercely petty and vengeful industry. This is understandable. When high profile actor Kelsey Grammer told a British television audience he would vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, the response was a mixture of fury and ‘disappointment’. However, conservatives have earned this ignominious honour through a failure in their own media to tackle real issues, instead painting almost laughably bad doll’s house narratives about the world which don’t come close to reflecting reality.

Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative filmmaker and commentator, is the master of the conservative documentary. If there are stereotypes about popular media on the American right, D’Souza fulfils every one without fail, in each work he completes. It was striking recently, that his latest documentary Death of a Nation, received a 90% audience score, and a 0% critic score. One could dismiss this as yet more evidence of the obvious liberal bias in elite Hollywood circles, but the critics have more of an issue with the film itself than the director. Politically charged movies almost always receive high audience scores, because only partisans tend to watch them, and it is true that sometimes critic scores are unreliable. This isn’t so with Death of a Nation however.

The documentary picks up where D’Souza’s last effort Hillary’s America left off, threading together a narrative about American political history that would almost be comedic if it wasn’t trying to be serious. According to the filmmaker, all the evils in the country’s history, everything from the Trail of Tears to Jim Crow, can be laid at the feet of the amorphous ‘Democrat Party’, the Skeletor to the Republican Party’s stovepipe-hatted He-Man. The only difference is that this time, he effectively humiliates Trump by making an absurd comparison between the president and Abraham Lincoln. One can be a fan of many of Trump’s policies, in fact, one can even be critical of the Lincoln presidency, but regardless of where one stands on either man, they are completely incomparable in temperament and context. D’Souza’s comparison is in fact simple: both Trump and Lincoln are being opposed by the violent Democrat Party. That sounds fine, until you think about it and realise that the Southern states fighting for secession and self-determination doesn’t really have any parallel in snotty college students rioting over ‘hate speech’. The word ‘Democrat’ might be found in essays on either topic, but this goes to the heart of D’Souza’s childish take on things, and the core problem with it.

‘Democrat’ doesn’t mean anything. That two individuals or groups of individuals share in common a party affiliation across centuries means as little as sharing an eye colour. With his entire retelling of ‘hidden history’ D’Souza betrays the infantile desire of American conservatives to find the simplest explanation of history. This is made obvious when the outlandish claims reach to new heights whereupon Adolf Hitler is tenuously linked to the Democrat Party. Everyone has to fit into an easy hero/villain dichotomy, history must be simplified for the lowest common denominator, and facts must be tortured to sculpt the curvature of a monstrous pseudo-historiography. Conservatives deserve better than Dinesh D’Souza and similar outlets purporting to provide ‘real history’, Prager University among the worst offenders. How can conservatives be expected to engage in thoughtful political discussion when they are spoon-fed wacky claims such as that Barack Obama and Cenk Uygur are in the same political camp as Richard Spencer and Giovanni Gentile? For sure, it is easy to dismiss all four as belonging to some obscure umbrella of evil, the ‘Democrat Party’, or ‘would-be Democrats’, responsible for all the evils in the world, but it is dishonest in the extreme. Instead of emerging from such smug lecturing with an air of wisdom, these kinds of narratives make the American right look incapable of grappling with real history.

The cultural failure of conservatism in the United States has many causes, but conservative media itself bears a huge burden of responsibility. Conservatives have earned a reputation as uncurious dullards incapable of understanding nuance, and particularly susceptible to feel-good propaganda. America doesn’t currently have thoughtful conservatives, such as Britain’s Roger Scruton, or Germany’s Götz Kubitschek, but instead is sated by the mess of falsehoods perpetuated by men like D’Souza. They have lost the ability to argue their case, and it’s hard to know which is more pathetic: the left’s descent into mindless opportunism and occasional violence, or the right’s retreat to the pacifier and blanket of ‘Democrats are the real racists!’. Unfortunately, this is a product of the breakdown of the post-Cold War political consensus. Neither side is comfortable returning to the arguments of the 1990s and early 2000s which are by now painfully dated, yet neither is capable of offering an ideologically coherent vision of the future.

If conservatives cannot enter into a sincere ideological contestation in which they show both honesty and clarity, then the electoral victory of Donald Trump, or even a red wave in the midterms, will mean little in the long-run. Conservatism in the United States maintains its rhetorical fire at the expense of its core values and ideas, and in doing so enriches a panoply of hucksters and snake-oil salesmen. In 2016, voters rightly rejected the entrenched establishment of the Republican Party, but they have yet to reject the equally poisonous mill of false history and cartoonish generalisations packaged into sound-bites for mass consumption. It is clear that conservatives can do better, and must, if they are to hold the ground they’ve gained in the wake of the Obama presidency.

Death of a Nation has performed more poorly at the Box Office than D’Souza’s previous effort, which itself did worse than his first. Perhaps the shtick is getting old.

Author: K. E. Benois