Some categories of movies I’m never going to watch.
I say that, but in at least one of those categories, I’m showing a pattern that runs contrary to my claims. A bit more than two years ago, I watched Hillary: The Movie. My primary purpose at the time was to get a deeper understanding of the legal and constitutional issues surrounding the Citizens United court ruling. Now, I’ve just watched Death of a Nation, a similarly-themed piece made for the Trump era.
In this latter case, my reasoning was based on some stuff I read on line. I read complaints that Death of a Nation was, suddenly, unavailable on several streaming services. It was a time when I was particularly concerned about the removal of dissenting opinions from sites controlled by the major media companies. While it is equally (or perhaps more) likely that the likes of Amazon and Netflix had simply pulled the film from their offerings for their own, inscrutable business reasons, I decided to treat the incident as one of censorship and put Death of a Nation onto my list of films to watch.
To the extent that they even know it exists, it seems that much of non-conservative society really hates this film. Wikipedia descriptions of the film and of its creator, Dinesh D’Souza, lead with the most incendiary of terms. D’Souza is a “far right political provocateur” and a “conspiracy theorist” who presents “revisionist history.” Almost anything I’ve seen written on the film trashes the title from top to bottom. But is it really that bad?
In a word, no.
Death of a Nation will, for the most part, confirm the things that conservative viewers of the film already know to be true. It would probably be difficult for liberals to make it very far into* the film and, for those that did, they would almost certainly object to most of its content. But doesn’t that just mean that conservatives believe things that aren’t true?
For the most part, the material presented in the film is (as far as I can tell) accurate. Its problem is more one of style than of substance. Although not quite as bad as your typical History Channel program, it is still dumbed-down to be digestible by the lowest common denominator among its viewers.
The structure of the film starts out with Trump’s election and the, literally, immediate call to bring him down. It was this part of the movie that made the biggest impact on me. Although this less than three years ago, it already seems like a distant, bad memory. Seeing the protests, the rioting in the streets. Seeing the anguished talking heads. Seeing the politicians swearing to do whatever it takes to remove The Donald from office… and then putting that into the context of what is happening today – well, let’s just say that I think it says something. More obvious than ever is the overblown, apocalyptic language from the left. According to them, the world was going to end if Trump remained in office. “You better get your abortions now,” one activist shouted to an applauding crowd. Yet, three years of Trump in office hasn’t changed all that much. We can talk about the tone of politics and the culture wars and we can argue over whose fault it is, but for all of the left’s fearmongering and all of Trump’s bluster, life pretty much goes on as it has before.
D’Souza’s approach, having shown the progressive’s hostility toward the President, is to pick apart the major criticisms of Trump. They say he is a “fascist” and a “racist”, so the film goes into some historical exposition about the meaning of these terms, particularly in the context of the United States.
For the fascism accusation, he re-presents information that many have seen before, connecting Fascism and National Socialism with their roots in Communism and International Socialism. This has been done better and in more details by the likes of Edvīns Šnore’s documentary The Soviet Story and Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, just to name two. It is nonetheless a quick catch-up that then can be used challenge the broadly-accepted notion that Hitler and the Nazis were extreme-right-wingers, diametrically opposed to Socialism and Progressivism.
For the racism accusation, D’Souza again offers up a counter argument. When it comes to Republicans versus Democrats, Trump versus Never Trumpers; it is the latter for whom racism permeates their roots. He challenges the idea, popular with the left, that somehow the foundation of America itself was fundamentally racist, offering arguments an awareness on the part of the the Founding Fathers of the conflict between American freedom and slavery. When the cotton gin revitalized slavery in America, he points out, it was the Democratic Party that provided political protection for that institution.
Among the more original arguments I heard in this film, D’Souza makes an interesting connection between a “for their own good” defensive of slavery and the modern communist/socialist/progressive justification for the curtailment of liberty. This line of thinking came from some who defended the institution of slavery. Essentially, they argued, the slaves were better off being “cared for” by the system that enslaved them than being left to the mercy of the cruel, competitive world as free men. It is a small leap from that to the idea that every worker, every citizen, is better off being kept as a ward of the State; the essence of Socialism. This point is made to counter the argument that while, yes, the roots of the Democratic Party may be racist, they’ve long ago left that behind. He argues that it was the utter failure of Hitler’s program that caused the Democrats to finally eschew all progressive causes associated with Nazism (e.g. eugenics), as did pretty much everyone else in the world. But, he says, the core precepts of Progressivism aren’t that far afield from the pro-Slavery and Jim Crow Democrats.
Both of these points are worth making, but D’Souza takes it all a bit too far. In making his claims, he beats you over the head with evidence that supports him and ignores anything that doesn’t. He isn’t content to point out the similarities between the politics of slavery and the politics of socialism. He rather concludes that the Confederate South was some sort of proto-Marxist society. He even goes so far as to say that, had Lee won at Gettysburg, there would have been no nation to oppose the Nazis in the Second World War. This is absurd. Furthermore, for every Southern-sympathizer that thought that slavery was “for the slaves’ own good,” there were certainly many more who simply denied the humanity of slavery’s victims. In addition to those who fought the Civil War to protect the racist institutions of the South, there were plenty who fought for State’s rights and principles of self-determination.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to argue the root causes of the Civil War or assert whose “Cause” was right. My point is that, while it may be true that some of those with the Confederacy were very much in the mold of modern Progressives, others would be more accurately recast as modern conservatives. He does a disservice to his actual argument (that it is inaccurate to call Republicans the party of racism) by overreaching (The Confederacy was the dream of modern day Progressives).
On the other hand, these complaints are less criticisms of the film than the fulfillment of exactly what I expect from this kind of production. I don’t know if there is a name for this “category” of film making, this politicized documentary, be it from Michael Moore, Al Gore, Matt Damon, or Citizens United. Perhaps the term polemic would be the right one to apply. Although it purports to instruct, and I did learn a few new facts while watching it, Death of a Nation‘s intent is to influence. Witness the prominence that two performances of patriotic music are given in the film, overshadowing much of the “documentary” that preceded them.
So the movie wasn’t so bad and, taken with a grain of salt, can enlighten the audience on a few historical points. The problem is, I’m not sure a film like this has any hope of being effective. This nation now seems so divided into pro- and anti- Trump camps that we wonder if there is any other ground to stand on. This film targets and will resonate with the pro-Trump folks, but it certainly won’t sway their opinion – they need no convincing. It also won’t arm them arguments to persuade others. Even the most convincing of non-political arguments (e.g. Richard Spencer is not a conservative) isn’t formulated in a way that can be used to spread that information among the non-believers. By the end of the film, Donald Trump is presented as the embodiment of all-things conservative and the only salvation for the nation. For anyone who is not already 100% pro-Trump, this is just ridiculous. It is, perhaps, as absurd as accusing Mr. Trump of being the embodiment of racism and fascism.
I don’t think you’ll want to watch this film. I didn’t really want to watch it either. However, neither of us should be told what we can and cannot watch. For that reason alone, this film was a must see.
*Indeed, some of the critiques focus almost entirely on the comparisons between Trump and Lincoln, something illustrated on the DVD cover and on the movie poster. In the scheme of the film, however it is something of a minor point. I wonder how many reviewers formed their opinion simply by looking at the poster?