The term “political documentary” almost always comes with the implicit word “liberal.” Conservatives dominate talk radio, the nonfiction best-seller lists and TV opinion-mongering (the Fox News Channel boasts about twice as many prime-time viewers as MSNBC), not to mention the House of Representatives and the national conversation. But they have left the poli-doc niche to the Lefties: your Michael Moores, your Al Gores — basically, Michael Moore.
So last weekend’s box-office totals for 2016 Obama’s America, Dinesh D’Souza’s indictment of the President, had a startle factor. The film earned $1.2 million, for 13th place, though playing in only 169 theaters; every film higher on the chart was showing on at least 1,100 screens. 2016 maintained its strong showing through the week, taking in about $200,000 each day. For comparison, consider that The Undefeated, last summer’s widely publicized bio-hagiography of Sarah Palin, grossed $166,381 in its entire four-week run. This weekend, expanding to 1,089 theaters, 2016 is likely to draw more customers than either of the two new films (Premium Rush and Hit and Run) that are playing on at least twice as many screens. Amazing what Obamaphobia can accomplish.
(READ: Corliss’s box-office report on 2016 Obama’s America)
The movie, written and directed by D’Souza and John Sullivan, won’t get near the amount amassed by a poli-doc from another election year, Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which earned $119.4 million in 2004. But it’s no small achievement to draw so many of the conservative faithful into a movie theater for the kind of sermon they can hear on Fox News for free: a combination of skewed analysis and dire portents.
A former scholar of personal finances at the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution, and currently president of The King’s College, a Christian school in Manhattan, D’Souza suggests that the end of the world will be heralded not on Dec. 21, 2012, as the Mayans may have predicted, but on Nov. 6, 2012, should the President be reelected. Quoting Obama’s whispered remark this past March to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev — that “This is my last election; after my election I have more flexibility” — D’Souza argues that Obama in his second term will finally launch the radical agenda that his enemies have been expecting (and, in its absence, denouncing) since 2008. An impotent, bankrupt America will lose its world supremacy to a newly radicalized pan-Muslim confederation: “the United States of Islam.”
(READ: Walter Shapiro’s review of D’Souza’s Illiberal Education)
That prophesy consumes only the last 12 mins. of 2016. The rest of the movie wants to confirm the American right’s dearest, most dread suspicion: that Obama is a foreign-bred radical. Not that he was born in Kenya and given fake birth records in Hawaii as part of some incredibly prescient plot to plant an alien in the White House 47 years later. D’Souza, who displays and accepts the official papers, instead submits that Obama is an intellectual birther: “a guy who possesses a Third World anti-American view, an ideology as remote and unrecognizable to most Americans as the capital of Kenya or Indonesia” (where the young Barack lived for four years).
The President, D’Souza argues, acquired this foreign philosophy from Barack Obama Sr., who left Hawaii and his American family when Barack was two but whose imprint was indelible: “He’s embracing his father’s stale Third World anticolonialism.” The deserted son, searching for similar parental figures, was later influenced by men D’Souza calls “Obama’s founding fathers”: such leftists as labor activist Frank Marshall Davis, ex-Weatherman Bill Ayers, Columbia Professor Edward Saïd, the Harvard Law School’s Roberto Unger and the Obamas’ Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright. The white people who raised Barack — his mother Ann and her parents — apparently had less influence on him than did an AWOL dad and his later leftist surrogates.
(READ: Amanda Ripley on Barack Obama’s mother)
As the star and host, D’Souza doesn’t try to be a Michael Moore; he’s lulling, not goading, and more the college lecturer than the schoolyard showman. He allows his interview subjects (Davis biographer Paul Kengor, Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes) to make some of the more incendiary points. To give the film the visual propulsion of a journey toward revelation, he visits Kenya to interview the President’s half-brother George, a poverty worker who lives in poverty, and other relatives. Again, D’Souza argues that Obama is the sum of the social prejudices espoused by his ancestors. Yet the Bombay-born author also says that his own “grandfather felt the wounds, the injuries, the insults, the humiliation of colonialism. And it always made him not only anti-British but slightly anti-white.” Is D’Souza to be blamed for his grandfather’s narrow view? Is Mitt Romney responsible for his great grandfather’s polygamy?
Most of 2016 is simply a video book of D’Souza’s 2010 The Roots of Obama’s Rage, a best-seller championed by Newt Gingrich but picked apart by Andrew Ferguson, associate editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. Ferguson diagnosed “a cramp in the mind of the committed party hack, a terrible need to believe that one’s adversaries are more ominous or sinister than observable reality suggests.” The review notes that it was George W. Bush, defended by the right throughout his reign (though since ignored like some embarrassing, free-spending uncle), who “began the auto bailout, approved TARP, vastly increased federal spending, expanded entitlements, pushed through a large and probably unnecessary fiscal stimulus of his own, and often chided Americans for their ‘addiction’ to foreign oil…. What Obama truly represents — unchecked liberalism, genus Americanus — is worrisome enough without dragging in the sad, gin-soaked carcass of his father or the hypnotic power of Roberto Mangabeira Unger.”
(READ: Joe Klein on Gingrich and D’Souza)
Many of D’Souza’s charges in his movie are either piffling (Obama returned a bust of Winston Churchill to the British Embassy), wrong (the U.S. is drilling for at least as much oil now as in the George W. Bush) or murky (that he “refuses to take meaningful action to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons” — what “meaningful action”? a preemptive nuclear strike?). Obama calls for a nuclear-free world, as Ronald Reagan often did; he allows the national debt to rise, as Bush 43 did. Every anti-Obama argument D’Souza makes from the right could be made, more forcefully, from the left.
Disillusionment from Obama’s most fervent supporters began soon after the election. In those heady days he might have entrusted the ailing economy to liberals — say, Nobel-winner Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, as father and mother figures — but instead named two Wall Street insiders, Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, to ensure business as usual. He didn’t close the Guantanamo detention center, as he had promised, though he did order a halt to “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding (as John McCain surely would have done had he been elected). And Obama couldn’t budge the Senate and House Republicans, whose brilliant tactic of blanket obstructionism defeated much of his legislation and vitiated the rest.
(READ: Michael Grunwald on the GOP as the Party of No)
Faced with unanimous GOP opposition when his party controlled both chambers in his first two years, Obama could have blossomed into the fearless, fearsome liberal/socialist/communist of his detractor’s nightmares. But that would have betrayed his instincts as a community organizer — his confidence that charm and eloquence could win over his enemies. So he kept compromising, as the other side either held firm or pushed back the goal posts, voting against legislation they had previously supported. Let the Nobel committee give him a premature Peace Prize; the House and Senate Republicans would deny him any favors, correctly judging that Obama’s push would never come to shove. Indeed, if the President’s character has a tragic flaw, it is that he could not summon the rage to confront his foes and get something done.
In the movie, the Hoover Institution’s Shelby Steele, also born of a black man and a white woman, argues that Obama won the 2008 election because “People want to be able to tell their grandchildren that they voted for Barack Obama… The reason he’s in the White House is because of his race, his blackness.” No doubt that some people voted for Obama primarily because he was an African American, and that many did not. Nearly four years later, though, Obama has achieved virtually nothing that had not been proposed of enacted by Republican Presidents before him. The Left may wish he could boast of even half the interest rates today that the liberal legislation that Richard Nixon muscled through: creating the EPA, OSHA, Title IX and the Consumer Product Safety Commission; fighting a 1971 recession with deficit spending (“Now I am a Keynesian,” Nixon famously said); and proposing a single-payer health care plan that was nixed by Ted Kennedy. The modern equivalent to that record would be a résumé a liberal President could be proud to run on.
(READ: Mary Corliss’ review of Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story)
“He came into the White House,” D’Souza says in the movie, “on the basis of promise, of hope.” The Left hoped he would realize their dreams; he hasn’t, and most liberals will vote again for him less for what he’s achieved than for what he’s running against. But since Obama has done so little for, or to, the country, why is he alienized by D’Souza and demonized by the loopier critics to his right? Because it works. Because the righteous right can be energized when it has something to hate. And if there’s one job Barack Obama is qualified for, it’s to be the black-and-white doll that his detractors can stick pins in — believing that, by doing so, they can exorcise the smiling Satan that captured America in 2008, and could unleash Hell on Earth by 2016.