Is the Democratic Party a collection of well-intentioned (if misguided) people, or a cynical, criminal enterprise intent on "stealing America"? Has the Democratic Party followed a variety of shifting and conflicting policies over its life, or comprised a coherent, sinister, two-century-long plot to impose a plantation-style system of elite domination on the country?
Is Hillary Clinton a career politician, unremarkable in anything except her avarice, or the mastermind of a 50-year-long plot to take over the system from the inside and destroy America?
Reasonable people may disagree on these questions. In his latest documentary, "Hillary's America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party," author and filmmaker Dinesh D'Souza answers all three with the latter choices while constructing a well-produced polemic on the dangers the Clintons and the Democrats pose to the American republic.
D'Souza, the author of a dozen books and producer of several films, begins this one with an account of his own brush with the law. In 2014, he was convicted of making an illegal campaign donation and given the unusually severe sentence of eight months in a halfway house. He claimed then, as he does in the film, that the prosecution was politically motivated, stemming from his last film, a harsh analysis of Barack Obama's foreign policy failures.
Four years later, D'Souza uses his experience in the halfway house to frame the film, explaining that the con artists with whom he was imprisoned were simply smaller, rougher versions of the big con Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party are leading. It's a good hook, and the viewer is forced to give him credit for embracing the lessons of his prosecution (or persecution) instead of ignoring it.
The first part of the movie is presented as a "secret history" of the Democratic Party. This format has been used at least since the thirteenth-century "Secret History of the Mongols," and is often used to show the "real" story behind the story. D'Souza employs the trope effectively, depicting himself literally sneaking into the Democrats' archives and revealing their shameful, hidden past.
What he discovers should be no secret to any student of American history (or reader of conservative media), but it bears repeating: although modern Democrats portray themselves as the perennial champions of women, minorities, and the poor, their party's history has been the complete opposite. Democrats, D'Souza explains, were the party of Indian removal, slavery, segregation, white supremacy, eugenics, and patriarchy. In D'Souza's telling, they still are, cynically pretending to help the people who vote for them, but actually using their votes merely to perpetuate their own power structure.
There's some truth to that, but also some exaggerations. Andrew Jackson, the founder of the Democratic Party, did stand for those things, but there was not a neat divide between Democrats and non-Democrats on many such subjects. D'Souza notes that slavery's foremost defender, John C. Calhoun, was Jackson's vice president. This is true, but Calhoun also hated Jackson, resigned the vice presidency, and spent most of his career opposing Democrats, believing they were not pro-slavery enough.
D'Souza also draws too neat a line from the anti-Jackson National Republican Party of the 1820s to the Republican Party founded in the mid-1850s. There was some overlap. But the National Republicans, most of whom became Whigs in the 1830s, were not so much an anti-slavery, anti-Indian removal party as they were a collection of people who opposed Jackson, with little more than that to unite them.
Many Northern Whigs opposed slavery, but most Southern Whigs supported itóboth parties were divided on the issue. And where D'Souza claims "all the slaves at the time of the Civil War were owned by Democrats," he ignores many former Whigs in the South who did not join the Democratic Party (at least until after the war) but nonetheless supported slavery, including Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens.
Continuing on the civil rights theme, D'Souza notes that Democrats were the force behind the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws, and that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, their crowning achievement, attracted a higher percentage of Republican than Democratic votes in Congress. This is also all true and, unlike the Republican Party's association with Abraham Lincoln, it is not well-known.
Similarly, he notes the association between Margaret Sanger's Planned Parenthood and the white supremacist eugenics movement of early twentieth-century progressivism. He uses many of Sanger's own words, which are as disturbing and as effective at condemning her as anything D'Souza could have written himself. This part of the story is also not widely known or talked about, and D'Souza does a great service by shining a light into that dark corner of the progressive movement's history.
The movie's title suggests its main discussion will concern the Democrats' 2016 nominee, but more than half the film has elapsed before D'Souza turns to Clinton herself. As in the Sanger segment, the most effective parts are clips of Clinton interviews and speeches. Where D'Souza narrates his own analysis, the results are less consistent.
The problem comes down to the last of the three questions with which this article began: is Hillary a corrupt careerist, or a criminal mastermind? D'Souza clearly inclines to the latter view, and in some instances, he is not without reason. His description of the Clinton Foundation's nefarious dealings, for example, is an effective illustration of a true conspiracy.
In an interview with D'Souza, "Clinton Cash" author Peter Schweizer describes how Bill, Hillary, a Kazakh dictator, and a Canadian billionaire all conspired to gain access to some of the richest uranium deposits in the world, with skids greased by millions in deposits to the opaque coffers of the Clinton Foundation. (Sean Davis explained the transaction and its consequences in more detail in this 2015 article.) Here we have a genuine criminal enterprise, the sort of con on the American people that D'Souza talks about for the entire film. The Clintons' grip on power also not only gained them financial remuneration from the deal, but also protected them from any legal consequences.
In drawing larger conspiracies, D'Souza is on more uncertain ground. After describing her "radicalization" at the hands of community organizer Saul Alinsky, D'Souza depicts a young Hillary Rodham embarking on a 50-year quest to subvert and destroy all conservative institutions of American life. Even her marriage to Bill Clinton is seen as a cold-blooded decision to pick an amiable front man to aid her rise to power. This gives Bill too little credit.
Further, it falls into the traditional flaw of conspiracy theories in presuming that one's enemies are all-seeing superhumans of vast vision and profound wickedness. Like most conspiracies, it also falls before Occam's razor. Hillary Clinton is not a single-minded evil genius. She's something much more pedestrian: a corrupt politician.
As the film ends, two questions spring to mind: Is it true? Does it matter? We've already reviewed the first question and found D'Souza's narration to be fact-based, if occasionally exaggerated for effect. The second question is harder. After the film's 107 minutes are up, anyone who was paying attention should greatly hesitate to vote for Clinton. It is not clear the film translates that hesitance into a vote for Donald Trump.
The film was written and produced before Republicans chose their presidential nominee, and it does not mention Trump or any other contender by name. But as condemnation of the Democratic Party, the author's intentions are clear: we must not elect this person. The flipside, however, of that condemnation is a paean of praise to the Republican Party that may no longer ring quite as true. Don't vote for the malevolent, mendacious, money-obsessed candidate for the presidency? Which one?
In that sense, in terms of this election the movie may not matter. In a larger sense, though, and as a statement about free speech in a free society, it matters a great deal. D'Souza portrays himself in the film, not unjustly, as the victim of a politically motivated prosecution. But despite his criminal conviction, he was able to criticize some of the world's most powerful people on the big screen.
We take it for granted that, under the protection of the First Amendment, he should be able to do so, but it was only eight years ago that the Federal Election Commission censored another anti-Hillary film, "Hillary: The Movie," an action the Supreme Court narrowly overturned in Citizens United v. FEC. From that point of view, D'Souza's film is an important exercise in keeping the marketplace of ideas free and open to all.
If you were undecided about the three questions at the top of the article, seeing "Hillary's America" might incline you to one answer or the other. But the film is not aimed at the undecided. That is unfortunate, because D'Souza's historical lessons about the roots of the Democratic Party are well worth knowing.
In that, he buried the lead, pitching the movie instead at the confirmed Hillary-hater (which, to be fair, is a pretty large audience). "Hillary's America" is a well-written polemic against the Clintons and their party, and if you are inclined to that point of view already, you will likely enjoy the film. But don't expect it to move the polls Trump's way.