Dinesh D’Souza: Political Commentator, Filmmaker & Author
Truth’s Most Powerful Weapon
Political Commentator, Filmmaker & Author: Dinesh D’Souza
Written by Kelli Gillespie
You’ve most likely seen Dinesh D’Souza on CNN, Fox News, CNBC, PBS and a list of others TV stations as a political commentator on a number of the shows ranging from The O’Reilly Factor to Real Time with Bill Maher. He’s authored more than a dozen books with more than half of them reaching the New York Times Bestsellers list. D’Souza made two feature documentaries with his first film, 2016: Obama’s America, currently standing as the second-highest-grossing political documentary of all time. Risen had lunch and spent some time with this passionate speaker to hear more about his childhood in India, impacting the political and faith arenas through media, handling controversy, challenging students and most importantly how his personal faith has developed and grown through it all.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine at Morgan Run Club & Resort in Rancho Santa Fe, California
Risen Magazine Born and raised in India, you then came to the United States and graduated from Dartmouth College. What was your life like growing up overseas and what was the catalyst to bring you to America?
Dinesh D’Souza I grew up in a middle class family in Bombay, India. Middle-class in India means something different than here in America. I grew up without a phone, without a TV – we had a car, but actually if you looked at the floor of the car you could see the road. [Laughter] It was a very old car, although it did move. It was a different world. I had a happy childhood.
When I was in the 11th grade, a man came to our school and said that the rotary club of Bombay had an exchange program to send Indian kids abroad for a year to experience another culture. It intrigued me. I talked to my parents and I applied for this rotary exchange program. I came to the United States at the age of 17 to attend the 12th grade of high school. I lived in Arizona; I went to public school. I lived with four different families over the course of the year – that’s how the program works. Then everybody in my school was applying to college. So I applied and got admitted to Dartmouth. So in effect I came as an exchange student and I never went home.
While I was in college I became interested in politics, and particularly in [President Ronald] Reagan. This was the early 1980s, it was the Reagan-era so I became sort of a young Reaganite in my late teens and early twenties. Then I decided to make my life in America as a writer and a speaker, and I came to Washington [D.C.] shortly after college to do that.
Risen Magazine After Dartmouth, you served as an editor at Policy Review, a conservative journal in Washington, before joining the Reagan administration in 1988 as an adviser. Where did your passion for politics develop and what fuels it today?
Dinesh D’Souza My passion for politics developed in the 1980s because I became interested in Reagan and Reaganism. I began to read books for the first time that I had never read before. I began to think about topics that I had never considered – like what is the difference between capitalism and socialism? Or, what does America mean in the world? And these topics meant a lot to me because having grown up in a different culture, I could see the ways in which America was different and the ways in which America was unique. So I became interested in journalism and when I got this job at Policy Review it was a chance for me to be in Washington writing about the things that mattered to me – which at that time was Soviet communism, inflation, Central America, taxes, those kinds of issues.
Then I got a job in the White House almost by chance. I went to lunch with a bunch of guys in the White House press and they offered me a job on the spot. And I said, “I can’t take it, I’m not even a U.S. Citizen.” I remember these guys looking at each other and one guy goes, “Well our question is, are you a Reaganite?” I said, “Yea, sure.” And literally like 60 days later I was working in the White House. That is also something by the way, unique about America. It is kind of crazy to have non-citizens working in the White House – now I became a citizen later, but at that time I wasn’t eligible because once you get a green card, it takes five years to become a citizen. I didn’t choose to do the swimming across the Rio Grande approach; I stood in line like everybody else. [Laughter]
So I started off in journalism, then I went to the White House, then I went to the American Enterprise Institute, which is a think-tank in Washington, D.C., and I started my career writing books. In a way, America is the big topic of my political work. I’ve done work in Christian apologetics, but that’s different. But if you look at all of my books, the unifying topic is the meaning of America. That’s why this new film means a lot to me; it’s sort of a summing up of a lot of themes that I have thought about for the last 25 years.
Risen Magazine How has your faith played an important role in shaping your work and the way you view America?
Dinesh D’Souza Initially not all. I grew up in a Catholic family in Bombay, but my family was nominally Catholic. We’d beautifully go to church every Sunday but it was not a very involved or active Christianity. It just reflected ancestry. It was the Portuguese legacy in India; my ancestors were converted to Catholicism, which is why I have a Portuguese last name. I was part of an Indian-Christian community. It was important to me. It wasn’t like it meant nothing to me because I realized things like that fact that the church brought things to India that were not there before. Quite possibly my family was of the Hindu low caste. When you are the bottom of the caste system, you can’t move, it’s not based on merit; it is totally based on birth. Then along comes the Christians and say everybody is a brother in Christ and so the low caste Hindus are like, “We’re outta here” – because they were able to join a religion that offers global human brotherhood. Christianity is not the only religion that does that; Islam does too. Which is why a bunch of Hindus converted to Islam also. So I recognize Christianity had a liberating influence in India, yet it wasn’t something that I thought a lot about.
The initial appeal to me of America was not economic opportunity, but that it allowed you to do things with your life that you couldn’t do elsewhere. Like in America if I really wanted to I could become a comedian, in India if you told people you wanted to become a comedian they would want to give you medicine. They think you are nuts, literally out of your mind. So your life is much more defined. If your dad is an accountant, generally you want to become an accountant. And if not, family pressure will come down on you. So this big idea of being able to make your own life – and I don’t just mean career – I mean marry whoever you want, and live wherever you want, think however you want; I recognize America offers these things.
I would say I discovered my faith for the first time in adulthood. In the conservative world I met conservative Catholics who were very serious about their faith. And I also met Evangelical Christians for whom faith was not just a Sunday phenomenon, but it was actually infused in their everyday life. And it involved the idea of not simply just following commandments and revering God, but having an interior relationship with Christ; and I saw that made them better people. Even if it didn’t make them better people, it made them aspire to be better people. So it showed me a Christianity that was deeper, stronger, and bigger than the Christianity I had seen as a kid, and I identified with it.
My own faith had deepened, but my work was in a different area – mainly politics. At that time, I was a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. One day I turned on the TV and I see someone I know, Christopher Hitchens, a prominent atheist debating a pastor, I think from Birmingham, Alabama, and really making the pastor look bad. I realized that is not a fair debate. The pastor is not trained to do this. The pastor probably went to divinity school and is trained to teach the Bible. Whereas Christopher Hitchens is a very formidable political figure with a strong liberal arts background and he was sort of ridiculing this guy and I thought, “Pick on someone your own size.” So I got the idea to jump into that debate, over God and Christianity. I thought it would be interesting to me to bring my work and faith closer together. So I sent a note off to Christopher Hitchens basically saying, “Hey why don’t you and I do a debate?” And then I began to work on a book called, What’s So Great About Christianity, which came out in 2007.
From [that time] I essentially moved into a second career. I didn’t give up my main focus of politics, but I began to write in Christian apologetics and I also began to debate a lot of the leading atheists around the world. I’ve debated about 10 of them and some of them more than once – Hitchens the most because our debates were the feistiest, there was a huge demand, and they’re the most widely watched debates between a Christian and an atheist on the web. I wrote two more books in Christian apologetics, one called, Life After Death and the other on God and suffering.
It involved the idea of not simply just following commandments and revering God, but having an interior relationship with Christ; and I saw that made them better people.
Risen Magazine You’ve written more than a dozen books ranging from religion to politics and presidents, with the last two turning into documentary films. How have your writings impacted culture and what led toward the decision to start making movies?
Dinesh D’Souza I realize that there are two-dozen Christian apologists that are out there but pretty much all of them live in the church world. They speak at the youth conferences and the pastor conferences, but you never see them on CNN; you never see them in the Washington Post – and that’s my career. I thought, “I’ll be the Christian apologist who is on the frontline in secular culture.” So that was my focus.
In politics, I developed an audience that really liked my books – the audience is a mixture of young conservatives, an older audience of successful people, and women between 35-60 years old. I was very lucky; my first book [Illiberal Education, 1991] kind of popularized the phenomenon around political correctness. It was a New York Times Bestseller for 15 weeks and I had the good fortune of coming onto the map right away. Now I’ve written 13 books and about 7-8 of them have been New York Times Bestsellers. It wasn’t until my book, Obama’s America, which went to #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list that the publishing world paid attention, but even at #1 it will sell around 150,000 copies. Generally for a non-fiction author, that is an astronomically big number and an author’s dream. And yet, I said to myself, “That’s a big number, but how do you reach a million people? How do you reach five million people?” Now, I can try harder, and write better, and promote more effectively, but there are just so many people in America who will buy a hardcover non-fiction book. So I realized if I want to reach a wider audience, then I have to change the medium. That’s when I got the idea of making movies.
I got the idea from Michael Moore [liberal Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker] basically, and this is a bit condescending, but if a stupid guy like him can do it, I should be able to do it. Now I realize that is a little unfair. Michael Moore is actually a clever filmmaker – he knows what a lot of conservatives and Christians don’t know that you shouldn’t make a film to do messaging, films are about entertainment. If you make a film that is emotionally powerful and entertaining, you can package all kinds of information in it and people will digest it. But if you go out there and make a film on Obamacare in order to do messaging, it’s likely to fail catastrophically – like Obamacare by the way! [Laughter] Michael Moore knows that and you have to give him credit for that. That is why he has six films in the top 10.
I didn’t know if I could pull it off but I decided to go raise some money and see if I could do it. I wanted to make a film that people really wanted to go to; it’s the film everybody is talking about and if you don’t see it, you’re missing out. I wanted to find a good guy to partner with me on this and I found Gerald Molen. Jerry is Hollywood legend – longtime partner with Steven Spielberg, he’s a conservative in his 70s, he’s got his Academy Award – and he said, “Yea Dinesh, I’d be happy to help you.” So we put our team together and off we went. And we made 2016: Obama’s America . What helped us with 2016 is that we were able to find information about Obama that nobody had; that made the film really successful. It was stuff about Obama that people didn’t know, and they should know, and the press wasn’t covering it – so it gave us a window of opportunity. But we didn’t have the knowledge or the talent then to make this current film [America]; this film is a different caliber than 2016.
Risen Magazine Your first film, 2016: Obama’s America, came at such an important time because it was released during the 2012 Presidential campaign and took a look at the possibility of the President being elected to a second term and where the country might be in 2016. It was a huge success and is currently the second-highest-grossing political documentary of all time. How did you see this film most affect its audience?
Dinesh D’Souza It affected audiences because it was a little bit of a horror movie. The people that watched 2016 in the theater were stunned. It showed that Obama is a very different kind of a democrat, no one really knew what he was up to, and the film basically made you say, “What have we done?” It ended by making some predictions about Obama, which by-and-large have come true. What’s good about the film is that it stands up really well almost three years later. And if you look at it now you’re like, “Wow! That is kind of what’s been happening around here.”
It showed me a Christianity that was deeper, stronger, and bigger than the Christianity I had seen as a kid, and I identified with it.
Risen Magazine One of the things I liked about your current film, America: Imagine a World Without Her, is that you bring up several misconceptions about the U.S. and then proceed to point towards the truth in the situations. What was your goal with this film and how would you encourage people to take action?
Dinesh D’Souza I think one message is that information is really powerful. What I mean by that is the reason I’m able to let the Left rail against America in the movie is that I know I have better information than they do. They can give it their best shot, but my best shot is better. And not only am I able to do that in a film where I’m able to control the editing, but I’m happy to walk into MSNBC and take on three Leftists and crush them all. Just the other day I was on NPR’s On Point and there was a rabid host who keeps interrupting me while I just talk calmly. But the host gets so agitated that you think he would have to be carried out on a stretcher. And this was all happening in one hour. He could barely speak, and I love that because what it shows is that when you put in systematic facts, one after another, the Left is speechless. They like it when we [conservatives] do punditry because then they can do punditry, but facts are much more powerful than punditry. Bringing a powerful arsenal of facts shows you that if you are prepared, you are a very dangerous American. The same thing is true about being a Christian. Don’t get caught napping when your kid comes up to you and says, “Hey Dad, how do I know Jesus even existed? What’s the historical evidence that there ever really was a Jesus?” Now remarkably, most parents – and I would venture to say quite a few pastors – wouldn’t know the answer. They would say, “Uh, read the Bible.” But remember that we are living in secular culture now, and our kids are going to college, and our kids are getting two truths – one truth on Sunday, and another truth Monday through Friday. It can be confusing if these truths cannot be reconciled or if they can’t figure out which one is the truth. So my point is in the Christian world, no less in the political world, the first step is to have at least a basic understanding of what you believe if you intend to be out there defending it.
Risen Magazine With midterm election this November, as the House of Representatives and the Senate seats are contested, what does the average person need to understand in order to be an informed voter?
Dinesh D’Souza I think the simple question to ask in the midterm election is this: “We’ve been seeing what has been happening in the country over the past six years, would we like to see more of it over the next two, four, or eight years?” For example, when President Obama came into office, the national debt was eight-and-a-half trillion; it’s now 17 trillion. So this man has single-handedly doubled the national debt during his presidency and that is a fact. That is the kind of fact that gets your attention because that means that a certain amount of debt has been accumulated from [President George] Washington to President George W. Bush – and even [President George W.] Bush, who’s spent a lot of money, can’t come close to President Obama.
I was on the Bill Maher show and he tried to say, “I’ve heard a lot about the Reagan deficits in the 1980s…” and I said, “Yes, Reagan’s deficits were 200 billion dollars a year, but Obama’s are over a trillion. So Obama’s debts are five times greater than Reagan’s. In fact, the debt that Regan accumulated over eight years is roughly similar to what Obama has accumulated in one year. You can make a comparison, but the comparison itself is telling.” Bill Maher says, “That can’t be right?!” But I never heard from him again. Believe me, he went to his fact checkers after the show and discovered that what I said was correct. But look at young people today; it is much harder for kids to get jobs. Even kids who are graduating from good colleges are working at Starbucks. So my point to them is I don’t know if you should blame Obama, but rather blame yourselves for voting for him. Unless you want the country to keep moving in this direction you should try something different. Now the Republicans, will they do better? They’ve got major problems.
Risen Magazine Your life hasn’t been without controversy when it comes to behavior, or your divergent political stance and oftentimes a religious viewpoint that causes dissention amongst the masses. How do you handle the criticisms and hate whether it’s warranted or not?
Dinesh D’Souza The very best tool with dealing with controversy is to learn to enjoy it, and I’m totally at that point. In other words when I go on social media and I post a tweet, within seconds, half-a-dozen Leftists will come on and just trash me. These are paid activists who work for Left-wing organizations and their job is to track me! It shows you a little bit about how they think, there’s no one on our side that is doing this to the Left. The goal is to demoralize me. But what I’ll do is I’ll let this go on and after a little while I’ll tweet out something like, “It’s really fun for me to see all these Leftists blasting me every time I put out a tweet. It shows me I’m being really effective. So keep it up guys, I find it super encouraging!” And literally the number of people doing that will go down because they’ll be so demoralized and confused. But I’m not kidding; I actually am encouraged. For example, for our movie sometimes I would hear from a radio guy, “When I go on RottenTomatoes.com [movie rating site] I’ve noticed your critic rating is 15 percent and your audience rating is 90 percent.” And I say, “Where is the problem? The only problem I see is that the critical rating is way too high. [Laughs] I’d like it to be around five percent, I have to work harder!” Because if the audience likes it, who cares what the critics say? My point is that it’s a tough arena out there, that’s the nature of our politics and if you want to be effective I don’t see an alternative but to engage. With Christians, I have to say the conservatives in general have more guts on average, and what I mean by that is when I’m at a college campus I can count on conservatives putting up posters and when people take them down, the conservatives put them back up. By contrast with Christians, when I walk up and say, “I want to have a debate with somebody else at this university.” I get, “Well we’re Christians, we don’t really want to have a debate we really prefer dialogue.” [Laughter] I like dialogue but a debate is like a dialogue in which you win, so what’s the big deal? Why not? And the thing is when you give a talk on campus you’re going to get about 100 students, but if you have a debate you can get 800 students, so which is the better evangelistic tool?
Risen Magazine Let’s talk about you speaking all across the country and at many schools and universities. When you are invited to speak do you get to pick the topic and what kind of feedback do you usually get?
Dinesh D’Souza Usually I pick the topic and I pick based on the topic and the issues of the day. And I base it on what I think the students need to hear and sometimes I’m actually kind of rough on them. Recently I gave a talk at Amherst College – this is a college of really smart kids who are super arrogant, and overwhelmingly on the Left, to them the height of ignorance is being a conservative Christian – so I go to Amherst and there is a huge crowd there and there are about 10 people with signs protesting outside. So my first thing is to go up to the protesters, I don’t argue with them, I say, “For a bunch of protestors, you are a pretty sorry group. First of all, you are only 10. Your cause must really stink that on a campus that agrees with you, you’ve only got 10 guys.” And I continue to say, “Half of you are smiling, this is not a sign of protest. Protestors need to be angry – you need to scowl, you need to look oppressed and have a lot of anger and angst in your face.” So these guys start to get really uncomfortable and then I say, “Look, why don’t you come inside. I was going to speak for 45 minutes, but I’ll speak for 30. My deal with you is don’t start yelling and screaming like an ass, just listen to me for 30 minutes and then it’s your turn. You guys can come up to the mic and we can have at it. Let’s see who is right. And we’ll have a big audience to listen to us.” So they do it. They put their posters down and come in and sat in the back.
The key is to walk into the lion’s den without fear. My thought is that I go up to the front and I say, “One of the main rules about giving a talk to any audience is to not insult the audience.” I say, “I will be violating this rule from the beginning in this talk.” I continue to say, “Let me begin by telling you that your teachers have told you that you are the smartest generation in human history, you are the most sophisticated, there is no generation that actually comes close to you in terms of knowledge, wisdom, insight, and compassion and I am here to tell you that this is simply not true.” I say, “You’re actually one of the stupidest generations – certainly of the past 50 years, I can’t speak for all of American history – and I’m really here to prove it. So I’ll be telling you stuff you’ve never heard before, you are going to start yelling and screaming and then we are going to start discussing those things and you are going to discover how little you know. So let’s get started.” Now, you might think that is a horrible approach, but actually it is a brilliant approach perfectly calculated to get their attention, it appeals to their pride, and it also gets their curiosity. Who the heck does this? And they like it. Even though it’s not the normal way, it’s a great way to get into a conversation. This is a way to engage with idealism of young people and to challenge them on the ground of their morality. I like speaking on campuses and I probably would do more of it if I wasn’t doing the film, America, right now. The documentary is a way to reach the wide public audience, and the campuses are a way to reach an influential audience of young people. So I’m trying to do a little of both.
Exclusive Interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Fall 2014