Yesterday I did some field research on the modern conservative movement by taking the afternoon off and seeing the right-wing horror flick, 2016: Obama’s America. This is what I do for you people. I hope you appreciate it.
The audience was huge for a weekday matinee: probably a couple hundred people. Most were elderly, but that may be just because the theater I went to was near a big retirement community around here. Luckily for research purposes, elderly moviegoers tend to chat with each other fairly loudly during movies, so I can report that it was pretty well received — no surprise, I suppose, since you don’t go see a movie like this unless you’re pretty receptive to its message in the first place.
So what did I think? Obviously I was never going to buy the film’s central premise that Obama hates America because he inherited a raging sense of anti-colonialism from his father, but I was still surprised at how thin it was. I figured it would at least be good agit-prop, but it didn’t strike me as all that effective. True believers will lap it up, I suppose, but it’s unlikely anyone else will.
The film stars Dinesh D’Souza and is based on his book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage. But it’s weirdly unconvincing. D’Souza travels to Indonesia, Hawaii, and Kenya, but doesn’t have much luck getting damning quotes from his handful of interview subjects. There’s footage of D’Souza on a bus; there’s footage of D’Souza on a plane; there’s footage of D’Souza on a motorcycle; and there’s footage of D’Souza on a boat. And there’s lots and lots of footage of Obama’s father’s grave in Kenya. But there’s not much footage that tells us anything about Obama. There’s an interview with a professor who worked with Obama’s mother, but D’Souza only manages to get her to agree with a leading question about how maybe Obama was taught that his father was a great man. There’s an interview with George Obama, who stubbornly refuses to blame Obama for not helping him out. There’s an attempted interview with Obama’s grandmother, but D’Souza gets kicked out before the interview goes anywhere. There’s an interview with a random guy who once knew Obama’s father and thinks President Obama is a lot like him. There’s an interview with a psychologist who says that a child would normally rebel against the worldview of an absent father, but then kinda sorta agrees that maybe it could happen the other way around too. I can only imagine D’Souza and his co-director banging their heads against the wall in frustration when they got home, wondering how they were going to splice all these dry wells into a gusher of anti-Obama fearmongering.
The only interviews that go well are the ones with committed conservatives who are obviously willing to go along with D’Souza’s fantasies in the first place. These include Paul Kengor, who confirms that one of Obama’s childhood mentors was a committed communist, and Daniel Pipes, who thinks Obama hangs out with Israel-haters and would show his true anti-Zionist colors if he were reelected.
Beyond that, it’s just the usual conspiracy theory melange of Bill Ayers/Edward Said/Jeremiah Wright/etc., paired up with a scary-looking map in which all the Muslim countries are painted green and (somehow) become the United States of Islam. This is Glenn Beck’s “caliphate” obsession rewritten for the big screen, but with the added fillip that Obama will make us defenseless against this threat by getting rid of all our nuclear weapons. (Seriously.) The end of the film finally brings the big payoff: D’Souza explains a series of supposedly inexplicable Obama decisions in light of what we now know about his hatred of America. None of it makes sense if you’re paying even minimal attention, and Dave Weigel does a good job taking them down here.
So: The film’s interviews were mostly weak; the conspiracy mongering was unconvincing; and it’s full of non sequiturs, where D’Souza makes bald assertions that aren’t backed up by anything that came before. D’Souza himself slouches through the film, looking out of place almost everywhere he goes, and his innocent abroad act really doesn’t work.
But that’s just little old coastal liberal elite me. The lady sitting next to me, on the other hand, turned to her neighbor after the film was over and said “That’s scary.” She was convinced. And the audience, tentatively at first but then with gusto, applauded while the credits were running. For true believers, I guess the film works just fine.