Obama has a dream, a dream from his father, that the sins of colonialism be set right, and America be downsized.
The polished and fallacious documentary 2016: Obama’s America presents two opposing worldviews. One is based in the “American dream,” where free markets, individual choice, and unchallenged military might create an “empire of ideas.” The other is the “collectivist” model of top-down planning, Communist in the worst, most stereotypical sense, beloved by the radical “anti-colonialist” left, and utterly failed. Without getting into an argument about socialism versus capitalism—and the film ignores nations that blend the two to better and worse degrees—it is safe to say that it vastly oversimplifies the contrast to make an argument.
That argument favors the “American Dream,” as we might guess, given that the film is co-directed by Dinesh D’Souza, based on his bestseller The Roots of Obama’s Rage. The film—which earned “an impressive $1.2 million last weekend”—makes the case that Barack Obama is a man obsessed with fulfilling the “dream” of his dead father, a staunch anti-colonialist, so much so that he is actively working to degrade America as a world power. While this goal has been camouflaged thus far, the film contends, were Obama to be reelected, his true radicalism would be unleashed. To underline this threat, near its end, the film features a picture of Founding Father Ben Franklin, set aflame.
A repeated trope in current agitprop is to claim that its target is un-American. This is a ratcheting up of the approach during the 2000s, when many books and films argued that the Bush administration’s policies clashed with American values like accountable democracy and freedom of the press. But, apart from individuals with unhealthy fixations on Bush or Cheney, few were saying that the purpose of that administration was the destruction of America itself.
D’Souza’s film (co-directed by John Sullivan, who produced Ben Stein’s 2008 documentary about creationism) takes up the new mode, via talking points lifted from his 2010 Forbes article “How Obama Thinks.” After giving a short autobiographical introduction of himself as an Indian immigrant who attended Dartmouth before joining the Reagan administration, D’Souza first posits that he and Obama have a lot in common: mixed-race heritage, Ivy League education, same birth year of 1961 (the film avoids repeating the birther line, simply stating that Obama was born in Hawaii and leaving it at that). He then expresses confusion about how Obama in his first term has “act[ed] inexplicably,” then listing his offenses, such as gutting defense, raising the deficit, and cozying up to enemies abroad.
From here, D’Souza literally takes a page from Obama’s book (one of the film’s more effective tactics), noting the president’s interest in his absentee father, a Kenyan economist enamored of the anti-colonialism espoused by many African intellectuals of the time. The film takes this interest as evidence that the son has absorbed the same thinking. D’Souza flies around the world so he can interview people with only tangential connections to Obama. His two biggest gets are an old friend of Barack Obama, Sr., who says that the father and son hold the same political views, and the president’s half-brother, George Obama, who thinks African colonization was not such a bad thing and who only met Barack Jr. once when he was a child. It’s hardly a slam-dunk.
A richer vein of study might have come from the film’s investigation of Obama’s legendary pragmatism, his pursuit of whatever-works solutions, which seems suspicious to D’Souza. A lengthy interview with scholar Shelby Steele provides one of the more fascinating segments, with Steele unpacking the psychology of how Obama negotiated being black in modern America and claiming that he was always angling for bargain and compromise. It’s an interesting, if controversial, argument that Steele seems to be taking from his 2007 book A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win, but one that ultimately does nothing to prove D’Souza’s contention that Obama is trying to tear down America. If anything, Steele’s argument, that Obama is a “bargainer,” is precisely opposed to the kind of doctrinaire extremism the film sees in him.
To reinforce this case, D’Souza digs into the Fox News playbook circa 2008, running down the list of the president’s radical “friends” (Bill Ayers, Edward Said). D’Souza also spends time reminding us of the rabid fulminations of Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But when D’Souza starts claiming that Obama—whose orders for increasing numbers of drone strikes have built on and expanded the Bush administration’s anti-terrorist strategies—sees jihadis as anti-colonialist “freedom fighters,” the film abandons all logic.
This is a shift from the start of 2016, when D’Souza presents himself as a likeably nerdy iconoclast trying to parse the roots of his conservatism and the president’s liberalism. (One of his snarkier asides—calling lefty academia’s obsession with the tragedies of colonialism “oppression studies, if you will”—suggests a wit that too rarely surfaces elsewhere in the film.) But his Reagan-forged Cold War ethos of winner-takes-all geopolitics, strangely unintellectual indifference to proving his points, and blithe references to a pro-Obama media bias, quickly moves the film into the realm of paranoid nightmare. It’s a sharp-looking nightmare at least, with lush cinematography and a keen editing rhythm that give at least the impression of a seriousness the film sorely lacks.