Always Fighting the Last Culture War

What’s happened to the old guard of right-wing provocateurs?

By Nathan Pippenger

Simon van Zuylen-Wood’s excellent profile of Dinesh D’Souza, just out in the new issue of National Journal, wisely allows the subject to speak for himself—yielding the delightful headline “Dinesh D’Souza Is Winning.” Like Tucker Carlson and Matthew Continetti, D’Souza is a conservative writer whose intellectual pretensions were eventually overwhelmed by his cruder instincts (the profile memorably dubs him the onetime “enfant terrible of conservative thought”). Once, his views on culture-war topics like campus leftism received respectful hearings in serious liberal publications. Now, D’Souza is mostly an object of ridicule. In recent years, he’s gone so far as to blame 9/11 on the decadent American left (expressing a measure of conservative solidarity for Islamic extremists in the process), and to accuse President Obama, acting from a supposed Kenyan anticolonial worldview, of sabotaging America from within. On top of all that, he’s now facing possible jail time after pleading guilty to campaign finance violations in New York. What happened?

On one level, D’Souza’s downfall is a story of his own personal failings—which the piece draws out through an impressively restrained approach. D’Souza’s pathetic obsession with fame, his paranoia and pique at even the slightest imagined insult—my favorite is when he alleges a conspiracy because his latest book debuted at number two, not number one, on the Times best-seller list—all emerge as the reporter simply listens to his subject. Before the media and his fans, he’s defensive and unapologetic about the campaign-finance violations: it’s all an Obama witch hunt. Before a judge, he grovels and self-flagellates (“I cannot believe how stupid I was, how careless, and how irresponsible”; “I am ashamed and contrite”).

But in another sense, D’Souza’s fate resembles that of so many old-school culture warriors in 2014. It’s easy to detect a certain bewilderment on D’Souza’s part about what has happened to his career—or, more broadly, to his line of work—since his 1991 book Illiberal Education. Responding to charges that he’s gone downhill, D’Souza insists he hasn’t changed: “I don’t think there’s a fundamental difference in my approach then and now […] Illiberal Education has been baptized into a sort of pathbreaking, sort of sober, responsible book. It was a bomb when I dropped it in 1991!” But the story changes when he’s pressed on whether he’s sold out, by relying (as authors like Tucker Carlson and Charles Krauthammer have done) on “ever bigger and badder bombs […] to score ever fatter paychecks in the process.” In response, D’Souza insists that he and his peers are merely “changing the way we express ourselves.” There’s some confusion here: is D’Souza acknowledging that he’s become more incendiary, or is he insisting that nothing has changed since the early 1990s?

It seems clear, at any rate, that D’Souza is a little uncertain of how to navigate this new environment. He’s happy to sell books, and his recent foray into moviemaking went well—but he’s tellingly sensitive to criticism and ridicule, and his over-the-top attacks on liberals and President Obama have indisputably harmed his reputation, even among former friends on the right. His early career, in college and beyond, concerned cultural issues that have either been largely resolved (the acceptance of LGBT people) or which have faded from the headlines (campus leftism). What’s a seasoned culture warrior to do? Many of his peers from those days have struggled to stay relevant. One associate was Ralph Reed, whose long-rumored comeback from 1990s prominence has consistently failed to materialize. It’s the same story with the organization Reed formerly led—the once-mighty, and now moribund, Christian Coalition. (I met a high-ranking former Christian Coalition official a few years ago; his sense of adriftness after the culture wars’ 1990s heyday was palpable.) Another peer, Ann Coulter, struggles to regain her former notoriety. Even FOX News is no longer feared as it once was. The election and reelection of Barack Obama; the long-term demographic and regional decline of the GOP; the fading organizations and institutions of the old culture wars—all have combined to make the position of people like D’Souza far more precarious.

The option of remaking oneself as a policy intellectual simply isn’t available to most of these figures—they squandered that credibility long ago. But old instincts die hard: It still works, albeit for a shrinking audience, to attack the cultural left, even if the old bogeymen don’t scare most people anymore. At Dartmouth, D’Souza was infamous for outing gay classmates—a vicious act at a time when many people chose the closet to avoid having their lives ruined. Today, the risks are thankfully lower, and D’Souza’s act would be regarded by most people as little more than homophobic nastiness.

No surprise, then, that D’Souza seems adrift and confused, and his career is in decline. He’s doing what he’s always done, but the results aren’t what they used to be. That’s not because the cultural left has achieved a total victory, but it is a signal that some of the older cultural battles have mercifully declined. There have always been nasty demagogues in American politics, and there will be a Dinesh D’Souza for the next generation. But history may already have passed the current one by.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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