Conspiracy of Dunces

Christie, McDonnell, and now Dinesh D’Souza. Conservatives believe the Obama administration has declared a secret war on their heroes.

Dinesh D'Souza speaking at CPAC 2012, February 2012.
The Dinesh D’Souza indictment started as an odd political story.

Photo courtesy Mark G. Taylor/Creative Commons

Gerald Molen had no idea that his star was in trouble. Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative author and—more recently—filmmaker, was arrested on Thursday, suspected of laundering “more than $10,000” in donations to a failed Republican U.S. Senate candidate by promising to reimburse friends who donated above the legal limit. Molen, the producer of D’Souza’s films, didn’t find out all of the allegations until Sunday. D’Souza, who’d been under investigation for months, hadn’t even talked to him.

“I’m taken aback by the whole thing,” Molen told Newsmax interviewer Steve Malzberg on Monday. “He’s such a great American.”

Malzberg moved on to a scarier story. Nineteen years ago, Molen had stood onstage to accept an Oscar for Schindler’s List. Since then, he’d helped release D’Souza’s 2016: Obama’s America. Since then, the IRS had admitted that Tea Party groups got intense scrutiny when they asked for tax-exempt status. Since then, the IRS had turned the magnifying glass on Friends of Abe, a group for conservatives in the entertainment industry that had also been looking for tax exemption. The pattern sketched itself.

“Would it surprise you,” asked Malzberg, “if this investigation in the first place was politically motivated, based on the documentary?”

“No, absolutely not,” said Molen, struggling for his words. “If you take a look at what the IRS has been alleged to do, there was an ongoing investigation—or there was, at least—they’re stepping all over conservative groups … we’re talking about [D’Souza going] over whatever the maximum is, people borrowing money from him, and yet there’s nothing about a dinner party in Hollywood that’s $45,000 a plate going to someone.”

“Yeah, well, the laws are not fair all the time,” said Malzberg. “Did you guys worry when you made this documentary?”

“I’ve never had the occasion to think that I had to fear my government,” said Molen. “I never had the thought that I had a reason to look over my shoulder. Until now.”

The D’Souza indictment started as an odd political story. His laundered donations allegedly went to Wendy Long, the thankless 2012 Republican candidate against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Long raised less than $800,000 on her way to a 48-point landslide defeat, but D’Souza had known her from Dartmouth and helped her out in what his attorney has started to spin as “an act of misguided friendship.”

In the conservative media, it’s become much more. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz ended his Sunday interview on Face the Nation by highlighting the D’Souza case. “We’ve seen multiple filmmakers prosecuted and the government’s gone after them,” he said. “Whether it’s the poor fellow that did the film that the president blamed Benghazi and the terrorist attacks on—turns out that wasn’t the reason for the attack but the administration went and put that poor fellow in jail on unrelated charges. Just this week it was broken that Dinesh D’Souza, who did a very big movie criticizing the president, is now being prosecuted by this administration. Can you image the reaction if the Bush administration had went, gone and prosecuted Michael Moore and Alec Baldwin and Sean Penn?”

CBS initially cut Cruz’s theory out of the interview. The senator’s office threw the whole thing online. By Monday afternoon the Drudge Report was linking to Cruz’s truth-bomb, and the network was denying any bias in the edit room. D’Souza was tweeting it, beseeching readers to “watch Bob Schieffer’s reaction,” without specifying which body language would make the theory true.

That thumping sound you hear is the long tail of the 2013 IRS scandal. It’s been eight months since the story broke, and subsequent investigations have found so little actual wrongdoing that House Republicans want the Department of Justice to probe the probes. Similar stories, like the NAACP’s worry that it was being targeted in 2004, have ended with similar fizzles.

None of this has diminished what the scandal meant to the right. Here was proof, after four years and so many loud complaints by Republican donors, that a lawless Obama administration was targeting them. “Conspiracy theorists, who generally can survive in anaerobic environments, have just had an algae bloom dropped on their f–kin’ heads,” moaned Jon Stewart when the 2013 IRS story broke. “This has, in one seismic moment, shifted the burden of proof from the tinfoil-behatted to the government.”

The hats come in different sizes. In some camps on the right, the D’Souza indictment is part of a “reign of terror”—that’s Alex Jones’ term—alongside the investigation of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the arrest of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. “They can put anybody in prison, the way these laws are written,” Jones told fans in a special YouTube message. “They’re goin’ for broke, because we’re like cornered rats.”

That’s the extreme position. The centrist position is that D’Souza’s troubles and the IRS scrutiny of Friends of Abe should be looked at on their own. Radio host Laura Ingraham, an author and occasional Fox News host, started her segment on D’Souza with a snippet of The Beatles’s classic stalking ballad, “I’ll Get You.” The record scratched: Ingraham told listeners that “we are criminalizing political dissent in the United States of America” and nobody would call it out.

“This indictment is the kind of thing that we’re kind of accustomed to seeing come out of a place like China, where they manhandle reporters,” said Ingraham. “They jail dissidents, they put them in re-education camps. Now, I’m beginning to think, if these people could put us all in reeducation camps, I’m beginning to think, in their wildest dreams, they wish they could just do that.”

Do the D’Souza defenders have anything to say about the actual charges? Well, Ingraham made fun of how short the indictment was, and … that’s about it. Reporters who’ve actually compared the indictment to the timeline of donations and refunds to Long’s campaign say they match up neatly. Reuters’ Alison Frankel pointed out that campaign finance cases like this are common, and typically settled. The FBI saw an easy “straw donor” case. It pounced.

But if you don’t accept that theory—if you see the shadow hand of a conspiracy—you’ve got so much to gain. Drudge, Cruz, Ingraham, and company lose absolutely nothing by speculating about an Obama administration hit job in easily shareable news stories and videos. Friends of Abe gets a sympathetic A1 story in the New York Times, one that silences—for now, at least—some internal debate about whether Republican politicians were taking advantage of the group, seeing their celebrity members as potential donors.

And before we ask how D’Souza comes out of this, consider where he’s been. Back in 2012, around the time of the suspect donations, D’Souza resigned under duress from the presidency of King’s College. He’d scandalized the evangelical community after appearing at a conference with his fiancé, Denise Joseph, while not yet divorced from his wife. Denise Joseph happens to be the possible “straw donor” whose money was refunded by the Wendy Long campaign.

What about his $33 million–grossing Obama movie? Ah, yes—about that. D’Souza’s documentary had all the impact on Barack Obama’s re-election that a horsefly has on a windshield. Before the election, when a Frank Luntz focus group of swing voters tested the effectiveness of some anti-Obama documentaries. “It tested poorly,” reported the New York Times. “Luntz warned his clients that it could undermine their cause.” Now D’Souza himself is the cause. Things are looking up.