Dinesh D’Souza’s Big Lie

Dinesh D’Souza’s recent presidential pardon was issued by a man who has not read any of his works or, for that matter, any of anyone’s works. The illegal campaign contributions—the same sort of infraction that 45 years earlier got Yankees owner George Steinbrenner banned from baseball for a couple of years and eventually pardoned by Ronald Reagan—barely raised the blood pressure of today’s voters or pundits. The real problem with the D’Souza pardon—beyond its savage cynicism and purely political motivation—is the far greater crime Dinesh D’Souza is guilty of.

Between his undergraduate days in the early 80s editing the conservative Dartmouth Review and his first major employment in 1985 as contributing editor for the  equally conservative Policy Review, D’Souza served for one memorable year as editor of Prospect, the independent magazine published by Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP) and foisted monthly upon unwilling Princeton students like myself. At Prospect, D’Souza joined an organization hell bent on halting affirmative action, gay presence on campus, and women’s studies. CAP, for all practical purposes, was a group of frustrated aging white men who could barely contain their contempt for coeducation itself.

Broader, often less divisive issues such as the arms race and the rising cost of higher education were covered in the magazine as well, and D’Souza got to share a masthead with such conservative luminaries as George Will and William Rusher. But the left, center, and even conservative outrage brought to campus by the latest issue of Prospect slipped under dorm room doors in the middle of the night like thin letter bombs became D’Souza’s specialty. Beyond the confines of his own alma mater, Prospect is where Dinesh D’Souza cut his teeth as a provocateur prick.

A history of homophobia and sexism

I don’t know exactly why I saved a bunch of vintage ’83-’84 issues, but as I sat down to write this I was glad I had. In a short piece in the June ’84 issue about medical experiments performed on monkeys as part of an attempt to find a cure for the newly named disease AIDS, D’Souza writes, “Now the scientists must find humans or rather homosexuals to submit themselves to experimental treatment. Princeton’s Gay Alliance may want to hold an election.”

Discussing sexual harassment in the January ’84 issue, a full 34 years before the #MeToo movement, D’Souza writes from the heart, “It’s the fashionable thing to be sexually harassed these days. . . . We’ve noticed that women who claim sexual harassment often tend to be low on the pulchritude (beauty) index.” In the same issue, he takes another swipe at one of his favorite targets: “Here at Princeton homosexuals are on the rampage. And their approach to the (Princeton eating) clubs is much like their approach to individuals in public bathrooms, i.e. threatening and thrasonical.”

In a full length, supposed think piece about “mainstreaming” women’s studies, D’Souza explains that the emergence of this area of academics not only pleased feminists but also “placated conservatives, because it assured them that funny-looking women who sat cross-legged and kept journals would be segregated out of the traditional departments.” A few sentences later, D’Souza mock-celebrates a perceived recent shift in feminist orthodoxy, whereby, “No longer do slatterns have abortions to prove they’re liberated scholars . . . .”

In the fall of 1983, Dinesh D’Souza was nowhere in my personal top 20 factors causing loss of sleep. He was a faceless off-campus fly in an ointment of angry disconnected alumni still trying to figure out why their heyday was not so great and their present day was even worse. I was a senior civil engineering student desperately trying to pull a string of B’s while somehow completing a lengthy independent thesis while at the same time seriously questioning whether actually being a civil engineer in the real world would lead me to blow my brains out one fine afternoon several years later standing by a water cooler.

Worse still, I was on probation of sorts. The previous spring, as editor of the once venerable Princeton humor magazine The Tiger, I had gotten myself into big league trouble with a sophomoric Brooke Shields spoof. The article in question, “The Princeton Man’s Guide to Impressing and Sleeping with Brooke if and When She Gets Here,” used the starlet’s application to New Jersey’s Ivy League delegate as a lens for sexual frustration on campus. The article was either the funniest or least funny piece in the 100-year history of the magazine depending on whom you asked.

The less amused folks got me and the student publisher fired from the magazine. The more receptive folks made us cult heroes. The story was picked up by The Associated Press and United Press International and made national news —think of an archaic analog version of the Samantha Bee kind — for a few tumultuous days. Ironically, the right wing Prospect weighed in largely in my favor, writing in June ’83, “While we question Herschlag’s taste at points, we just can’t get up the umph to get hot and bothered. As C.S. Lewis put it, ‘sensitivity,’ in the affected sense, ‘is the most powerful engine of domestic tyranny.’”

By the fall of ‘83 I had put all this behind me, having used up my Warholian 15 minutes at least 50 times. I was determined to become a normal struggling student again, blend in, and convince my parents they hadn’t drained their retirement account for nothing. I was going to keep my head down in a soil mechanics textbook, cut back on the Rolling Rock, and exit with a sheepskin. And then Dinesh D’Souza called.

An offer to sell out

It didn’t take long to figure out what he wanted. The term “politically correct” existed at the time but had not yet exploded into the lexicon. D’Souza referred to the Princeton campus and other elite campuses as being narrow-minded, obsequious to left wing ideas, and hypersensitive. He constructed a case that the harsh treatment I received for my edgy satire was a direct consequence of liberalism run amok at American universities—basically the same errant liberalism that was quickly devouring everything we fair-minded men allegedly held dear in the world.

Standing there in my small, damp, drafty turn-of-the-century single room with a clunky telephone receiver in my hand I had a visceral reaction to this faceless voice. It was the native New Yorker in me telling me not to fall for bullshit—for a deal with the literary devil, so to speak. I was supposed to deliver a quote to prove I was one of them so the hired gun editor from Dartmouth could scribble it down and move on to his next victim. I thought quickly about my gay friends, my women friends, and my general misfit friends and how earlier I had been willing to risk offending them because I considered humor to be transcendent. But this was not that. This was a movement of bigotry and hatred masked as intellectual pursuit. That was obvious to me at an age when I could count my chest hairs on one hand and had 23 dollars in the bank.

So I told young Mr. D’Souza the people who got me fired meant well but weren’t on the same page with my over-the-top satiric style. He was not happy. The next issue of Prospect included a gratuitous mention of ex-editor Rich Herschlag’s failed attempts at humor. As if anyone even cared at that point.

I could not have imagined that Dinesh D’Souza would ultimately foist his contempt onto millions of gullible, paying readers and documentary viewers, just as I could not have imagined the New York real estate developer other New York real estate developers in those days looked down upon would ultimately become President of the United States. If you download the Kindle of D’Souza’s book The Big Lie, for $12.99 you can spend hours reading about FDR’s love for Hitler and Mussolini and how the New Deal and the Third Reich are separated by a pubic hair.

But I shouldn’t be that surprised. In 1983 writing pseudo-conservative “essays” was a business for Dinesh D’Souza, albeit a fledgling one. Over the years, as the country became more economically anxious and more riveted to echo chamber talk radio, cable news, and blog sites, business got really good. So did Trump’s business. That one man eventually pardoned the other in an unseemly transaction woven into countless other unseemly transactions should come as a surprise to absolutely no one.

This, the real big lie—that the whorish Trumps and D’Souzas of this world believe even half of what they’re saying—is roughly tied with another big lie. We’ve heard alt-right and pseudo-conservative demagogues pine incessantly for the days when Democrats, liberals, and progressives were fairly reasonable people with whom these disciplined, classically trained right-leaning theorists begged to differ politely on a few critical issues. But, as the tale goes, the left went off the rails ten or fifteen years ago.

No. Progressive ideas of the 60s and 70s became mainstream ideas of the 2000s. The infuriated right had gay people, women’s rights advocates, and minorities in their crosshairs then and have them in their crosshairs now. D’Souza and his ilk made their bones ever so cruelly and tastelessly on these victims decades ago as my tattered yellowed copies of Prospect clearly prove.

The playbook is still the same. But the product is now an industry. So while I can forgive Dinesh D’Souza for slipping a college friend an extra 20 grand for a Senate campaign by using his mistress and her cuckold husband as conduits, I cannot forgive him for making a career out of the kind of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia that a half-decent human being would have left behind like a mortarboard on graduation day. For that kind of pardon, Mr. D’Souza, you and Lee Atwater will have to appeal to a higher authority.

Rich Herschlag is well into his third decade as an author, consulting engineer, husband and father and is very tired.