Critics have savaged Dinesh D'Souza's anti-Obama polemic – but it's set to become a commercial smash. Should the president be worried?
If the Obama campaign hopes the Democratic convention will renew America's love affair with the president, Dinesh D'Souza has some unwelcome news: his film attacking Obama will reach more than 2,000 cinemas this weekend, putting it on track to be the second most successful documentary of all time.
"The product is selling because people sense there is real information here," D'Souza told the Guardian. "Not allegations, not assertions, but real information that is valuable in assessing the future of the country."
Democrats leaving Charlotte on Friday fired up for the November 6 election would choke on that claim, and try to dismiss D'Souza as a crank. The trouble is, his film, 2016: Obama's America, is spreading across ever more cinema screens and proving a remarkable box office hit.
While party faithful hailed Obama's nomination acceptance speech as an outline for a progressive second term, D'Souza called it part of a covert strategy. "It's a smoke-and-mirrors performance, because the bottom line is that Obama has a completely different agenda to what he's letting on."
The president, he said, was pretending to be a tax-cutter and friend of the middle classes and Israel. "Obama has an ideology that wants to downsize America … He subscribes to the belief that in terms of wealth and power it would be good for America to have less, and for the rest of the world to have more."
The president, he said, had duped his own party into thinking he wished to redistribute wealth domestically, when his real goal was redistributing it globally by exporting jobs and wealth. "He can't afford to let that cat so far out of the bag. He can't afford to come across as the global guy that he obviously is. He wants to pretend to be an all-American guy."
Democrats who rolled their eyes when D'Souza's film first came out have been stunned by its success. From just a few hundred screens a few weeks ago it jumped to 1,750 last week and is now at more than 2,000. It has earned about $22m, and is set to overtake Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, coming second only to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 as the highest-grossing documentary ever.
The 87-minute film follows D'Souza, a conservative, Indian-born scholar, as he traces Obama's roots and "rage" to Africa, Hawaii, Indonesia and his absentee, anti-colonial father.
It will have a "second wave" in the form of DVDs and home box office options in the last three weeks of the election, he said. "I would suspect that the majority of our attendees are conservative or Republican, but there's a sense that the film is breaking out beyond that group."
Many critics have savaged the film. "A work of propaganda that offers base innuendo in lieu of argument," said the New Yorker.
An Associated Press fact-checking article found the film, a cinematic version of D'Souza's 2010 book The Roots of Obama's Rage, to be "almost entirely subjective and a logical stretch at best".
But D'Souza, a former thinktank researcher who lives in New York and is president of the Christian liberal arts school The King's College, is unabashed.
Obama's speech, he said, continued an effort to mask his real intent. "I don't think Obama sees decline as a goal in itself, but I think he thinks American decline is necessary for the rise of the rest of the world. I think he thinks there is a limited supply of energy in the world and that America and the west use too much … others need to have more, otherwise how can they grow?
"Similarly, I think he thinks America has been lording it over the Middle East, and that it's better for America to have a smaller footprint, because it's been stepping on the world."
That is news to critics on the left who say Obama's occasionally pluralist rhetoric is a sham for continued hawkish foreign policy, such as ramping up the war in Afghanistan and raining drone strikes on terrorist targets in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
D'Souza sees it completely differently: Obama believes America is part of the global 1%, and wants to share its wealth and power with "hungry, circling nations".
It was easy to conceal this agenda in 2008 before Obama took office. "Now, after four years, he can't come across as the unknown man. He has to actually camouflage what he has done and claim the opposite."
Thus, the killing of Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders masked a cossetting of other jihadis whom the president secretly regarded as freedom fighters, he says. "Obama is weirdly and almost unacceptably solicitous towards those guys," D'Souza said, adding that White House rhetoric on winning Afghanistan was hollow.
"Obama seems to have reconciled himself to at least a partial Taliban takeover. In other words: an American defeat."
Obama, said D'Souza, had turned his back on Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's fallen dictator and US ally, as well as opposition movements in Syria and Iran, while letting Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood take power – in a democratic election – and project its influence across the Middle East.
"America's position in the world can hardly be seen as stronger, except in some delusional mode as a result of what Obama has done. America has lost its strong hand in the Middle East.
"And if Saudi Arabia falls during Obama's second term, then we can see the restoration of Islam as a global power. Which we haven't seen in 200 years."
D'Souza interpreted Obama's remark to the Russian leader Dimitri Medvedev that he would have more flexibility in a second term as admission of a hidden agenda. "We'll see an even more radical Obama, because he won't be tethered to public opinion as much."
Left-wing Democrats shared the president's belief that the US was a rogue nation needing taming, D'Souza said. "They kind of know that Obama is pursuing decline. And they want decline … that's why they like him." Mainstream Democrats, he said, turned a blind eye out of opportunism.
Asked if he wanted Obama to win so he could proved right, D'Souza laughed. "I am neither predicting nor advocating an election outcome."
Hollywood, he said, had been shocked by the success of the film, which he co-directed with John Sullivan. It was shot on a shoestring budget, edited in Oklahoma City and distributed independently. "They're a little unnerved because we kind of came out of nowhere. It shows that Hollywood has no monopoly on the making and distribution of good films." He shrugged off criticism that it was funded by rich conservatives. "My answer is: well, we tried to be funded by poor conservatives, but that failed, so we had to turn to the rich ones. Big deal. Who cares?"
D'Souza laughed at being called a right-wing Michael Moore, but said he was inspired by the panache and commercial splash of Fahrenheit 9/11's assault on a sitting president.
"That being said, in my opinion Fahrenheit 9/11 is an intellectual nullity. It's factually slippery, based on conspiracy theories, and it's fast and loose with data. Our film is not that way." Many critics disagree, though stylistically D'Souza's scholarly, understated demeanour contrasts with Moore's megaphone stunts.
In a tight race, Democrats can only hope that for all the fuss Obama's America will not tilt key states Mitt Romney's way.
D'Souza's kindest words about Obama still have potential to fire up Republican voters. "He doesn't hate America. He's not a Manchurian candidate. He's not even anti-American. It's just that he subscribes to the belief that in terms of wealth and power it would be good for America to have less and for the rest of the world to have more."