Books lampooning U.S. President Barack Obama are displayed at the American Conservative Union’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, February 9, 2012. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
Dinesh D’Souza published his first New York Times bestseller, Illiberal Education, in 1991. An attack on political correctness in American universities—what D’Souza called the “victim’s revolution”—the book was followed by another commercial success, The End of Racism, in 1995. He wrote more bestsellers after that, including a biography of Ronald Reagan and the apple-pie encomiums What’s So Great About America and What’s So Great About Christianity. It was only this year, however, that D’Souza finally hit the coveted No. 1 spot on the Times list with his second book about Barack Obama, Obama’s America: Unmaking the American Dream. Arguing that the president “draws his identity and his values from a Third World, anti-American ideology that goes by the name of anti-colonialism,” the book is a kind of companion volume to D’Souza’s hit documentary 2016: Obama’s America, which he says has been seen by about 2.5 million people.
D’Souza had already published one book about Obama’s alleged subversive anticolonialist ideology, The Roots of Obama’s Rage. (Thanks largely to Glenn Beck’s enthusiastic promotion, it reached No. 4 on the bestseller list in 2010.) That book inspired his film, which in turn begat Obama’s America. Redundancy clearly hasn’t hurt sales.
Though there were a number of successful books lambasting Bill Clinton during the 1990s, anti-Obama books are a much bigger publishing phenomenon. The conservative publisher Regnery, for example, had one anti-Clinton book hit the top of the Times bestseller list during the eight years of his presidency. It’s already had four No. 1 anti-Obama books, including Obama’s America. And in the 1990s, Regnery had more of the conservative publishing field to itself; since then, most of the major New York publishing houses have established conservative imprints, which have released their own anti-Obama tomes.
“The publishing industry is pumping out anti-Obama books authored by conservatives in numbers normally reserved for young-adult novels about teenage vampires,” The Washington Times reported in September. “More than 30 nonfiction titles blasting the president have been released by publishers this year, with several more hotly anticipated works expected to hit bookstores before the Nov. 6 election.”
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For conservative authors and publishers, a changing marketplace, coupled with the huge rewards for appealing to the anti-Obama animus, are incentives for ever-escalating vitriol. “The books that end up on the Times bestseller list are more and more often very polemical and very current-events driven, as opposed to more thoughtful, more analytical kind of books,” says Marji Ross, Regnery’s president. “They’re often news-breaking books, but they’re not as often books that are philosophical or more intellectual.”
It’s no secret, of course, that conservative polemics consistently outsell liberal ones—something confirmed, most recently, by Amazon’s Election Heat Map, which shows that right-wing tomes make up 56 percent of recent political book sales. There are a number of reasons for this. Partly it’s because of the strength of the conservative media in general. “There is a kind of well-defined, conservative parallel-culture media world with Fox News at its center,” but which also includes “many other institutions ranging from talk radio to churches,” says Alex Star, a senior editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux who previously worked at The New York Times Book Review. “A book can come out and be massively promoted to a niche audience that really wants it.”
There is no comparable progressive media infrastructure. “The disparity in conservative and liberal bestsellers is pretty comparable to the disparity between Fox and MSNBC,” Star notes. Liberals are simply less likely to churn out the sort of partisan red meat that sells on the right: “Conservatives are just more comfortable with really bald, go-for-the-gut polemics than the general liberal left.”