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.”
That’s true of publishers as well as authors. Everyone in the book business wants to reach readers, but conservative publishers, in keeping with their free-market ethos, tend to prize unabashedly commercial concerns over literary or intellectual ones. “The publishers who are publishing the conservative books—Regnery and a handful of imprints from the big New York houses—I think we have all very deliberately taken a market-focused approach to book publishing,” says Ross. “I honestly don’t believe that traditional book publishing does that.”
Such a market-focused approach works in tandem with increasing concentration in the world of bookselling. Consolidation has reduced the influence of bookstore buyers and owners, who once exercised their own idiosyncratic judgment about what to stock. “When there were lots and lots of independent bookstores, they could afford to be more reflective of one person’s or a handful of people’s subjective biases and their own personal taste,” Ross says. “As there was this big consolidation through superstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble, the dollar started to talk louder than the political beliefs and preferences of individuals.”
The new publishing marketplace doesn’t just favor conservative authors; it favors a certain kind of conservative book. The days when an erudite work like Allan Bloom’s 1987 The Closing of the American Mind, with its disquisitions on Nietzsche, could reach the top of the charts are long gone. Even D’Souza doesn’t believe that his Illiberal Education, a far more accessible book, would be successful today. Unlike his recent output, Illiberal Education was a book that those who rejected D’Souza’s politics could usefully engage. “On the whole, for a subject so heatedly debated…the investigation seems reasonably thorough, the rhetoric comparatively temperate, and the documentation fairly detailed, if sometimes very selective,” wrote C. Vann Woodward in The New York Review of Books. “Agree with it or not, Illiberal Education deserves serious attention.” By contrast, the only question worthy of serious attention in The Roots of Obama’s Rage and Obama’s America is how someone who was once a respected intellectual came to write them.
D’Souza, naturally, doesn’t see it that way—he believes liberals have shown their closed-mindedness by writing him off. “The problem has to do with the intellectual polarization in the country that makes a book like [Illiberal Education], I think, unviable today,” he says. “When I wrote Illiberal Education, the liberals were willing to consider that there is a real problem—not just in the university, but with multiculturalism and diversity itself. That allowed an intelligent community of liberals and conservatives to read my book, as well as Allan Bloom’s book, as well as liberal books that came out at that time on that topic. The problem now is that, if I were to write Illiberal Education, it would not be reviewed in The New Republic; it would not be reviewed in the liberal press. And I wouldn’t care, because I don’t need those reviews.”
Indeed, his new audience is more lucrative for him than his old one. “A lot of the educated class across the spectrum was looking at that book,” he says of Illiberal Education. “I didn’t have conservative truck drivers buying that book.” His Obama books, by contrast, have opened up new markets. “They’re appealing to my normal base of conservative, educated professionals, but they’re also reaching out to a lot of guys who normally don’t buy hardcover books, but who are very anxious about Obama.”
This anxiety—or, one might say, hatred—is a huge driver of sales. “While a lot of conservatives did not agree with Bill Clinton’s politics, I do not think there was anywhere near the level of concern about the future of the country,” says Ross. “I think that does add some fuel to the fire in terms of encouraging people to buy not just one anti-Obama book but several, and to share them with their friends.”
The appetite for more and more of these books creates a sort of arms race: to break through, they have to ratchet up the calumny and explore new avenues of insult. Thus D’Souza’s new book has a chapter, “Mommie Dearest,” essentially calling Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, a fat slut. Describing her life in Indonesia, he writes, “Ann’s sexual adventuring may seem a little surprising in view of the fact that she was a large woman who kept getting larger.” But D’Souza thinks he understands the source of her appeal, writing that she used “her American background and economic and social power to purchase the romantic attention of Third World men.”
There’s nothing in Janny Scott’s biography of Dunham, A Singular Woman, to suggest that this vicious depiction is true, except perhaps that her romantic life did not end after her second divorce. Scott quotes a friend of Dunham’s about how men would hit on them: “We would joke about people bothering us and thinking we were going to be these wildly sexually active folks,” the friend said. “We weren’t very wild.”
Even if Dunham had slept her way across the Indonesian archipelago, however, it’s hard to see how it would be relevant to the story D’Souza purports to tell about Obama’s subversive background, since during that period, he was living with his grandparents in Hawaii. D’Souza acknowledges, in a derisive way, that what kept Dunham in Indonesia was her work as an anthropologist, not her purported affairs. “Although Ann typically dated younger Indonesian men, it would be wrong to say that she sent young Barack to Hawaii so that she could pursue the life of a Western ‘cougar,’” he writes. “Clearly Ann’s bigger motive was her career.” So why the prurient rumor-mongering about her sex life? Perhaps because when you’ve run through every conceivable slur, calling a man’s mother a whore is all you’re left with. For a writer like D’Souza, who in his 2007 The Enemy at Home expressed sympathy with the sexual mores of conservative Islamists, it is the ultimate expression of contempt. And contempt, in ever more potent doses, is what these books are selling.
That’s why, for those in the conservative book industry, the supposedly capitalism-hating Obama is extremely good for business. Regnery just published another anti-Obama volume, Kate Obenshain’s Divider-in-Chief: The Fraud of Hope and Change. After that, the future looks uncertain. “The double-edged sword of being a political publisher is, as you can imagine, it’s really tough to figure out what to publish in the first few months of 2013,” Ross says. Asked if it’s better for the bottom line if Obama is re-elected, she doesn’t hesitate. “Yes. It may not be better for the country,” she adds, but yes, “we often say that.”
In this same issue, Michelle Goldberg also reviews Robert O. Self’s All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s, which narrates how the American right’s obsession with male status legitimated the transition to a neoliberal ethos.