This week’s release of Police State was especially well-timed. The new pseudo-documentary film by conspiracy theorist and far-right influencer Dinesh D’Souza opened in theaters this week just as Jenna Ellis, one of Donald Trump’s election lawyers, pleaded guilty to a felony charge for her role in Trump’s efforts to overturn the election in Georgia. She is the fourth of his lawyers in the case to do so, a trend that for a certain audience, is evidence that the police state D’Souza’s film warns of is already here.
With a screening planned at Trump’s Florida resort Mar-a-Lago next month, Police State is an extended riff on the mantra Trump has adopted since being indicted for an extensive variety of crimes: If it can happen to me, it can happen to you.
Telling this horror story are right-wing luminaries such as former Secret Service agent Dan Bongino, former Trump administration official Kash Patel, and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who explain how ordinary people could, at any time, be just like the “nonviolent protesters” who sacked the US Capitol, and have jack-booted FBI thugs kick down their door, ransack their homes, scare their children, and haul them away to jail. Once there, they’ll be forced to plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit simply for being conservatives exercising their free speech rights.
The work of far-right fringe characters who populate Rumble and Truth Social, Police State may nonetheless help shape the GOP narrative that will dominate the 2024 presidential election next year. “If politics is downstream from culture, what is more upstream from politics than going to AMC to see a movie?” says Danielle Tomson, paraphrasing the late conservative journalist Andrew Breitbart. A researcher working on a book about conservative influencers, Tomson sees the film as a preemptive strike on an inevitable Trump conviction ahead of his presidential campaign. “They think like Hollywood screenwriters,” she notes.
Unless you lurk inside a particular right-wing media bubble, you may have forgotten all about D’Souza, a wunderkind of the second Reagan administration whose star has fallen considerably since then. You certainly wouldn’t have heard about his newest movie in the mainstream press. Police State was publicized almost entirely through D’Souza’s extensive social media channels, where he has millions of followers. The film premiered in dozens of traditional AMC movie theaters across the country this week as if it were as mainstream as the Exorcist remake. But D’Souza paid to rent out the theaters, before moving his film to online streaming on October 27. I was curious to see how many conservatives would actually get off the couch to see a film by a B-list influencer with the delivery of a bank teller. So, on Monday night, I plodded across the Beltway to an AMC multiplex in Alexandria, Virginia, to catch the first showing.
Going to the movie was like attending a secret meeting. Tickets could be purchased only through the Police State website, not at the theater. When I arrived, the few people wandering around the lobby and buying popcorn were clearly sizing each other up, looking for members of their tribe, as opposed to those godless commies there to see Killers of the Flower Moon. No signs advertised the film, but the theater was almost full. A woman I spoke with complained about the lack of signage. “Maybe it was because they didn’t want protesters,” she speculated. Even so, the theater was almost full. Once the lights dimmed, the screen transitioned jarringly from Nicole Kidman waxing poetic about the magic of movies straight to old black-and-white footage of Hitler, Mao, and Stalin rallies. Foreboding music drove home the message: This is where our country is headed if Donald Trump is not elected president next year.
Unfortunately for D’Souza, there aren’t a lot of visuals as compelling as, say, the Nuremberg rallies to make his case, so he’s taken the liberty of inventing a few. There are scenes purporting to show D’Souza himself being surveilled by guys in black SUVs with telephoto lenses as he goes about his business. Other scenes feature actor Nick Searcy, who plays a deep state FBI field office director who does stuff like bury the discovery of Hunter Biden’s laptop to help Joe Biden get elected. In one scene, Searcy watches Trump on TV promising to “drain the swamp.” He mutters, “We’ll see about that.”
Among the film’s extensive catalog of alleged police state victims, D’Souza includes himself, recalling his 2014 indictment by the Obama Justice Department for illegally organizing $20,000 in straw donations to the failed New York Senate campaign of Wendy Long. D’Souza pleaded guilty to a felony charge and was sentenced to five years probation, including eight months in a community confinement center. Trump pardoned him in 2018, and D’Souza has remained one of the former president’s most stalwart defenders. In the film, he shakes his head at the absurdity of his prosecution, noting that “no one” gets charged with a felony for campaign finance violations.
None of the alleged victims in Police State are innocent people like George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, who literally died at the hands of overzealous cops. Instead, they’re anti-abortion activists who were arrested for harassing patients at abortion clinics or people who were busted as part of the investigation into the January 6 insurrection. And then there’s Fairfax, Virginia, schools activist Stacy Langton, who has spent the better part of the last year trying to get books banned from public school libraries. Book banning is often a hallmark of authoritarian police states. But D’Souza uses her story to claim that the FBI was tracking “moms” like her who have been speaking out at school board meetings about groomers.
Langton appears in a scene with “America’s Mom” Sherronna Bishop, whose house actually was raided by the FBI in November 2021, an event captured by her Ring doorbell. (Doorbell cameras are the real stars in this film.) But the raid had nothing to do with Bishop’s conservative politics—or not exactly.
The FBI searched Bishop’s house in November 2021 as part of its investigation into a convoluted scheme in Mesa County, Colorado, in which county clerk Tina Peters allegedly tried to prove that the 2020 election had been plagued with widespread fraud by illegally copying election software from voting machines. That stolen data was then leaked online. Peters has been indicted on election tampering, criminal impersonation, and official misconduct charges. “If they’re coming for me,” Bishop warns from the big screen, “they’re coming for you.” Two years after that original FBI search, however, no one seems to be coming for her. Bishop has not been charged in the case.
As blatant propaganda goes, Police State might be viewed as a success; as entertainment—not so much. At nearly two hours, Police State seems like just a much longer version of D’Souza’s strangely popular yet mind-numbingly dull YouTube videos. Yet more than 30 years after he first splashed onto the conservative media scene with his book Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, it would be a mistake to ignore him.
In 2012, D’Souza produced 2016: Obama’s America. Inspired by lefty filmmaker Michael Moore, the film blames Obama’s “failure” to embrace American exceptionalism on his Kenyan father’s anti-colonialist activism. It became a sleeper hit, grossing more than $33 million at the box office, making it one of the most financially successful documentaries ever. D’Souza has churned out six more films since then, focusing on Hillary Clinton or Trump, and nearly all of them conflating liberalism with Nazism, as he does in Police State.
D’Souza’s previous film, 2000 Mules, helped perpetuate Trump’s lie that widespread voter fraud stole the 2020 presidential election from him. It has been blamed for encouraging voter intimidation during the 2022 midterm elections. Riddled with falsehoods, it is now at the center of a serious defamation lawsuit against D’Souza for wrongly portraying an innocent man as a “mule” who was committing fraud by stuffing ballot boxes.
The legal and factual issues with the film hampered its distribution and promotion and led to D’Souza’s latest banishment from the most influential right-wing outlets. Some, like Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro, actively panned the film while others simply ignored it for fear of getting sued. D’Souza used to appear frequently on the Fox News show of his fellow Dartmouth contemporary Laura Ingraham. But in May 2022, he publicly accused Tucker Carlson and the network of suppressing his film. In response, D’Souza tweeted that Carlson’s producer Justin Wells texted him: “You f-ed over an important show and ally that was trying to do you a solid. Don’t ever bother working on anything with us in the future. And never try to bully my team again.” He hasn’t been on the network since.
You’d think getting blacklisted by Fox News would be the end of an influencer’s career. But D’Souza has been nothing if not resilient.
“He still has a platform to keep generating attention,” says Matt Gertz, a senior fellow at the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters. “Elon Musk’s ownership of Twitter has really supercharged this.” Last year, the group found that in just the first 24 hours after Musk took over Twitter, D’Souza’s reach on the platform doubled. “Whatever they’re doing with the secret sauce over there has been very helpful for Dinesh D’Souza and this whole catalog of right-wing media has-beens.”
If attendance Monday night was any indication, D’Souza’s influencer status remains intact. Also, Police State seems to avoid some, though not all, of the problems that plagued the distribution of 2000 Mules thanks probably to researcher Peter Schweizer, the president of the Government Accountability Institute, a nonprofit he founded with Steve Bannon to do political oppo research. Schweizer’s previous work has been solid enough that mainstream news outlets such as the Washington Post and the New York Times have taken it seriously enough to reference it in reporting.
Schweizer, who did not work on 2000 Mules, may be responsible for keeping Police State out of court, if not for winning favorable reviews. There are people in the film who suggest, for instance, that January 6 was an inside job. D’Souza himself ponders the possibility that the Department of Homeland Security is compiling “kill lists” of conservatives as part of its investigations into far-right extremists. But none of it seems sufficiently libelous for a lawsuit.
Perhaps the most unsettling part of the film occurs at the end when D’Souza calls on the audience to sing the national anthem in solidarity with the January 6th political prisoners, one of whom is portrayed by an actor wearing an orange jumpsuit. All around me people jumped up and chanted “USA! USA!” And then they sang along. As we exited the theater, I overheard a guy urging his friends to cover their faces on the way out, because obviously, the Deep State would be there watching. “They’ll be taking pictures,” he warned, to which his friend replied, “I’m surprised I haven’t gotten a knock on the door already.”
Update, October 27, 11:30 am: The quote from Danielle Tomson has been edited for clarity.