Toward the end of 2000 Mules, director Dinesh D’Souza convenes an Arthurian round table of conservative media dorks to speculate about the earth-shattering impact the film would have. “This movie is an Overton window moment,” Charlie Kirk tells his co-conspirators, among them Sebastian Gorka and Dennis Prager. “Michael Moore did it, he moved the Overton window on many different topics 20 years ago. Al Gore did it with climate change.”
2000 Mules, the latest installment in the D’Souza delusional cinematic universe, was intended to be An Inconvenient Truth for the election denial movement, presenting for the first time incontrovertible proof that widespread voter fraud had stolen the presidency from Donald Trump. The time seemed riper than ever: 2022 was the year in which the Big Lie solidified its status as GOP orthodoxy. Over half of the 597 Republicans running for federal and state office in the midterms questioned the validity of the election results, and in January, about four months before the film’s release, an Ipsos poll found that fewer than half of Republicans, Trump voters, and those who got their news from Fox News or other conservative media accepted the 2020 election’s outcome.
Alas, not even cunning timing could halt D’Souza’s continued slide toward cultural irrelevance. Released in May, 2000 Mules made just $1.5 million at the box office. It was his lowest grossing film yet, and a far cry from the receipts a decade ago for 2016: Obama’s America ($33 million) and 2016’s Hillary’s America ($13 million)—a major flop that presaged election denialism’s epic flameout in November. And for True the Vote, the Texas-based “election integrity” organization whose “research” forms the basis of D’Souza’s claims, it was even more disastrous.
If, as The New Republic’s Alex Shephard described it, D’Souza’s 2016 film Hillary’s America resembled “a movie made by someone who has never seen a movie before,” 2000 Mules can best be described as a movie made by someone who has only seen the “You Wouldn’t Steal a Car” anti-piracy ad. The production resembles a low-budget spy thriller, with much of its runtime devoted to a meeting in a fake high-tech research lab as True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht and her grizzly-bearded associate Gregg Phillips unveil their supposed evidence of voter fraud to D’Souza.
2000 Mules is categorized as a documentary, but Wikipedia’s characterization—a “conspiracy theory political film”—is closer to the truth. It would also be accurate simply to call it right-wing propaganda. In the film, Engelbrecht and Phillips claim to have used cell phone geotracking data from five 2020 battleground states to retrace the movements of paid ballot “mules,” who after receiving them from unnamed liberal nonprofits (“stash houses,” in keeping with the drug cartel lingo) stuff them into drop boxes across cities like Atlanta, Detroit, and Philadelphia. After crunching some questionable numbers, they come to the conclusion that these “mules”—some of whom are Black Lives Matter protesters and antifa members, naturally—delivered hundreds of thousands of illegally harvested ballots to tip the scales for Joe Biden.
The evidence is, of course, unbelievably weak, to the point that one can only imagine the degree of contempt D’Souza has for his audience. For one, geotracking data isn’t accurate enough to pinpoint whether someone is at the precise location of a drop box or simply in the vicinity of one. Even if it were accurate enough to do that, the drop boxes plotted on Engelbrecht and Phillips’s map of metro Atlanta didn’t correspond to their actual locations, and in another scene they try to pass off a map of Moscow (of all places) as a map of Gwinnett County, Georgia. They also offer video footage of alleged “mules,” but are unable to show any of them visiting more than one drop box, nor present any evidence that they were depositing illegal ballots from nonprofit organizations.
The claims in 2000 Mules are so outlandish that it’s almost unthinkable that D’Souza wanted to reach anyone besides the already converted, who lapped it up as expected. The grand premiere was hosted by Trump at Mar-a-Lago, with right-wing stars like Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and protester-killer Kyle Rittenhouse in attendance. Kari Lake, who made election denial one of the cornerstones of her gubernatorial campaign, endorsed the film, and the Texas Republican Party screened the film not once, but three times at its annual convention.
But the movie failed to find an audience beyond the most committed Big Lie cultists. In the year election denial went mainstream, 2000 Mules held the distinction of being too ludicrous even for the right. D’Souza had something of a public meltdown when both Fox News and Newsmax allegedly declined to promote the film, perhaps out of fear of being dragged into yet more billion-dollar defamation lawsuits related to claims of election fraud. (Trump lambasted Fox for refusing to “show or discuss the greatest & most impactful documentary of our time.”) Ben Shapiro said on his web show that “the conclusions of the film are not justified by the premises of the film itself,” and former Trump administration Attorney General Bill Barr, during his testimony in the January 6 committee hearings, laughed at D’Souza’s allegations and called the geotracking data “singularly unimpressive.”
Authorities in the states accused of running fraudulent elections were similarly unimpressed with True the Vote’s findings. In September 2021, the Georgia Bureau of Investigations wrote a letter to the organization and the state Republican Party saying that the data, “while curious, does not rise to the level of probable cause that a crime has been committed.” Georgia Secretary of State Investigator Dana DeWeese reviewed the film’s footage of an alleged “mule” stuffing a drop box, only to confirm that the man in question was in fact turning in his family members’ ballots along with his own, in compliance with Georgia election law. And in Arizona, Engelbrecht and Phillips refused multiple requests from the office of Republican state Attorney General Mark Brnovich to hand over their evidence of “mule” activity, claimed to be FBI informants, then lied to the FBI’s Phoenix field office that they had given the information to the attorney general. As a result, Brnovich’s office asked the FBI and the IRS to investigate True the Vote’s finances.
By the fall, 2000 Mules had become the headache that kept on giving. Just before its scheduled release, a book adaptation was abruptly recalled due to an unspecified “publishing error,” but when it finally hit the shelves two months later, passages in which D’Souza names the nonprofit “stash houses” were removed; one of the groups accused described the allegations as “potentially libelous.” True the Vote attempted to distance itself from the book, just as it had attempted to distance itself from the movie over the summer by announcing “the end of ‘mules’” and that it was “time to move on” from the 2020 election. (The first chapter of D’Souza’s book: “Why We Can’t ‘Move On.’”) It’s not hard to understand their skittishness about naming names: Engelbrecht and Phillips were briefly jailed in early November for contempt of court in an unrelated defamation lawsuit, just days after D’Souza was sued for defamation by one of the alleged “mules” who appeared in the film.
In a just world, 2000 Mules would be the nail in the coffin of D’Souza’s filmmaking career. The only thing that flopped worse this year was election denial itself. From Mark Finchem to Kari Lake to Jim Marchant, the most prominent deniers failed to win in this year’s midterms, and pro-democracy messaging mobilized enough Democrats to prevent a “red wave” from materializing. Regardless, the stolen election conspiracy lives on. Arizona voters reported intimidation from right-wing groups obsessively scouting out “mules,” and the Big Lie has gifted far-right politicians a pretext for taking openly authoritarian positions. We should be glad that 2000 Mules wasn’t an “Overton window moment.” But future threats to democracy won’t always be so farcical.