About halfway through Michael Moore’s new film Fahrenheit 11/9, footage begins of a speech by Hitler to a packed Nazi convention hall. But the voice we hear is Donald Trump’s and the noise that accompanies the stiff-arm salutes is the baying crowd at a Trump rally.
I heard gasps among the London audience at this: some of recognition, some of shock at the audacity of the parallel. But Moore is unrepentant: “I was not saying that Trump was Hitler but maybe that Hitler was Trump. Liberals are often too afraid to say what’s really going on and are always wanting to look reasonable,” he tells me, when we meet over breakfast in London. “Being reasonable right now is not gonna win this fight.”
Up close Moore is cannier than the onscreen reporter who occasionally resorts to gonzo techniques to rile his adversaries. But, in his trademark checked shirt and baseball cap, he still manages to exude unkemptness into the upmarket hotel restaurant where his PR people have positioned him. He is, just as much as the slick professionals who report American politics from inside the Beltway, on top of facts and figures, at one stage throwing out the exact number of votes George W Bush won by in 2004.
In the movie, Moore highlights a German Jewish newspaper, which, after Hitler took power in 1933, assured readers that the Führer’s genocidal rhetoric could never be enacted, because of the German constitution. Fahrenheit 11/9 draws a direct parallel with the complacency of America’s liberal media today.
Trump’s administration, says Moore, has admitted “they are at war with us: against the poor, people of colour, against women. They just got a person appointed to the Supreme Court that gives them enough votes for the first time in a long time to make abortion illegal. So, anybody who is wanting to play nice right now needs to rethink.”
Moore’s film begins with the tragi-comedy of Trump’s election victory. He forces us to relive the agonising period between the close of voting and the moment Trump declared victory. But then he veers into territory the American media rarely sets foot into: the working-class world of Flint, Michigan, his hometown, suffering from a politically inflicted water poisoning scandal; West Virginia, where teachers began a strike against coercive employment contracts that spread nationwide; and the aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, when students launched a national walkout to protest America’s gun laws.
Moore shows in excruciating detail how the loss of hope – and votes – in the states that swung to Trump was prepared by decades of Democrat Party compromise with the corporate agenda. And he shows, by contrast, the unacknowledged scale of grass-roots resistance: the strikes, protests, whistleblowing and walkouts.
But is the resistance he celebrates capable of anything more than tactical and gestural victories against Trump? “Absolutely,” says Moore. “It’s important to point out that Hillary Clinton won the poor and working-class vote. When they say ‘working class’ the image is of the white guy. But the working class is women, people of colour, young people – those are the people who make the least amount of money – those three groups represent almost 68 percent of the American population.”
The price of Democratic Party failure is, however, made painfully clear in the film. Trump’s threat to ordinary Americans is not just the perpetuation of economic and racial inequality: we are, says Moore, just one 9/11 style event away from giving Trump an excuse to take extra-constitutional powers. He shows Trump publicly and repeatedly floating the idea of becoming president for a 16-year term; he records Fox News floating the idea of cancelling the 2020 election.
In a chilling sequence, we see the US military conducting an unannounced live-fire exercise against derelict buildings in the heart of Flint, without explanation to a terrified local population. Flint’s population had already seen its public health bombed, metaphorically, by the decision of Michigan’s Republican governor Rick Snyder to divert its water supply from the clean and vast Lake Huron to the filthy and polluted Flint River, leading to widespread lead poisoning among children and, inevitably, a cover-up.
“People are really shocked when they see the bombing of Flint,” says Moore. “It’s the first thing they google when they leave the cinema. They come out saying, ‘How come I didn’t know about this?’ Here’s why – you get people like Trump when you dumb down a country and it doesn’t have a broad press. Back in the day you would have known. Because in Detroit 45 minutes to the south there were full-time news bureaus for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NBC, ABC, CBS, Reuters, AP… there’s no way you could have bombed that city – for ten days and ten nights – and nobody knew.”
Moore follows grass-roots activists for whom resistance on one issue, or at local scale, has turned into a political challenge to decades of Democratic Party indifference. There is Richard Ojeda, a former major with 24 years military experience, who is standing for Congress in West Virginia; there is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young activist from the Occupy generation who challenged the Democrat establishment in the Bronx; and Rashida Tlaib, who is set to become America’s first Muslim congresswoman in November. Moore’s film shows Tlaib being dragged out of a Trump rally in Detroit during the presidential election.
Given the stakes, I ask Moore if it isn’t a risky strategy to put a swathe of new, leftish, untested candidates up against the Republicans. Wouldn’t it better serve the people of Flint or West Virginia to field machine candidates who know how to win?
“No they don’t!” he retorts “They don’t win. They are useless. The parties as they exist are over – but nobody’s really saying that. All these new candidates are not running because they are part of the Democratic Party infrastructure.
“Nothing has organised this election other than people’s anger towards Trump. There’s no group that’s put this together. But we’ve got a record number of women on the ballot; a record number of 18-35 year-olds, a record number of people of colour.”
Moore believes, despite the vast sums of money being spent by the Republicans, and the haplessness of the Democrat leadership in Congress, there could be serious gains for the left in November’s midterms. He hopes the Democrats can win the House, and that the victory of new, left candidates could double the number of progressives, allowing them to replace Nancy Pelosi in the speaker’s chair. If he’s right, then while American politics looks rancid at the top, it is about to be busted open from below.
“Things are happening on their own,” says Moore. “In the 2016 election in Michigan, which Hillary lost by 10,700 votes, 90,00 people went to the polls and voted for every position right down to ‘drain commissioner’, but left the top box [for the presidency] blank. Most were Democratic voters. Ninety thousand people in Michigan stood in line for an hour just to say fuck you to the Democratic Party. People did that on their own. And that’s what’s happening with the people running now.”
Moore is, however, not complacent. He believes a combination of gerrymandered districts, voter suppression and media manipulation could still hand Trump a second victory in 2020, even if the Democrats turn Clinton’s three million majority in the popular vote into four or five million. He believes large parts of the corporate elite have now bought into the Trump project, even if they didn’t see him coming.
“It’s not just the record tax cut that they got. It’s everything that’s going on, on a daily basis, in the federal departments. In the Environmental Protection Agency, how they’re ripping apart the infrastructure of the federal government. How they’re giving away land to oil companies – all the stuff that doesn’t make the papers. This is making corporate America and the banks very happy.”
Though there is consternation on Wall Street over Trump’s trade war, his recklessness in foreign policy and his politicisation of the judiciary, Moore argues that “the new rich of the last 20 years have understood that everything is in chaos and they’d better grab what they can when they can”.
Fahrenheit 11/9 is an uncompromising wake-up call. Yes, it’s filmed in the same style as all Moore’s other movies, with talking heads, montages of news footage and a couple of stunts (he attempts a citizen’s arrest of Governor Snyder). But its aim, ultimately, is to tell a story the US corporate elite don’t want us to hear. It’s the necessary obverse of an American news media that has become a form of vacuous entertainment.
Watching it, the uncomfortable thought struck me that no UK broadcast news commissioner I know, and no funder of British documentaries, would have been remotely interested in making this film. That’s why we need Michael Moore. As Moore himself chuckles: “It is a bit of a mindfuck and it’s hard to watch, but it is necessary.”
“Fahrenheit 11/9” is in cinemas now
This article appears in the 17 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s civil war