“Fahrenheit 11/9,” the title of Michael Moore’s new film that opens today in theaters, is an obvious play on the title of his wildly profitable Bush-era “Fahrenheit 9/11,” but also a reference to the date of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 election victory. Despite that, Trump himself is a secondary figure in Moore’s film, which is far more focused on the far more relevant and interesting questions of what – and, critically, who – created the climate in which someone like Trump could occupy the Oval Office.
For that reason alone, Moore’s film is highly worthwhile regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum. The single most significant defect in U.S. political discourse is the monomaniacal focus on Trump himself, as though he is the cause – rather than the by-product and symptom – of decades-old systemic American pathologies.
Personalizing and isolating Trump as the principal, even singular, source of political evil is obfuscating and thus deceitful. By effect, if not design, it distracts the population’s attention away from the actual architects of their plight.
This now-dominant framework misleads people into the nationalistic myth – at once both frightening and comforting – that prior to 2016’s “Fahrenheit 11/9,” the U.S., though quite imperfect and saddled with “flaws,” was nonetheless a fundamentally kind, benevolent, equitable and healthy democracy, one which, by aspiration if not always in action, welcomed immigrants, embraced diversity, strove for greater economic equality, sought to defend human rights against assaults by the world’s tyrants, was governed by the sturdy rule of law rather than the arbitrary whims of rulers, elected fundamentally decent even if ideologically misguided men to the White House, and gradually expanded rather than sadistically abolished opportunity for the world’s neediest.
But suddenly, teaches this fairy tale as ominous music plays in the background, a villain unlike any we had previously known invaded our idyllic land, vandalized our sacred public spaces, degraded our admired halls of power, threatened our collective values. It was only upon Trump’s assumption of power that the nation’s noble aspirations were repudiated in favor of a far darker and more sinister vision, one wholly alien to “Who We Are”: a profoundly “un-American” tapestry of plutocracy, kleptocracy, autocracy, xenophobia, racism, elite lawlessness, indifference and even aggressive cruelty toward the most vulnerable and marginalized.
This myth is not just false but self-evidently so. Yet it persists, and thrives, because it serves so many powerful interests at once. Most importantly, it exonerates, empowers, and elevates the pre-Trump ruling class, now recast as heroic leaders of the #Resistance and nostalgic symbols of America’s pre-11/9 Goodness.
The lie-fueled destruction of Vietnam and Iraq, the worldwide torture regime, the 2008 financial collapse and subsequent bailout and protection of those responsible for it, the foreign kidnapping and domestic rounding up of Muslims, the record-setting Obama-era deportations and whistleblower prosecutions, the obliteration of Yemen and Libya, the embrace of Mubarak, Sisi, and Saudi despots, the years of bipartisan subservience to Wall Street at everyone else’s expense, the full-scale immunity vested on all the elites responsible for all those crimes – it’s all blissfully washed away as we unite to commemorate the core decency of America as George Bush gently hands a piece of candy to Michelle Obama at the funeral of the American War Hero and Trump-opponent-in-words John S. McCain, or as hundreds of thousands of us re-tweet the latest bromide of Americana from the leaders of America’s most insidious security state, spy and police agencies.
In NYC to meet with my publisher. Hope leadership book will be useful. Reassuring to see Lady Liberty standing tall even in rough weather. pic.twitter.com/KIjb29k2Cg
— James Comey (@Comey) December 6, 2017
Beyond nationalistic myth-building, there are substantial commercial, political and reputational benefits to this Trump-centered mythology. An obsessive fixation on Trump has single-handedly saved an entire partisan cable news network from extinction, converting its once ratings-starved, close-to-being-fired prime-time hosts into major celebrities with contracts so obscenely lucrative as to produce envy among most professional athletes or Hollywood stars.
Resistance grifters exploit fears of Trump to build massive social media followings that are easily converted into profit from well-meaning, manipulated dupes. One rickety, unhinged, rant-filled, speculation-driven Trump book after the next dominates the best-seller lists, enriching charlatans and publishing companies alike: the more conspiratorial, the better. Anti-Trump mania is big business, and – as the record-shattering first-week sales of Bob Woodward’s new Trump book demonstrates – there is no end in sight to this profiteering.
All of this is historical revisionism in its crudest and most malevolent form. It’s intended to heap most if not all blame for systemic, enduring, entrenched suffering across the country onto a single personality who wielded no political power until 18 months ago. In doing so, it averts everyone’s eyes away from the real culprits: the governors, both titled and untitled, of the establishment ruling class, who for decades have exercised largely unchecked power – immune even from election outcomes – and, in many senses, still do.
WATCH: Bipartisanship: Laura Bush, via President Bush, hands a piece of candy to Michelle Obama during the memorial service for John McCain. pic.twitter.com/PhKPYCOiUz
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) September 1, 2018
The message is as clear as the beneficial outcomes: Just look only at Trump. Keep your eyes fixated on him. Direct all your suffering, deprivations, fears, resentments, anger and energy to him and him alone. By doing so, you’ll forget about us – except that we’ll join you in your Trump-centered crusade, even lead you in it, and you will learn again to love us: the real authors of your misery.
The overriding value of “Fahrenheit 11/9” is that it avoids – in fact, aggressively rejects – this ahistorical manipulation. Moore dutifully devotes a few minutes at the start of his film to Trump’s rise, and then asks the question that dominates the rest of it, the one the political and media establishment has steadfastly avoided examining except in the most superficial and self-protective ways: “how the fuck did this happen”?
Knowing that no political work can be commercially successful on a large-scale without affirming Resistance clichés, Moore dutifully complies, but only with the most cursory and fleeting gestures: literally 5 seconds in the film are devoted to assigning blame for Hillary’s loss to Putin and Comey. With that duty discharged, he sets his sights on his real targets: the U.S. political establishment that is ensconced within both parties, along with the financial elites who own and control both of them for their own ends.
Moore quickly escapes the dreary and misleading “Democrat v. GOP” framework that dominates cable news by trumpeting “the largest political party in America”: those who refuse to vote. He uses this powerful graphic to tell that story:
It’s remarkable how little attention is paid to non-voters given that, as Moore rightly notes, they form America’s largest political faction. Part of why they’re ignored is moralism: those who don’t vote deserve no attention as they have only themselves to blame.
But the much more consequential factor is the danger for both parties from delving too deeply into this subject. After all, voter apathy arises when people conclude that their votes don’t change their lives, that election outcomes improve nothing, that the small amount of time spent waiting in line at a voting booth isn’t worth the effort because of how inconsequential it is. What greater indictment of the two political parties can one imagine than that?
One of the most illuminating pieces of reporting about the 2016 election is also, not coincidentally, one of the most ignored: interviews by the New York Times with white and African-American working-class voters in Milwaukee who refused to vote and – even knowing that Trump won Wisconsin, and thus the presidency, largely because of their decision – don’t regret it. “Milwaukee is tired. Both of them were terrible. They never do anything for us anyway,” the article quotes an African-American barber, justifying his decision not to vote in 2016 after voting twice for Obama.
Moore develops the same point, even more powerfully, about his home state of Michigan, which – like Wisconsin – Trump also won after Obama won it twice. In one of the most powerful and devastating passages from the film – indeed, of any political documentary seen in quite some time – “Fahrenheit 11/9” takes us in real-time through the indescribably shameful water crisis of Flint, the criminal cover-up of it by GOP Governor Rick Snyder, and the physical and emotional suffering endured by its poor, voiceless, and overwhelmingly black residents.
After many months of abuse, of being lied to, of being poisoned, Flint residents, in May, 2016, finally had a cause for hope: President Obama announced that he would visit Flint to address the water crisis. As Air Force One majestically lands, Flint residents rejoice, believing that genuine concern, political salvation, and drinkable water had finally arrived.
Exactly the opposite happened. Obama delivered a speech in which he not only appeared to minimize, but to mock, concerns of Flint residents over the lead levels in their water, capped off by a grotesquely cynical political stunt where he flamboyantly insisted on having a glass of filtered tap water that he then pretended to drink, but in fact only used to wet his lips, ingesting none of it.
A friendly meeting with Gov. Snyder after that – during which Obama repeated the same water stunt – provided the GOP state administration in Michigan with ample Obama quotes to exploit to prove the problem was fixed, and for Flint residents, it was the final insult. “When President Obama came here,” an African-American community leader in Flint tells Moore, “he was my President. When he left, he wasn’t.”
Like the unregretful non-voters of Milwaukee, the collapsed hope Obama left in his wake as he departed Flint becomes a key metaphor in Moore’s hands for understanding Trump’s rise. Moore suggests to John Podesta, who seems to agree, that Hillary lost Michigan because, as in Wisconsin, voters, in part after seeing what Obama did in Flint, concluded it was no longer worth voting. As Moore narrates:
The autocrat, the strongman, only succeeds when the vast majority of the population decides they’ve seen enough, and give up. . . . . The worst thing that President Obama did was pave the way for Donald Trump. Because Donald Trump did not just fall from the sky. The road to him was decades in the making.
The long, painful, extraordinarily compelling journey through Flint is accompanied by an equally illuminating immersion in West Virginia, one that brings into further vivid clarity the misery, deprivation, and repression that drove so many people – for good reason – away from the political establishment and into the arms of anyone promising to destroy it: from the 2008 version of Obama to Bernie Sanders to Jill Stein to Donald Trump to abstaining entirely from voting.
We meet the teachers who led the inspiring state-wide strike, some of whom are paid so little that they are on food stamps. We hear how their own union leaders tried (and failed) first to prevent the strike, then prematurely tried (and failed) to end it with trivial concessions.
We meet Richard Ojeda, an Iraq and Afghanistan War veteran, Democratic State Senator, and current Congressional candidate, who tells Moore: “Our town is dying. One out of every four homes is in a dilapidated state . . . . I can take you five minutes from here and show you where our kids have it worse than the kids I saw in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Needless to say, all of that began and took root long before Donald Trump descended the Trump Tower escalator in 2015.
To Moore’s credit, virtually no powerful U.S. factions escape indictment in “Fahrenheit 11/9.” The villains of Flint and West Virginia are two Republican governors. But their accomplices, every step of the way, are Democrats. This, Moore ultimately argues, is precisely why people had lost faith in the ability of elections generally, and the Democratic Party specifically, to improve their lives.
And in stark and impressive contrast to the endless intra-Democrat war over the primacy of race versus class, Moore adeptly demonstrates that the overwhelmingly African-American population of Flint and the largely white impoverished West Virginians have far more in common than they have differences: from the methods of their repression to those responsible for it. “Fahrenheit 11/9” does not shy away from, but unflinchingly confronts, the questions of race and class in America and ultimately concludes – and proves – that they are inextricably intertwined, that a discussion of (and solution to) one is impossible without a discussion of (and solution to) the other.
No examination of voter apathy and the perceived irrelevance of elections would be complete without an ample study of the 2016 Democratic Party primary process that led to Hillary Clinton’s ultimately doomed nomination. And this is another area where Moore excels. Focusing on one little-known but amazing fact – that Bernie Sanders won all 55 counties over Clinton in the West Virginia primary, beating her by 16 points in a state where she crushed Obama in 2008, yet, at the Democratic Convention, somehow ended up with fewer delegates than she received – Moore interviews a Sanders supporter in West Virginia about the message this bizarre discrepancy sent.
Moore asks: “This just tells people to stay home?” The voter replies: “I think so.” Moore offers his own conclusion through narration: “When the people are continually told that their vote doesn’t count, that it doesn’t matter, and they end up believing that, the loss of faith in our democracy becomes our deathknell.”
With all of this harrowing and depressing evidence compiled, it becomes easier and easier to understand why Americans are either receptive to anyone vowing to dismantle rather than uphold the system they have rightly come to despise, or just abstain altogether. And it becomes even easier to understand why the guardians of that system view Trump as the most valuable weapon they could have ever imagined wielding: one that allows them to direct everyone’s attention away from the systemic damage they have wrought for decades.
Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of political films. There are those whose filmmaker fully shares your political outlook, mentality and ideology, and thus produces a film that, in each scene, validates and strengthens your views. There are those by filmmakers whose politics are so anathema to yours that you find no value in the film and are only repelled by it. Then there are those that do a combination of all those things, causing you to love parts, hate other parts, and feel unsure about the rest.
Without doubt, “Fahrenheit 11/9” falls into the latter category. It’s literally impossible to imagine someone who would love, or hate, all of the scenes and messages of this film.
Indeed, for all the praise I just heaped on it, there were several parts I found banal, meandering, misguided and, in one case, downright loathsome: a lurid, pointless, reckless, and deeply offensive digression into the long-standing, adolescent #Resistance theme that Trump wants to have sex with, if he has not in fact already had sex with, his own daughter, Ivanka. What makes the inclusion of this trash all the more tragic is that it comes very near the beginning of the film, and thus will almost certainly repel – for good reasons – large numbers of people, including more reluctant and open-minded Trump supporters, who would be otherwise quite receptive to the important parts of the film that constitute its crux.
Then there is the last 20 minutes, devoted to a direct comparison between Trump and Hitler. I am not someone who opposes the use of Nazism as a window for understanding contemporary political developments. To the contrary, I’ve written previously about how anti-intellectual and dangerous is the now-standard internet decree (inaccurately referred to as Godwin’s Law) that Nazi comparisons are and should be off-limits.
As the Nuremberg prosecutors (one of whom appears in the film) themselves pointed out during the post-war trial of Nazis: those tribunals were not primarily about punishing war criminals but about establishing principles to prevent future occurrences. There are real and substantive lessons to be drawn from the rise of Hitler when it comes to understanding the ascension of contemporary global movements of authoritarianism, and this last part of “Fahrenheit 11/9” features some of those in a reasonably responsible and informative manner.
Ultimately, though, this last part of the film is marred by cheap and manipulative stunts, the worst of which is combining video of a Hitler speech overlaid with audio of a Trump speech, with no real effort made to justify this equation. Comparing any political figure to someone who oversaw the genocide of millions of human beings requires great care, sensitivity, and intellectual sophistication, and there is sadly little of that in Moore’s invocation (which at times feels like exploitation) of Nazism.
There are, without doubt, people who will most love the exact parts of the film I most disliked. And those same people will likely hate many of the parts I found most compelling. But that’s precisely why Moore’s film is so worth your time no matter your ideology, so worth enduring even the parts that you will find disagreeable or even infuriating.
Because – in contrast to the endless armies of cable news hosts, Twitter pundits, #Resistance grifters, and party operatives, all of whom are vested due to self-interest in perpetuating the same deceitful, simple-minded and obfuscating narrative – Moore, for most of this film, is at least trying. And what he’s trying is of unparalleled importance: not to take the cheap route of exclusively denouncing Trump but to take the more complicated, challenging, and productive route of understanding who and what created the climate in which Trump could thrive.
Embedded in the instruction of those who want to you focus exclusively on Trump is an insidious and toxic message: namely, removing Trump will cure, or at least mitigate, the acute threats he poses. That is a fraud, and Moore knows it. Unless and until the roots of these pathologies are identified and addressed, we are certain to have more Trumps: in fact, more effective and more dangerous Trumps, along with more potent Dutertes, and more Brexits, and more Bolsonaros and more LePens.
Moore could have easily made a film that just channeled and fueled standard anti-Trump fears and animus and – like the others who are doing that – made lots of money, been widely hailed, and won lots of accolades. He chose instead to dig deeper, to be more honest, to take the harder route, and deserves real credit for that.
He did that, it seems clear, because he knows that the only way to move forward is not just to reject right-wing demagoguery but also the sham that masquerades as its #Resistance. As Moore himself put it: “sometimes it takes a Donald Trump to get us to realize that we have to get rid of the whole rotten system that gave us Trump.”
That’s exactly the truth that the guardians of that “whole rotten system” want most to conceal. Moore’s film is devoted, at its core, to unearthing it. That’s why, despite its flaws, some of them serious ones, the film deserves wide attention and discussion among everyone across the political spectrum.