Everyone should see Fahrenheit 11/9, Michael Moore’s new film about the Trump era. Yes, even if you’re a conservative or relatively apolitical. You will no doubt find large parts of it exasperating; I could name you half a dozen things I disagree with Moore about, even though I’m completely on board with his basic thesis. But Moore’s movie offers far better fodder for serious political discussions than a month’s worth of newspapers or cable news shows. It’s rich with material and even though it sprawls across a number of topics, it at least offers us all a starting point for our discussions and arguments.
What’s particularly satisfying and surprising about Fahrenheit 11/9 is that for a film about Donald Trump, it isn’t really about Trump. It’s actually far more complex and interesting than its publicity materials imply. Instead of simply lambasting the president, Moore is interested in “Trump’s America,” the country that made Donald Trump and put him in power. He knows that Trump isn’t just an aberrational bundle of character flaws who occupies the Oval Office by sheer chance. Trump embodies the worst characteristics of the nation itself: greed, narcissism, prejudice, hatefulness, and he is powerful because for decades, American politics has tended to nourish those tendencies rather than restrain them.
In probing beyond Trump, and trying to look at the “soul” of his country, Moore usefully reorients our political conversations. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day melodrama of the White House: the investigations, conspiracies, sudden resignations. Moore doesn’t do this. He talks about James Comey and Vladimir Putin for about 10 seconds. His film is far more focused on issues that seem, on the surface, only tangentially related to Trump, such as the Flint water crisis and the West Virginia teachers’ strike. For Moore, the United States’ problem is not just that a morally repugnant man occupies the Oval Office. It is that the country’s political process itself has become so dysfunctional and useless that it is incapable of solving the most basic problems in ordinary people’s lives. We don’t just need to get rid of Trump. We need a politics that actually delivers for people.
It’s truly heartening how much of the film Moore devotes to the West Virginia teachers, the Parkland students, Flint activists, left political candidates, and the everyday people who are doing what they can to actually (as opposed to rhetorically or symbolically) resist. Moore talks to teachers who are barely subsisting, and who were required to wear FitBits just to keep their state health insurance affordable. He shows how they refused to put up with it: They defied their union leadership, banded together with bus drivers and cafeteria workers, and refused to do their job until the conditions were satisfactory. Fahrenheit 11/9 shows real-life examples of how stubborn activists can actually get the job done: The teachers win concessions, a candidate who nastily insulted Parkland activist Emma Gonzalez is forced to quit his race, and Palestinian American socialist Rashida Tlaib is dragged out of a Donald Trump event for disruptive behavior before winning a congressional race. The tone of the film is, on the whole, bleak (it begins with the question “How the fuck did this happen?”) but unlike so many critics, Moore actually offers an answer to the audience’s inevitable question “What do we do about it?” You can do what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did, he says. Or what the teachers did. Or what the students did. Moore shows Parkland teenagers confronting their befuddled and outwitted state representatives, and people like Richard Ojeda with no prior political experience running on uncompromising pro-labor platforms.
The Flint water crisis is returned to repeatedly throughout the film. Here, the main villain is not Donald Trump but Michigan’s ex-CEO governor Rick Snyder. Moore draws a connection between Snyder’s promise to run the state like a business and his indifference to the contamination of a poor population’s water supply. Flint’s experience is a parable about inequality: GM managed to escape the crisis after Flint’s contaminated water was found to be corroding engine parts. The company arranged to get clean water from elsewhere, while the residents of Flint were still drinking and bathing from bottles. Moore speaks to an Iraq veteran in Flint who says that conditions in her town are worse than she saw on her tour of duty.
Viewers might wonder what the extended detour into Flint’s troubles has to do with Donald Trump. Everything, Moore says. In Michigan, Trump won by only 10,000 votes. Yet there were 80,000 people who actually showed up to cast ballots in 2016 yet left the line for president blank. There were far more who didn’t vote at all. Moore suggests that neglect has led to disenchantment, and disenchantment has made room for the rise of Trump. Moore thinks we are trapped in a downward spiral: As inequality has worsened, people have lost faith in government, and the disengagement of neglected voters in places like Flint will allow the further consolidation of power in the hands of Trumpian rich elites.
For this, Barack Obama and the Democratic Party receive a good portion of the blame. Moore singles out Obama’s handling of the Flint crisis as particularly pitiful. Obama flew into town, took a small sip of the local water, gave a speech filled with his usual reassuring platitudes, and flew out of town again. To Moore, Obama’s presidency showed the flaws in liberal politics that paved the way for Trump: Obama spoke upliftingly but failed to fight entrenched interests, taking Wall Street’s money and dithering for nearly two years before finally declaring a state of emergency in Flint. Obama’s Defense Department even used Flint, without warning, as a training ground for urban warfare exercises terrifying the residents with explosions and helicopters. Moore is scathingly critical of the way Democrats have showed contempt for the interests and preferences of working people. He points out the perversity of the “superdelegate” system in the presidential primary, which meant that in West Virginia, Hillary Clinton was awarded more delegates than Bernie Sanders even though Sanders won every single county in the state. As millennial voters have become increasingly critical of capitalism, Democratic leaders have dismissed them, worsening the prospects for a strong left opposition to austerity policies.
One of Moore’s most important points is that if the majority’s preferences were reflected in political policy, the United States would be a firmly leftist country. Most Americans support single-payer healthcare, tuition-free college, paid family leave, legalized marijuana, a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, and a host of other policies that have somehow been pushed to the fringes in Washington, D.C. itself. Moore points out that Democrats control almost no state governments and none of the three branches of the federal government, even though they have won the popular vote in nearly every presidential election for the past 30 years. (Funnily, the Wall Street Journal’s reviewer, who hated the film, seems to have stepped out for popcorn during this segment, since he writes “Mr. Moore is going to castigate Mrs. Clinton for her various electoral missteps—among them, devoting insufficient attention to Mr. Moore’s beloved upper Midwest—shouldn’t he mention that despite losing in the Electoral College she still won the popular vote by 3 million?”) Moore asks Democrats to face up to the obvious: They have been losing because they haven’t been doing what people want them to do, namely fight hard for left policies that will make people’s lives better. He shows a hilarious montage of Democratic Party bigwigs saying the word “compromise,” which sometimes seems to have become the party’s central policy plank.
Despite the digressions, the film is bookended with discussions of Donald Trump. At the beginning, Moore recaps Trump’s long history of bigotry, cruelty, and creepiness. He recounts familiar but still-disturbing episodes like Trump’s involvement in the Central Park Five case (in which he took out a newspaper ad calling for innocent black teenagers to be executed). Moore features a montage of Trump’s suggestive remarks about his own daughter, though weirdly he declines to remind us about Trump’s documented history of sexual assault (which seems, to me, far more damning than unfounded speculations about his relationship with a woman who has shown him full public support). Moore shows how media figures underestimated the threat he posed, and were happy to help fuel his rise if it served their ratings. (“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” as the now-disgraced Les Moonves said.) Moore does not exempt himself here, and shows icky clips of his own friendly encounters with Trump, Jared Kushner, and Kellyanne Conway. Everyone who laughed at Trump as he became increasingly powerful, though, bears blame.
All of this has led, in Moore’s view, to a perilous political moment. Moore does not shy away from Hitler comparisons. It is not, in his view, that Trump is currently acting like Hitler at his most murderous. It is that Trump has laid the groundwork. Moore suggests that we are “one emergency away” from a dictatorship. Trump has publicly joked about becoming president for life, but Moore says these kinds of ideas, once pushed into the discourse, can become very real very fast. He does not think Trump will surrender power willingly, and worries about a “Reichstag fire” situation, in which a terrorist emergency is used as an excuse to put the country under martial law. Again, he is not saying that this is happening. He is saying that there is little to stop it from happening. Moore even cites a Jewish newspaper of the 1930s, which reassured people that Hitler was not as menacing as he seems, and repeated the familiar liberal faith that the “constitution” would ensure dictatorship never came to Germany. They were naive then, Moore says. Let’s learn the lesson. Movingly, he speaks to the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor, who is not shy himself about drawing parallels.
To make the “Reichstag fire” situation that much more conceivable, Moore ends his film with January’s false missile alert in Hawaii. After a moving sequence showing everyone from striking teachers to Colin Kaepernick fighting back, Moore shows how it could all come unraveled in a second. BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND… THIS IS NOT A DRILL was the text received all over the state at 8:07 AM. People panicked. They jumped in holes, they ran around aimlessly, they said teary goodbyes to friends and family. The text was a mistake; there was no missile inbound. But, Moore says, what if it did happen? We live in a world where the major powers are pointing thousands of nuclear weapons at each other at all times. A slip in human judgment, a bout of insanity, could cause a calamity. And what then? In moments of crisis, when nobody quite knows what to do, power can be seized by opportunists. If you don’t fix the political system before the next moment of opportunity, Moore says, nobody knows what horror awaits. It’s an absolutely chilling ending.
As I say, I disagree with some parts of Fahrenheit 11/9’s analysis, and you wouldn’t be wrong to call it polemical, hyperbolic, and at times unclear. Some connections between events are made emotionally rather than rationally (the connection between the gun control debate and economic inequality, for instance), and Moore does not do nuance. But the film is a discussion-starter: It highlights the genuinely important topics, from the deeper causes of Trump’s rise to the neglect of poor Americans by both political parties. It is nonpartisan, and nobody can accuse Moore of shilling for the Democratic Party. It is urgent, provocative, and funny. It will probably leave you angry, and despite Moore’s general fear and hopelessness, it will also likely leave you inspired by some of the extraordinary people he has profiled. I recommend that everyone see it, think about it, and argue about it.
I also recommend my own attempt at diagnosing the causes of Trump’s rise, Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity. If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation, purchasing a subscription, or supporting our podcast on Patreon. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.