Michael Moore’s ‘Fahrenheit 11/9’ challenges Trumpism at its neoliberal roots
At a time when the neoliberal McResistance™ has embraced the CIA and FBI as valiant heroes supposedly defending our putative democracy from the Cheeto Mussolini, Michael Moore’s new documentary comes as a breath of fresh air.
Fahrenheit 11/9 is anything but a superficial tale of a brainless and ineffectual orange marionette catering to the whims of a dastardly Russian bogeyman — that is to say, how MSNBC would have us see Donald Trump. On the contrary, this film is precisely what is needed: an enlightening and entertaining cinematic diagnosis of the rapid decay of the United States of America in the age of Trumpism, from a left-wing perspective that is willing to tear down liberal idols when necessary.
I would highly recommend the documentary, especially for those who live outside of the US and want to get a crash course on the trials and tribulations that have rocked this country in recent years — from the poisoning of the majority-Black residents of Flint, Michigan; to the paroxysm of mass shootings; to the Big Pharma-induced opioid epidemic; to the hyper-militarized police state and its drive for perpetual war; to the barbarous terrorizing of immigrants. (In one of the most striking moments, the last surviving Nuremberg trials prosecutor, 99-year-old Ben Ferencz, tells Moore forthrightly that Trump’s policy of separating young immigrant children from their families is a crime against humanity.)
The movie also highlights the actual, real resistance to this systemic crisis — from wildcat teacher strikes spreading across the South, to a new wave of open socialists organizing the grassroots and running for office, to Indigenous resistance at Standing Rock.
Fahrenheit 11/9 correctly — and terrifyingly — details the very serious threat that Trump and Trumpism pose, to all of us. But, crucially, it goes much deeper.
The documentary explores precisely who and what is responsible for giving birth to the monstrous far-right Donald Trump regime — and over a period of decades, not just a year or two.
While it is clear that Moore is a Democratic partisan, he is far from just a party hack. His film rightly characterizes the Democrats as neoliberal centrists who lose because they are always willing to compromise and never willing to fight.
The documentary is extremely critical of Barack Obama for his objectively right-wing policies (Obama’s shameful betrayal of Flint looms large), and Moore correctly identifies the Wall Street-funded ex-president as a facilitator of the Trumpification of America.
Likewise, Moore even more explicitly condemns the Clintons as the figures who paved the gilded path to Trumpism. The movie chronicles Bill Clinton’s wholehearted embrace of neoliberalism, from his cultivation of mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex, to his wanton gutting of welfare. It also looks at how Hillary Clinton utterly failed to even pretend to represent the working class, and how, instead of campaigning in key Rust Belt states, she spent her time filling her campaign coffers at opulent dinners hosted by corporate oligarchs.
While Moore did eventually campaign for Hillary, after initially endorsing Bernie Sanders in the primary, his film documents how the Democratic Party rigged the primary against the insurgent social-democratic presidential candidate, climaxing in the DNC’s outright theft of states from Sanders at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Fahrenheit 11/9 also astutely identifies how the corporate media pilloried Sanders, and really anyone to the left of Ronald Reagan, while preaching centrist piffle and extolling the virtues of the all-knowing Free Market. The film singles out the US newspaper of record, The New York Times, as the Voice of Conventional Wisdom that just so happens to support every corporate bailout and sell every war, while relentlessly demonizing Sanders and the broader left.
And then there is the corporate media’s profligate promotion of Trump. Disgraced CBS CEO Les Moonves really sums it all up when he proclaims that Trump’s far-right campaign “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS… The money’s rolling in, and this is fun!”
One cannot help but roar in simultaneous anger-laughter at Moore’s montage of top cable news networks broadcasting an empty MAGA-emblazoned pulpit, trying desperately to fill an hour of dead time as they waited obediently for the racist billionaire to arrive late to a campaign rally.
Even more piercingly, the documentary uses the intentional, government-sponsored lead poisoning of the water used by Flint’s mostly Black residents for corporate profits — under the leadership of venture capitalist plutocrat-cum-Michigan-governor/dictator Rick Snyder — as a synecdoche for the political crisis engulfing the US as a whole. To Moore, Snyder was a Trumpian presage, and the fact that his crimes essentially got Obama’s stamp of approval only further demonstrates how widely the blame goes around.
Impressively, Fahrenheit 11/9 also manages to largely ignore the farcical charade of Russiagate, which since Trump’s election on November 9, 2016 (hence the title of the film) has become a mouth-foaming liberal obsession. The two-hour movie only mentions the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin twice, in passing, and even then as just a minor factor in Trumpism.
The documentary is not without its weaknesses. It loses direction in the final quarter, and it appears that Moore was not quite sure sure how to end it (a daunting decision, given the stakes). In this last 30 minutes, the film descends a bit into the hyperbolic as well. True, the US could well be a lone Reichstag fire away from becoming the Fourth Reich; or Trump could be more of a Berlusconi-style (or, frankly, even Churchill-esque) figure than a Hiterlian one. Only time will tell.
Moreover, international politics — that is to say, the politics of the 95 percent of the planet outside of the United States — fades into the background (as is so customary in social-democratic works), and foreign leaders as disparate as Xi Jinping, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Kim Jong-un are reduced to an amorphous blob of oriental despotism.
The tone is sometimes confusing, alternating between hopeful optimism and abject despair. Moore is rather pollyannaish in his view of the US: He argues that this is a “leftist country,” by correctly pointing to many of the progressive policies that are supported by the vast majority of Americans (eg, single-payer health care, stronger social services, a decrease in military spending, etc.). It is indisputably true that these social-democratic programs are overwhelmingly backed by the working class, but it is quite a stretch to portray support for policies that are commonplace, and taken for granted even by hegemonic conservative political parties, throughout most of the industrialized world as a sign that the US is a “leftist country” — although the intent of Moore’s argument is clear, even if the language is not useful, and the point is well taken.
I also found it questionable for Moore to include numerous interview clips with the historian Timothy Snyder, discussing contemporary parallels with the history of classical fascism, given scholars like Snyder himself bear significant responsibility for popularizing the fascist-apologist myth of Double Genocide, effectively whitewashing the unique crimes of Nazism in order to portray the Soviet Union (which did the vast majority of the work in defeating Nazism) and communism as a whole as somehow morally equivalent to fascism. But as with so many avowed Cold Warriors, Snyder has transformed himself into a Resistance™-style liberal darling in the age of Trumpism.
Fahrenheit 11/9’s faults are balanced by its sense of humor. As with Moore’s other works, the film has its share of comic relief — a refreshing trait a good many serious leftists could learn from. From blasting the Pagliacci aria “Vesti la giubba” as a different kind of tragic clown won the 2016 presidential election, to overdubbing Trump’s voice on footage of Hitler from Triumph of the Will, Moore’s characteristic irony is disarming, even when he is grappling with the macabre. There is likewise a surprising clip of fascistic demagogue Steve Bannon, the erstwhile Trump chief strategist and chief of “alt-right” bible Breitbart, applauding Moore for his virtuosic filmmaking.
And its politics aside (although they are quite good too), Fahrenheit 11/9 is indeed just that: simply top-notch, enjoyable filmmaking.
Michael Moore is known popularly as a bleeding-heart liberal, and critics have long accused him of preaching to the choir. It is likely that most of the people who watch this film will be not the Bannons of the world, but rather those who are already somewhere vaguely on the left side of the spectrum.
But in the case of Fahrenheit 11/9, this is not a bad thing at all. In fact, it is precisely those neoliberal Democrats who believe that Putin personally hacked into Trump’s brain and that any criticism of Hillary Clinton was a Russian/FBI/Bernie bro plot who need to see this film. The documentary should encourage deep introspection and self-criticism from liberal centrists who have spent decades externalizing their problems and blaming the GOP for a decades-long right-wing lurch that they themselves gladly facilitated.
Fahrenheit 11/9 is far from propaganda for the Democratic Party. Sure, Moore has undeniably thrown in his lot with the Democrats, but he is by no means an uncritical yes-man.
The film is an even-handed and entertaining dive into the sinister bowels of American politics at a time of unprecedented crisis, confusion, and imperial decline. It will make you angry; it will horrify you; it might even bring you to tears. And most importantly it will inspire you to act, to try to stop the cancerous growth of neo-fascism before it is too late.
Originally published at bennorton.com on October 3, 2018.