“Michael Moore in TrumpLand” - Michael Moore (2016)

Michael Moore’s most recent documentary, Michael Moore in Trumpland (2016) [1], is something of a departure from what I am used to seeing from the celebrated filmmaker.  Moore’s past hits – these include Roger and Me (1989), the US Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine (2002), the Cannes Palme-d’Or-winning Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), SiCKO (2007), Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), and Where to Invade Next (2015) – have not only won prestigious critics’ awards, but have also done very well at the box office: Fahrenheit 9/11 is the highest grossing documentary film of all time, and SiCKO is the 4th highest grossing documentary film of all time.  And for the most part these films have been carefully structured social polemics fashioned out of a vast compilation of stock footage.  But here in Michael Moore in Trumpland, Moore has gone in a different direction and presented a one-man stage show to argue his point.  Presumably Moore had to do it this way, because he doesn’t have much time: his film concerns the contentious and pivotal US Presidential Election that will take place on November 8th.  He presented his one-man stage show on October 7th and then hastily put the film together so that it could be released to the wider public on October 18th [2].

The election pits two contestants at opposite ends of the political spectrum: Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton against Republican candidate Donald Trump.  And the campaign between the left-wing Clinton and the right-wing Trump has so far been filled with enmity and vituperative personal attacks.  To the average voter, there doesn’t seem to be any common ground where a possible rational discussion could be staged. So it seems that at this point most voters have mindlessly committed themselves to either Clinton or Trump.  How would you then convince any of these voters to change their minds?  This is where Moore enters the picture.

Moore, a Clinton supporter, feels (as I do) that it would be catastrophic for both the US and the world if Trump were to be elected.  But Moore did not try to put together an argument against Trump – that has already been done many times.  Nor did he spend too much time discussing proposed policies.  Instead, he tried to reach out to a critical sector of the voting public that has traditionally been aligned with the Democratic party but which has now become so disaffected with the “establishment” that they may cast their vote for the anti-establishment Trump as a protest vote.  This is the  less-educated, white, working-class sector that has traditionally worked in factories that are now being closed down because of competition from lower-cost overseas manufacturing centers, such as in China.

These white working-class people, who were often members of labor unions that in the past were able to look after their job security, are increasingly losing their jobs, and they feel they have no future.  So they see themselves as victims of globalization, and they blame the establishment for allowing this to happen.  Moore, who grew up in Flint, Michigan, a factory town for General Motors, comes from this same social sector, and he feels that he can speak their language.  So Michael Moore in TrumpLand is Moore’s attempt to spell out what this election means to these people in terms that they can understand..

Actually, the question of how to convey effectively the political values of the progressive left is a worldwide issue, not just one in the US.  By “progressive left” I mean those who align themselves with the political principles that emerged in the 18th century Age of Enlightenment and which was the intellectual basis for the US Founding Fathers. This line of thinking, which has since come to dominate our modernist culture, asserts that the world’s problems can be solved by human reason building on a foundation of human compassion.  However, all over the world the progressive left has been recently losing political ground, because they have not been able to articulate their principles in a simple way to ordinary people.  Thus the majority of people in the UK voted for Brexit, without understanding the advantages of remaining in the European Union, which was established on progressive-left principles.  What is needed is a simple formulation of such principles that can be quickly understood and referenced.  One such formulation is represented by the acronym: RMDL.

RMDL identifies the four Enlightenment-based pillars that are essential for a successful modern society and which I have discussed previously in my reviews of Mohammad Rasoulof’s Head Wind (2008) and Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2013), and also Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012).  The four pillars are
  • (Human) Rights.  These include freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom to watch and listen, freedom from torture, etc. They all relate to fundamental forms of interaction that must be guaranteed and allowed to flourish.
  • Markets.  There needs to be regulated markets that allow for the open exchange of goods and services across society.  This includes necessarily ensuring there is sufficient wealth equity across society so that there can be widespread, fair exchange.
  • Democracy.  Some form of democracy involving universally inclusive enfranchisement needs to be in place.
  • Rule of Law.  There needs to be a written set of laws that are made known to everyone and that can be changed by actions of the democratically-elected government. Such laws provide for regulation of the various interactions in the interests of the public good.
Some political movements may support just one or two of these directions, but the point here is that all four elements of RMDL are necessary and must flourish in order for a society to be successful.  Thus invading Iraq with the intention of installing a democracy but without ensuring human rights and the rule of law will not bring about a satisfactory outcome.  The four RMDL dimensions are relatively general and provide a wide compass for comparative discussion concerning the details.  Thus even a conservative libertarian could subscribe to the basic RMDL platform, although he or she might insist on the right to carry a concealed weapon and that government regulation of markets to reduce wealth disparity should be prohibited.

Overall, if Americans are presented with the RMDL principles, most of them would subscribe to them. And surely Hillary Clinton is staunchly in favor of all four of the RMDL principles, and they undoubtedly represent a foundation of her political approach.  As I said, though, there are some people who might only subscribe to a subset of RMDL.  More interestingly, Donald Trump is rather unique in opposing all four of the RMDL principles:
  • Rights.  Human rights are founded on the notion that they apply to all human beings.  But Trump is opposed to these rights being extended to Mexicans, Muslims, and other people he doesn’t like.
  • Markets.  Trump is openly against free trade, which he thinks is stealing jobs from working-class Americans.
  • Democracy. Trump has expressed his doubts about the institution of American democracy, and he has suggested that if he is not elected, his followers should stage a rebellion.
  • Rule of Law.  Trump has announced that if elected he will issue autocratic decrees to get what he wants.  In this way, he presents himself as a tin-pot populist dictator, like Vladimir Putin, who ignores the rule of law.
Looking at matters, then, from the perspective of RMDL, the election outcome should be straightforward:
  1. most Americans presumably support the RMDL principles, 
  2. Trump clearly rejects all of them, 
  3. so most Americans should not support Trump.  
But it is not working out so simply.  There still seem to be many in-principle RMDL-sympathetic people who are intending to vote for Trump, as a protest against the establishment.  These people are, as Michael Moore has emphasized, the American “Brexit” voters, and Moore has identified four US states – Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – as “Brexit states”, where they are concentrated. So Moore decided to reach out to them and see if could appeal to them in their terms. His one-man stage show was presented at a theater in Wilmington, Ohio, a working-class area that overwhelmingly supports Trump.  At the event, at least half of those present were Clinton supporters, but there was still a substantial number of Trump supporters who had the curiosity to attend.

Moore, of course, doesn’t talk about anything like RMDL to his audience; he’s much more down-to-earth.  After all, Moore is not a college graduate, himself, and he wants to speak to these Brexit people as someone who is one of them.  He appeared on stage in his customary sweatshirt, sneakers, and trucker hat, and he spent much of his time telling profanity-laden jokes to ingratiate himself into these people’s confidence. To make his Trump-supporting guests feel more "comfortable", he even jocularly had sections of the theater balcony cordoned off for the confinement of Muslims and Mexicans. Certainly his performance was calculated, but he does come across with moments of true sincerity, and this seemed to ring true with his audience.

In particular, Moore identifies himself with the 19% of the US population who are white males over the age of 35.  It is these people, Moore acknowledges, who are an endangered species and are filled with resentment and hate because of it.  He is not so much worried about the younger voting sector comprising people between 18 and 35 and known as millennials.  Millennials have their problems, but, he reminds his audience, they have a precious virtue: they are non-haters.  It is his older age group that are the haters, and because of them hate has become the dominant rhetoric on the US political stage – (for useful additional discussion of how the feeling of resentment and hate has more influence than commonsense reasoning among white US conservatives, see [3]). Even Bernie Sanders, whom Moore supported in the primaries against Hillary and who has made a number of interesting proposals, is primarily supported by hatred.  Many people supported Sanders simply because of his anger-filled visage and his supposed rejection of free trade.

To further ingratiate himself with his audience of Hillary-doubters, Moore confesses that he has had his own doubts about Hillary.  She did, after all, vote for the Iraq War invasion (a vote which she later conceded was wrong), and she seems to be too close to “Wall Street” (a bogeyman for Brexiters).  And Moore admits that he has never before voted for a Clinton.  But Moore gradually turns his discussion to a more sympathetic and supportive look at Hillary Clinton.

Moore reminds his audience how smart Hillary is and how idealistic she has always been.  He even includes a recorded quotation from Hillary’s inspirational graduation speech at Wellesley College when she was 22 years old [4].  And he further surveys some of Hillary’s other noble endeavors, such as her efforts some twenty years ago in support of a proposed US law that would have established universal healthcare insurance. She had diligently researched this issue by traveling to places like Estonia, where the maternal death rate at childbirth is one-third that in the US.  But Hillary’s efforts were derided as “none of her business”, and the universal healthcare bill was blocked in Congress.  As Moore had emphasized in his earlier film about US healthcare, SiCKO, the US is alone among leading developed nations in not providing its citizens with universal guaranteed healthcare.  It has been estimated that there are an extra 50,000 deaths each year in the US due to people having no or inadequate health insurance.  So over the past twenty years since Hillary Clinton’s universal healthcare efforts were stymied in Congress, there have been more than one million people who have died needlessly, because universal healthcare was not available.

Ultimately, Moore’s film is not against Trump; it’s in favor of women.  Women don’t engage in mass killings and hate-filled violence.  They are generally filled with empathy and concern.  And so, too, he tells his audience, is Hillary Clinton.  It is time for the American people to elect a woman as its president, and Hillary Clinton is the ideal choice for that.  If you have a friend or relative who is thinking of voting for Trump, you would do well to get them to see this film [1].

  1. Michael Moore, Michael Moore in TrumpLand, YouTube.com, (Dog Eat Dog Films,  IMG Films), (27 October 2016). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iCUI-k723A 
  2. Steven Zeitchik, “Michael Moore Made 'TrumpLand' in 11 Days to Rally 'Depressed Hillary Voters'”, PopMatters, (21 October 2016).   
  3. Nathaniel Rich, “Inside the Sacrifice Zone”, The New York Review of Books, (10 November 2016).  
  4. Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Hillary Rodham Clinton's Student Speech”, Wellesley College, (June 1969). 

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