What we needed wasn’t hope but action
(October 2, 2018) Michael Moore‘s new documentary Fahrenheit 11/9 begins with footage of a street rally/party for Hillary Clinton on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, interspersed with Democratic establishment politicians and pundits claiming confidently that Donald Trump is never going to be president. When Hillary arrives, she is introduced as the next president of the United States! Hooray! On election night the Clinton crowd is popping champagne bottles early, but at 10:15 pm Trump is predicted to win Ohio, and we all know how it goes from there.
With Fahrenheit 11/9, Moore makes the case that the Democratic establishment had been paving the way for Trump to win the 2016 presidential election for the last thirty years, and his message to them is that they need to step back now and let the younger, more daring generation take its turn.
According to Michael Moore, it began when Bill Clinton started running his presidential election campaign like a Republican. At that time the Republicans were flush with cash and the Democrats were struggling. Clinton decided to tap the same resources the Republicans used — big business, big banks. He won by compromising, by introducing the mass incarceration of African Americans, by eliminating much of the welfare for the poor and more. During George W. Bush’s two terms the Democratic establishment also compromised, rationalizing the war in Iraq, allowing the erosion of privacy and other individual rights for the sake of the War on Terror.
President Obama took a page or two or three from Bill Clinton’s playbook and wrote a few more himself. He received the largest campaign contributions from Goldman Sachs ever. He was hawkish, flying drones over war zones and dropping bombs on civilians, and he dropped the ball on African Americans.
Michael Moore uses the Flint water crisis to illustrate how disillusioned African American voters have become with the Democratic establishment by the time the 2016 presidential election rolls around. The residents of Flint, Michigan — majority African American and very poor — get their water piped in from Lake Huron. But Michigan governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, decides to let his buddies lay completely unnecessary pipelines from the Flint River to Flint, a business venture which benefits him as well. The 10,000 children of Flint who drink the water immediately begin getting sick. An investigation finds that they all have lead poisoning from the water, but Snyder tries to make the Flint water crisis go away with a PR campaign. “We fixed the problem and now the water is better than bottled!”
An employee at a clinic blows the whistle when she is told to lower the children’s blood-lead levels on the records, and the cover-up is uncovered. Obama comes to Flint in the summer of 2016. Everyone expects he will declare Flint a disaster area, and have the appropriate agencies get to work. But Obama walks onto the stage, wets his lips briefly on a glass of Flint water and talks about probably having consumed some lead chips himself when he was little. The governor can hide behind him from then on: Hey, even the president says it’s fine! The Flint water crisis is still not resolved. The African American residents of Flint are extremely disillusioned and they don’t vote in the 2016 presidential election. It is the same all over Michigan.
In addition, during the Democratic primaries, the DNC miscalculates. They think that Bernie Sanders’s talk about democratic socialism will only appeal to other leftist old white men. They insist on staying in the center, despite all the messages they get from voters. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) wins many white working-class votes, but the Democratic National Convention uses the electoral college to push Hillary Clinton through. So that is also a large group of people who either don’t vote or who leave the party for the 2016 presidential election.
But the disgust with the Democratic establishment and with Trump’s lies and hate are inspiring a different kind of Democrat to step up and run for office. Moore mentions Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Lissa Lucas, Michael Hepburn and others, young people with kids in public schools who can relate to the problems of working families. Veterans come back from Iraq and Afghanistan to places like Flint and realize that kids in Afghanistan have it better than some kids in the U.S., so they run for office. The Parkland school shooting energizes the youth in a way it hasn’t been before. The Parkland students travel the country, holding rallies, getting young people to register to vote, they call the haters out on social media and they hold politicians’ feet to the fire.
That’s the feel-good part of Fahrenheit 11/9. In among all that, in threatening images and with ominous music, Michael Moore compares Trump and his ambitions to Hitler and Nazi Germany. He aims to scare the shit out of you. Trump filed for re-election on Inauguration Day, so he could continue his mass rallies, where he works hard to make his base disbelieve anything the media says: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” And he floats ideas at his rallies, putting seeds in his followers’ minds. Like maybe going back to FDR’s four terms, or a president for life, as China now has with Xi Jinping. The media does the rest, by running with it, until it becomes part of the discourse. Not long after Trump brings up maybe staying in office past his time, about half of Republicans polled are fine with Trump staying longer if that’s what he wants.
Moore speaks with Timothy Snyder, the author of the recently published book, The Road to Unfreedom, about the rise of authoritarianism in Russia, Europe and America. Snyder sees clear similarities between Trump and Hitler and between this period in America and 1930s Germany. Moore, for the sake of argument, asks, “But we’ve been a democracy for over two hundred years. Won’t the Constitution protect us?” Snyder says that the U.S. has really only been a democracy since 1970, because a country where black people can’t vote, or where women can’t vote isn’t a democracy. He describes how the press in Germany tried to minimize Hitler when he became Reichskanselier, saying that he probably wouldn’t be as bad as he seemed, that he was just saying all that stuff to get more followers. In other words, people compromised.
Michael Moore ends Fahrenheit 11/9 on a sobering note: If the democracy we thought we had ends, we will realize that what we needed wasn’t hope — hope that the Constitution would protect us, or that impeachment would protect us, or that prosecution would protect us. We will realize that what we needed wasn’t hope but action. There is momentum right now, and this movie is a plea to the establishment of the Democratic Party:
For God’s sake do not fuck it up for us this time — we can’t afford it!