Fahrenheit 11/9: a merciless take-down of the liberal establishment
Michael Moore’s blockbuster Fahrenheit 11/9 arrives not a minute too late. Inverting one of his most famous documentaries, Fahrenheit 9/11, he makes it clear from the title that the date of Trump’s electoral victory is a watershed event in the history of the American republic comparable to the 9/11 attacks. The film is a Molotov cocktail, aimed at both the Right and liberal establishment.
Moore’s latest documentary begins with a series of his customary provocations. The schadenfreude (for viewers of progressive as well as rightwing leanings, who are united in their critique of Hillary Clinton) is overwhelming as we see clips of George Clooney, among others, smugly dismissive of any possibility of a President Trump. It was a sentiment echoed by the great and the good inhabiting a bubble subsequently burst by the twin shocks of the Brexit referendum and the Trump ascendancy.
He is not an idiot....he’s a genius…an evil genius
We watch as the Clinton victory party (with an actual glass ceiling) deflates into a nightmare while the Trump campaign simultaneously goes from funeral wake to celebration. As the results are called in, Trump manages to navigate the Electoral College path to a victory that the beltway pundits, experts and journos had all confidently predicted was impossible.
Fahrenheit 11/9 mercilessly portrays how the liberal establishment – Obama, the Clintons and the Democratic Party – paved the way for Trump. It is a story that begins with the compromises of the 1990s in the wake of the Reaganite revolution, when Bill Clinton managed to charm, then betray, working-class voters as he deregulated the banks, clamped down on welfare and oversaw the ballooning of the black prison population. (A familiar story on our side of the pond to that of the New Labour Blairite makeover.)
The Michigan born filmmaker picks out a catalogue of fatal compromises on the part of the Democrats – particularly its proximity to financiers. Examples range from the discovery that Obama’s biggest donor in the 2008 election was Goldman Sachs, to Hillary Clinton earning millions in fees from giving speeches to Wall Street.
He also drags the Democratic Party over the coals for sabotaging the Bernie Sanders campaign, and later smearing the new Democratic Socialist movement. Sanders manages to win every primary in West Virginia yet the party uses its secret weapon of super delegates to back Hillary Clinton at the convention.
Moore crucifies Hillary as the epitome of elitist managerialism. He highlights how she fails to visit Wisconsin in the final six months of the campaign, preferring to stick to the donor trail. He suggests that Hillary’s allegiance is in no doubt – towards the end of the campaign, she was hobnobbing with the super-rich in the Hamptons; between them, the Clintons have made close to a quarter of a billion dollars since leaving the White House in 2001, according to The Financial Times.
Yet for all his fierce critiques, it can be difficult to place Moore precisely on the political spectrum and to gauge whether his prescriptions for changes are ultimately reformist, not transformational. At the end of the film, Moore intones that we have to get rid of the system that created Trump. However, watching him speak at the BFI London Film Festival brought out some inconsistencies. When asked who should oppose Trump in 2020, Moore agreed that beloved Americans such as Michelle Obama or Oprah could run on a Democratic ticket.
It seems bizarre, after Fahrenheit 11/9’s castigation of the liberal establishment, to suggest that either a former first-lady or a celebrity TV show host would connect with left-behind America. Although Moore does also makes it clear that grassroots, broad-based mass movements – ranging from striking school teachers to the post Parkland anti-gun youth movement – hold the key for a progressive vision of the future.
Fascism with 'a smiley face'
Ultimately, this is a film that castigates Trump. The current US president is presented as an authoritarian demagogue who ventriloquizes populist rhetoric while implementing policies that are beneficial to big business. But Moore warns it would be a mistake to underestimate him. It would be a mistake to underestimate Trump. ‘He is not an idiot....he’s a genius…an evil genius.’
For all his fierce critiques, it can be difficult to place Moore precisely on the political spectrum – is he reformist or transformational?
In one montage, we see Trump doing a voiceover for the Führer; a Chaplinesque moment reminiscent of The Great Dictator. Moore draws parallels between the 1933 Reichstag fire and 9/11 as watershed moments leading to the erosion of democracy. He adds that the fascism of the 21st century will come not with swastikas but with ‘a smiley face’ as citizens ‘willingly give up their rights’.
The deceit and down-right malfeasance of government, has never been so extensively documented as in our multimedia age. Moore transforms political filmmaking into a brilliantly entertaining narrative, like no one else. That said, in these dangerous times, we no longer have the luxury of being mere spectators.
Youssef El-Gingihy is the author of How to Dismantle the NHS in 10 Easy Steps (Zero books). A new, updated and expanded edition will be published by Zero books on 30 November.
Fahrenheit 11/9 is in UK cinemas from 19 October 2018.