For conservatives who feel the media is almost instinctively biased and corrupt, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9—a sequel of sorts (or at least follow-up) to the highest grossing documentary movie of all time, Moore’s 2004 Bush-whacker Fahrenheit 9/11—offers one of the most damning portraits of media industry cravenness since Network.
Moore dives deep into how the feedback-looping and self-validating punditocracy consistently pushed back against blue-collar economic populism, marginalized and erased legitimate economic anxiety among downscale whites, and refused to adequately cover police shootings and brutality in minority communities until they reached a state of emergency. (The water quality scandal in Moore’s hometown of largely black Flint gets major play.)
Recently disgraced CBS chief Les Moonves is quoted bragging that Trump may be bad for America but he’s great for business. CNN topper and former NBC program chief Jeff Zucker hems and haws when asked whether his network covered Trump because he was newsworthy or because he was ratings gold. The movie suggests Trump initially ran for president as a marketing ploy to build leverage for his own media branding. And Moore quite rightly makes fun of how ballistically wrong the major papers got the election—with The New York Times giving Hillary better than four-to-one odds of winning on the very Election Day that she lost.
In one snarkadelic sequence, we see smug media mavens like Matt Lauer, Mark Halperin, Roger Ailes, and Charlie Rose smugly grilling and cross-examining Hillary Clinton before being “stamped” with laundry lists of their own Weinstein-esque sexual assault shenanigans.
Yet while initially sympathizing with Hillary in her defeat, Moore shows no mercy at all to her husband for his late ‘80s and ‘90s Third Way triangulations and neoliberalism, blaming Bubba every bit as much as Ronald Reagan and the Bushes for the orgy of Wall Street and Silicon Valley deregulation and casino capitalism of the last three decades. Moore underlines this with a montage of A-list Democrats saying the word “compromise” over and over again during the worst of the Great Recession.
Even Obama himself is not immune from criticism. Moore accuses him of being too centrist and accommodating, showing him staging a media-op in Flint and, instead of calling a full-on emergency, literally “drinking the water” and telling people that everything was on its way to being fine.
But for all the leftist preaching to the choir, there’s trouble brewing in Moore’s liberal paradise. There are plenty of progressive voices—especially women, LGBTs, and people of color under 50—who believe Moore is giving Trump voters an “excuse” for voting as they did.
Since y'all are woke this morning, let's talk about Michael Moore…
— Propane Jane™ (@docrocktex26) July 25, 2016
Let’s not forget that George W. Bush was the best thing that ever happened to Michael Moore’s bank account. Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, Sicko, and (less than a year into Obama’s first term in fall 2009) Capitalism: A Love Story all attracted round-the-block lines, cable ratings, and even an Oscar or two. In light of that, some liberals think that Moore all but secretly wanted Trump to win so he could go ka-ching! with yet another right-wing archvillain.
Michael Moore will make a documentary nobody asked for and call it a day while urging other people to go die on his behalf.
— Imani Gandy Corn 🎃 (@AngryBlackLady) June 30, 2018
Liberal film and TV critics are also singing from the same hymnal. Jake Cole of Slant mentions Moore’s “hollowness,” his penchant for centering and “foregrounding himself” at the expense of victims, his “empty shock value,” “grotesque history of exploiting atrocities,” and “circus-showman duplicity that is as crass and self-promoting” as Trump himself. Matt Goldberg of Collider accuses Moore of caring “more about stunts than policy details,” and David Sims in The Atlantic also gives him a decided thumbs-down.
In short, not even a team of Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, and Rush Limbaugh could have come up with a harsher or more cynical assessment of Moore’s work. The surprise is, for someone of such ego and self-righteousness, Moore seems to have actually listened to his critics—at least the ones on the identity politics left.
In Fahrenheit 11/9, Moore comes as close to admitting to (if not “checking”) his privilege as he ever has in a movie or TV show. He still sports his everyman uniform of T-shirts, jeans, and baseball caps, and still does his David versus Goliath stunts (like spraying Michigan governor Rick Snyder’s gate-guarded mansion and front lawn with a tanker from Flint’s contaminated water supply). But he also frankly admits to rubbing shoulders with Trump Train royalty like Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner (who provided funds and/or distribution for his health care doc Sicko a decade ago). He shows footage of himself joking around on Roseanne’s talk show in 1998 with Trump, and even posing for unbelievably campy selfies while hugging it out with Kellyanne Conway.
Moore is a Baby Boomer liberal who is saying in no uncertain terms that it is time for Boomer (and Silent) generation Democrats who still largely hold top-of-the-line power in the party to sit down and shut up. Not surprisingly, Bernie is the only older politician who comes off as even marginally acceptable. (And of course, the movie revisits how the superdelegate system and DNC machinations effectively “stole” the nomination from him.)
Of course there are the perhaps inevitable comparisons of Trump to Hitler and Trumpism to Nazism (one “humorous” sequence has Trump’s words dubbed over a Hitler speech newsreel; a significantly more gratuitous one shows an interview with a nearly 100-year-old Nuremberg prosecutor).
All told, Michael Moore’s thesis is that we may be able to “make America great again,” whether your definition of greatness is Moore’s or Trump’s—but that either way, there’s no going back to some mythical center. We’ve arrived at this crazytown we call the “new normal” precisely because politicians clung to their own self-serving “norms.”
Whatever your politics, Fahrenheit 11/9 is a veritable symphony of systems failure, and a deeply unsettling rollercoaster of where we seem to be headed—whether we want to go there or not.
Telly Davidson is the author of a new book, Culture War: How the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not). He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.”