I’m sure Michael Moore intended for a New York critic like me to be squirming awkwardly throughout the first part of his one-man-show turned film, Michael Moore in Trumpland, an “October surprise” suddenly released last night. In a theater packed with Ohioans, the filmmaker did a standup routine that began a series of limp jokes about liberals being wishy-washy and disorganized and mocking Trump in cringe-worthy ways, by cordoning off presumably in-on-the-joke Latinos in a “walled” section and hovering a drone over a section for Muslims. This, you see, was an attempt to make the Trump voters in the crowd feel comfortable (in a post-show Q&A, Moore estimated that section of the crowd to be a couple hundred, out of a total of 700). Ha, ha, ha. Moore then moved on to a riff on the end of the white male, explaining that the anger at Trump rallies was, in his mind, “the sound of the dying dinosaur” and that men were afraid that in the coming matriarchy, they’d be relegated to internment camps.
At this point I was ready for a long bathroom break. But fortunately, Moore segued from misandrist dystopia to his main point, which as it turns out, isn’t anything to do with Trump. Surprise — again! The film spools into an extended endorsement, of sorts, of Hillary Clinton — or at least a plea that his audience vote for her. He was just warming up the crowd, as it turns out, with the awkward humor. Now, he asks them to talk about all the reasons people say the Democratic nominee is untrustworthy or they hate her, handily refuting their points. He turns to the stunning black and white pictures of Hillary Clinton in her college years and begins to explain why he likes her, even admires her — although he’s never voted for her.
The most convincing of these reasons hearkens back to his pet issue, healthcare. When Moore was making his film Where to Invade Next, he visited an exceptional maternity ward in Estonia, of all places, and saw a picture of Clinton on the wall. She had been there two decades earlier, traveling the globe as he did, looking for good health care to emulate in her pitch to the American people for universal health care. Instead of listening to her, he reminded his audience, we humiliated her. Since then, he estimated, close to a million Americans have died thanks to being under or uninsured. One million because we didn’t listen to Hillary was his refrain, and the tears in the audience showed that Moore retains his talent for pinpointing the suffering of middle America.
He posited the election as a “chance to redeem ourselves” and also a blow of revenge for Hillary and the pioneering women of her generation who endured “harassment and abuse” in their attempts to break the mold (bad behavior that’s embodied by her opponent, whose Billy Bush tape was released mere hours before Moore’s show). Again and again, Clinton was punished for not being feminine enough, he noted. In fact, Moore’s resonated most strongly when he echoed some of her own taking points and did it with more passion: yes, Hillary has been hard at work on behalf of others for decades. Yes, she’s taken more shit than anyone else in public life and kept going. It was genuinely lovely to hear a man passionately acknowledge what women endure and express his affection for a powerful woman — in the post Bernie-era, hearing a white male socialist declare that gender matters, well, mattered. Going even further, throughout the film and the following Q&A, Moore embodied a sort of flattering gender essentialism, an acknowledgement that it was women’s time to shine and men’s to step back. He ended with a thunderous plea that “the majority gender has a chance to have real power and kick some righteous ass.”
Would that women were somehow innately more peaceful or cooperative than men. Unfortunately, what the Trump campaign has shown us is that for a substantial number of white women, the need to feel racially superior is ingrained so deep that their own humane treatment as a class takes second place. That racial viciousness is why Moore’s protectiveness towards the Rust Belt Trump voter, a “these are really good people, down on their luck” attitude, feels like not quite enough explanation for what’s happening.
Moore’s gushing about women, his disinterest in touching the race issue, mixed with his crass jokes about Vince Foster (if Clinton really were a stone-cold killer, don’t we want her fighting the terrorists? etc.) felt muddled and unsatisfying. It seemed in some ways like the filmmaker was struggling to reconcile his genuine personal admiration for Clinton with his political critique of her, topped off with his genuine and insistent fear that Trump will do better than expected because his voters, who see the ballot as a “Molotov cocktail” this year, will be more motivated.
At one point, he even expressed his desire that Hillary would be like Pope Francis if elected, a stealth leftist in moderate garb, a fantasy which he admitted in the follow-up session was less a predication, more an attempt to reframe the conversation about Clinton into one about opportunity and hope. He even pledged to run in 2020 from the left if she ended up being a disappointment, but he added, essentially: let’s give her a shot. Finally, even if his points didn’t resonate, he begged: his audience should hold their nose, wrench their own arms, keep hating, but vote for Clinton anyway, as an act of self-sacrifice for the country.
Whether he reaches Trump voters is hardly in question, but the film isn’t really about conversion. It’s a film for angry Bernie voters, apathetic non-voters and shrugging men who prefer Clinton but don’t personally care for her. He may be preaching to the choir, he says, but “the choir needs a song.” “People have got to get busy,” between now and the election he said. “Don’t do your endzone dance.” His new film lacks the clunky beauty of his other efforts, but it’s a nice splash of positivity in an election that has begun to feel like a death march. Besides, at this point, as a colleague of mine said, every little bit helps.