«Never did a group of people look so sad to win a presidency,» says Michael Moore in a voiceover with his distinctive humour, airing footage of the historically small crowd that gathered in the Trump camp on that November election night in 2016, believing until the last minute – just like everyone else – that Hillary Clinton would for sure become the next US president.
As we now know this did not happen. In the wake of the election result it is an easy gag to show a cascade of clips of political experts denouncing even the slightest possibility of Donald J. Trump ever entering the White House – as Moore does in the opening of his latest documentary. While a somewhat obvious approach, it is nonetheless instructive. The Democrats were so certain of their victory that they did not hesitate to wipe out the one person who might had prevented the defeat: Bernie Sanders, who won the constituents vote but whose candidacy was curtailed by the party machinery.
Like Fahrenheit 9/11, Fahrenheit 11/9 unravels an unanticipated event, a disaster for large parts of the population. What apparently started as Trump’s vanity project, to prove his popularity to the world of journalists ended with serious repercussions. Zigzagging between gloom and the prospect of backlash or insurrection Moore takes us through the «real America». And in Moore’s view that «real America» is not aligned with the picture painted by The New York Times.
«The real America» is leftist to the bone, Moore argues, and ready to rebel against the horrors of present-day capitalism.»
The real America» is leftist to the bone, Moore argues – armed with statistics about the population’s views on universal health care, free marijuana, legal abortion, the right to unionize etc. – and ready to rebel against the horrors of present-day capitalism. The «real America» for the most part did not vote – more than 100 million abstained from voting in the 2016 elections («Did Not Vote» won by a landslide), many of whom surely held the belief that it did not matter anyway. And they were right, according to Moore. Their votes did not matter, and the Democrats have for decades showed the population exactly that.
The deeply impoverished residents of Flint felt it very tangibly when former US president, Barack Obama betrayed his constituency during the height of a politically orchestrated water crisis, that poisoned an entire city. Instead of taking action against governor Rick Snyder, who had cut residents off from the pure lake water and plugged their pipeline into a lead-polluted river for the sole reason of making money for himself and his friends, Obama asked for a glass of water in front of the gasping crowd of despaired citizens, who thought their rescue had finally arrived. He wetted his lips and told them everything would be fine.
«He was our hero, he was our president. But when he left, he was no longer my president,» a local black activist woman says dismayed about Obama’s visit. What happened in Flint was nothing less than an ethnic cleansing, says Moore in his voice-over. «No terrorist organisation has yet figured out how to poison an entire American city, it took a governor to do that.»
And Flint is not just any American city, it is a majority black city and one of the poorest in the nation. So poor that the US military once decided to make it a training ground for urban warfare without notifying the residents.
Then – or rather again – came the betrayal of Clinton. While Bill Clinton had been the one to move the Democrats onto the path of dead-end political moderation and compromise with big finance, «acting like a Republican», Hillary Clinton was the one to crush Sanders and his mass support base – not least among sections of the working class, that media such as The New York Times term reactionaries –with elite party bureaucracy. In West Virginia for instance, all 55 counties voted massively for Bernie in the primaries, but the Democrat delegates of the state elected Hillary for the presidential candidacy.
In a voiceover to footage of wooden ballot carried by white people in suits Michael Moore suggests that these «baby-coffins» (as they indeed look like) might as well be buried. You can’t call it a democracy, if the majority ends up being silenced, as he reasons. But while (representative) democracy might be dead, or may never have truly been born, the aspirations for democracy remain alive and kicking. That is the other message of Fahrenheit 11/9.
The people of Flint did not silently let themselves and their children be poisoned, and the government workers did not silently obey orders to cover up the scandal. People were marching in the streets and marching into the buildings of state institutions to demand action.
«No terrorist organisation has yet figured out how to poison an entire American city, it took a governor to do that.» – Michael Moore
So did the teachers of West Virginia when the government decided to push up fees for their health insurance and make it contingent on individual scores in an app that measures physical activity. The teachers who are already living on the poverty line or below it went on strike without the backing of their union leadership who would rather deal it off with the people in power. It became one of the biggest work walkouts in modern US history, and it spread to other states like a wildfire.
Leading the coming insurrection are, according to Moore’s documentary, women, latino, black, muslim, and white low-paid workers from the remote areas. The latter remind us that the term «redneck» may nowadays mostly be considered derogatory, but the term historically refers to the red bandana worn around the neck of unionized workers.
«Something strange began to happen,» Moore says in the introduction, referencing the slow realization that Trump’s presidential prank could become such serious business. Maybe, he ponders, it happened for a reason. Maybe it was the wake-up call the «real America» needed – to stop hoping for constitutional salvation and start taking action.
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