"Michael Moore in TrumpLand": A film whose surprising healing power is needed now more than ever

Moore's new film seeks to humanize Trump supporters and Hillary Clinton and mend our divisions — and it succeeds

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published October 22, 2016 1:30PM (EDT)

Michael Moore; Donald Trump   (Getty/Daniel Leal-Olivas/Reuters/David Becker)
Michael Moore; Donald Trump (Getty/Daniel Leal-Olivas/Reuters/David Becker)

Amidst ongoing claims that Donald Trump might not concede the election if Hillary Clinton clinches the needed votes, Michael Moore has just released a new movie that might save our democracy from chaos. “Michael Moore in TrumpLand” is a film of a one-man stage performance Moore delivered on Oct. 7 in Ohio. Billed as the film that Ohio Republicans tried to shut down, it follows Oscar-winner Moore as he enters into hostile territory with the goal of influencing the November elections and saving us all from Trump.

The film opened in New York for a free screening on Tuesday the 18th.  It is currently screening at the IFC Center in New York, where it broke the house record on Wednesday for a single screen opening, and Moore will be at several shows this weekend. It is also playing in Encino, California, and available on iTunes.

The maverick filmmaker, whose work always combines political passion and satirical wit, has entered into entirely new territory with this new movie. Not only is he attempting to convince Trump voters to abandon their blustery, bigoted candidate; he is trying to change the way we all think about the election.

"TrumpLand" comes off at first as a simple gesture to persuade Trump voters to think twice before casting their ballot — but that is just the surface. At its core, the film is offering the U.S. public an intervention into the political discourse that we haven’t seen yet. While it will be easy to dismiss the film as a publicity stunt that simply broadcasts a one-man show and will be irrelevant after the vote, that misses the larger point. The film isn’t only aimed at convincing Trump supporters to reexamine their plans on Election Day; its real goal is to heal a nation after an election cycle that has felt more like a civil war than a functional democracy.

Most reviews have focused on how the film is “pro-Hillary.” While it’s true that the film centers on Moore having a conversation in the heart of TrumpLand and advocating for all of the audience to vote for Clinton — party politics are only one part of the story.

Moore is a savvy public intellectual and he has carefully watched the political narratives dominating the airwaves.  He’s had his own fun during the campaign too. Besides writing open letters and offering numerous interviews on how Trump could, in fact, win, Moore penned a satirical letter to Ivanka Trump telling her that it was time for her to stage an “intervention” and get her dad out of the race — because he simply isn’t well. The letter was classic Moore — sassy, smart, silly and serious.

But the art of Moore’s political comedy has really taken a turn this election cycle. During the primary season, Moore released what I consider to be the most important film of his career: “Where to Invade Next,” which thinks deeply about how we can improve our nation by adopting the practices of a series of other countries that get it right. Turning the practice of U.S. military invasions on its head, Moore’s “invasion” strategy is to steal good ideas and bring them back to the United States. While Moore had spent most of his career exposing corruption, deception, abuse and exploitation, this film took a completely different angle. Rather than expose the negative and ugly, it celebrated the possible. While just as hilarious as his other films, “Where to Invade Next” delved into the failures caused by American exceptionalism and imagined ways our nation could come together and enact positive social change.

It is this side of Moore that we have to keep in mind in order to fully understand “Michael Moore in TrumpLand." Rather than viciously attack Trump and praise Clinton, the film takes an entirely different tack: it begins by showing respect for Trump supporters, by understanding their rage, and by acknowledging their views — including their hatred of Hillary Clinton.

Even if that angle had been the sole contribution made by this  film, it would have been a revelation. This election has not just been a mud-slinging contest between candidates; Trump supporters have also been viciously attacked as stupid bigots filled with hate. The marquee of the theater where Moore is performing proclaims “Trump supporters are welcome.” Moore stays true to the invitation: he really does welcome them.

Using his charm, Moore helps his audience relax by seeing their views as valid. He also uses a very gentle self-mocking humor to remind the audience that white males make up only 19 percent of eligible voters. Counting himself among those who are watching their power diminish, he directly addresses the anxieties that have driven much of the pro-Trump energy.

But Moore then walks his audience through the consequences of what happens if they just cast the “fuck you” vote. “I get it,” he tells his audience, ”you wanted to send a message. You had righteous anger and justifiable anger.” Likening the election of Trump to Brexit, he then cautions the audience to seriously consider what would happen after: “Good night America you’ve just elected the last president of the United States.”

Next comes a parody news report of what it would be like on the day of a Trump inauguration. The reporter tells us that the “shitshow started within minutes.” Trump orders aerial bombardment of all Mexican border towns, establishes stop-and-frisk checkpoints in all inner U.S. cities, and deports Rosie O’Donnell to American Samoa. Then the reporter explains that Trump is refusing to stay in the White House, so he leaves his kids and Pence and heads off to Florida. “By day’s end, 20 million Americans who stated they had voted for Trump signed an online petition asking for a do-over election.” The reporter then signs off saying it is their last broadcast since the station has been taken over by the new Roger Ailes-headed network, “Trump Channel.”

It’s satirical and funny — but it is also very easy for the audience to imagine that what Moore has portrayed actually could happen.

Then Moore makes his next bold move. After humanizing Trump supporters, he humanizes Clinton. But rather than offer a whitewashed portrait of her, he begins by acknowledging that she is not perfect. He starts by admitting his own problems with Clinton — her support of the Iraq War, her cozy relationship with Wall Street. He then opens it up to let the audience chime in about the things they don’t like about her. He doesn’t censor them — he lets them have their voice.

But then he asks them to say something nice about her. To get things started, he plays a clip from his TV show, “The Awful Truth,” that reveals Trump saying nice things about Clinton during a 1998 interview. The clever irony further softens the audience.

The room really shifts when Moore tells a story about Clinton. He explains that when he was making his film “Where to Invade Next, he visited a maternity ward in Estonia and saw a picture of Clinton on the wall. Moore then learns that she had been there two decades earlier, traveling the globe in the same way he had, looking for better health care practices to help pitch for universal health care in the United States. He reminds his audience of how Clinton was eviscerated for trying to help our nation get universal health care.

But then he drives home the pettiness of these attacks and the severity of their outcome. He tells the audience that since then close to a million Americans have died because they were under- or uninsured. He explains that we don’t think about the 1 million American dead because of a system of greed. He then repeats, “One million because we didn’t listen to Hillary” as tears in the audience show that he is getting to them.

In the process he is also getting to the viewer. Because he is right. We all know someone who has suffered because they were under- or uninsured. Suddenly, through a simple anecdote Moore has humanized Clinton, but he has also built a bridge between those of us who hate her and those who love her and fear Trump.

While Moore praises the idea of a female president and he imagines that she might be a change maker the way that Pope Francis is — the film makes it clear that a Clinton presidency will only be as good as the people behind her. This is when his target audience becomes those former Sanders supporters who are skeptical that Clinton will be anything more than a pro-Wall Street hawk.

Echoing Sanders, Moore explains that our job will be to hold her to her promises and to demand even more. It's a subtle civics lesson that reminds his viewers that our job as citizens is not just to whine and complain. If we want a revolution, we will have to fight for it.

Then he slyly suggests that, if she goes back on her word and doesn’t do what she promised us, then Moore will run in 2020. By the time he promises jobs for all and weekly marijuana deliveries, he has won over the whole audience.

And that is the real “October Surprise” of the film. As the nation convulses not only between red states and blue states, but also between supporters of Clinton, Trump, Sanders, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, and Nobody — we are at an all-time high for political conflict. Our different viewpoints have been translated into disgust and hate. We see no middle ground. Our democracy is not just threatened by Trump’s suggestion he won’t concede and it’s not just threatened by a GOP that refuses to imagine supporting a Democratic nominee to the Supreme Court -- it’s threatened by the fact that we are deeply divided.

“Michael Moore in TrumpLand” is Moore’s answer to the death threats he got twice from “American Sniper” director Clint Eastwood. It is his answer to the fact that he thinks that middle America has good reason to be pissed. It is his answer to the culture of fear and anger and hostility that has dominated this election cycle.

The key to this film, then, isn’t just that Moore finds much to value in Clinton’s record; it is that he finds a way to push past the sense of sectarian violence that has shaped our voting blocs into hostile territories. Moore stages a conversation that can serve as a model for democratic deliberation — where, even if we disagree, we don’t have to lose a sense of our common humanity. Moore shows us that, if we don't find a way to reach out to those in "TrumpLand," it won't matter if Clinton wins, because our democratic values will be lost.

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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Donald Trump Editor's Picks Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton Michael Moore