You’d think that by now They would have stopped giving Michael Moore such a hard time. Everything he portended in Roger & Me, his 1989 film about the impact of the closing of General Motors plants on his hometown of Flint, Michigan, and everything he has been banging on about for 30 years since — outsourcing, automation, corporate hegemony, moral and political corruption, elite apathy and greed, the decimation of the middle class, angry white people, the fear and loathing of the far right — all of it has come home to roost, in the form of a very large, very orange turkey in the White House.
Which, by the way, Moore also predicted. “I’m sorry to have to kind of be the buzzkill here so early on, but I think Trump is going to win,” he said on Bill Maher’s show in July 2016, going on to precisely outline how this unthinkable event would unfold. The audience booed him. But when the smoke cleared, Moore looked — especially to those who remembered his unpopular but accurate speech at the 2003 Oscars denouncing the war in Iraq — like a prophet, a Cassandra in a T-shirt.
“I think of him as like the oracle of Delphi,” says the director D. A. Pennebaker, who knows his Greek history. “People listen to him because they want to know what he thinks, because they want to know what they should think. And Michael sees it first. That’s why he’s the oracle. Because what you get from the oracle is an answer to a question that you don’t know how to ask. I’m always intrigued by the Greeks,” he goes on. “They sounded like such reasonable people and they were always in the wrong.”
They are also reasonable people, which is why you might expect They would give the guy some credit. Because these are dark times, and it is more important than ever to do the right thing, which in this case might be to show a little respect. To say “In the big picture, he was right.” Especially since They have been so wrong.
So very, very wrong.
Devastatingly, consequentially wrong.
But no. The murmuring began just after 10 p.m. on August 10, right around the time Moore was crossing the threshold into the Bryant Park Grill. The occasion was a party celebrating his Broadway debut, at 63, in his one-man show The Terms of My Surrender, a feel-good, indignation-inspiring romp in which Moore shares stories about his life, his thoughts about Donald Trump, and the name of a handy app you can use to call your representatives to rail about Republicans. The show — the modest goal of which, according to the tagline, is to “take down a sitting president” — is the opening salvo of a coming Moore shock-and-awe campaign that will eventually include a TNT series, Michael Moore: Live From the Apocalypse, and a movie, Fahrenheit 11/9 (named “for the day when Trump was elected president at 2 a.m.,” says his Fahrenheit 9/11 partner Harvey Weinstein, who will produce). To celebrate the occasion, there had been a literal parade from the theater, a flag-waving procession of friends, family, and audience members, including Rosie O’Donnell, Christie Brinkley, Phil Donahue, Marlo Thomas, Dan Rather, and Gloria Steinem, led by a patriotically attired drag performer named Machine Dazzle and accompanied by an all-female brass band.
The mood was festive. (“He has a way of bringing out the best in people, where you can feel their sense of energy and commitment,” says Weinstein.) But no sooner had Machine Dazzle tucked into a flute of Champagne than the murmuring grew so loud that he was moved to put down his glass. “What?” he asked, his glittery lips an O of concern.
A review had just arrived, from the Times, and it was a doozy. In addition to the usual words and phrases one has come to expect from reviews of Moore’s work, like self-aggrandizing and narcissism, there was criticism of specific set pieces, like a story Moore had told about going to Bitburg, Germany, in 1985 to protest Ronald Reagan’s visit to a cemetery where SS soldiers were buried, which the critic deemed “old and obvious.” The entire experience, the reviewer said, was “a bit like being stuck at Thanksgiving dinner with a garrulous, self-regarding, time-sucking uncle.”
Near the steaming trays of ziti, a pack of publicists buzzed furiously. “What do we do?” one moaned, casting an eye toward Moore, who was holding court at a large round table and did not seem the least bit bothered.
And why would he be?
Days later, Trump would hold a press conference calling white supremacists “very fine people,” which would make a story about a president sympathizing with Nazis seem a lot more relevant, and The Terms of My Surrender would become the highest-grossing play on Broadway.
You would think They would know to expect this sort of thing. That They would realize maybe Michael Moore is a few steps ahead. But They don’t. They never have. Which is why he is doing this.
“Why am I in New York?” Michael Moore asks. “New York is the problem.”
We’re sitting in his office at 53rd and Broadway. Or rather, I’m sitting. Moore is lounging in a recliner, which like him is midwestern in style: soft and comfortable but disdained by designers. Moore says he hasn’t seen the Times review, or any of the other unflattering ones that have surfaced, including one by this magazine’s critic — he learned a long time ago not to read reviews — but he’d heard a bit about what was in it. “Because, of course, I don’t live in a bubble,” he tells me. “From what I’ve heard from people in the line outside the theater, they wonder if he saw the same show they saw, because literally nobody has that reaction leaving the theater.”
Moore thinks it might be that he’s been critical of the paper in the past. For instance, he’s said he blames its faulty WMD reporting and editorial cheerleading more than he does George W. Bush for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he repeats now — history that most of its readers have stopped bringing up, now that they celebrate the paper as a force for anti-authoritarian good in Trump’s America: “Judith Miller. Story after story after story,” he says. “Stories that weren’t true. Had the New York Times done their job and fought Bush with the truth, where would we be today? I’ll tell you this much. Four to five thousand Americans wouldn’t be dead.”
Then they’d gone and screwed up this election. Which is why Moore is here now. He knows it might seem odd, during this time of political emergency, that a person of his influence would choose to focus his attention on a Broadway show, the likely audience of which is Times Weekender subscribers who already agree with his politics and are willing to pay up to $250 for the privilege of doing so in person, instead of, say, helping to change the hearts and minds of swing voters in red states like Michigan. But according to Moore, this is exactly where he needs to be. Through their willful blindness and inaction, the coastal elites were as culpable as if they’d punched the ballot for Trump themselves. Since the election, they hadn’t done much better, continuing to argue among themselves about whether or not to take Trump seriously or literally when the overwhelming evidence indicates most Americans don’t understand what literally even means. “I’m attacking the bubble,” he says. “I’m attacking the bubble that the Times and all this other stuff that’s supposed to be for us is in. I felt like I needed to come from Michigan to New York to say the things I want to say live on a stage in front of people. Not on a two-dimensional, flat screen, not on somebody’s iPhone, but right there, in person,” he goes on. “To say, ‘The rest of the country, we need you. We know New York is the home of the liberal base. We can’t make this happen without you.’ I’m here on a mission to break through that bubble and hold up my hand and say we’re all in this together, and I’m here asking you to leave the bubble and help us.”
Moore has lived on the Upper West Side for 25 years, but he still identifies as an outsider — a guy from Michigan. He keeps an apartment in Traverse City, a few hours from Flint, and although now he spends most of his time here, he clearly cherishes his role as a surrogate for Middle America and the working class. “I am their stand-in,” he tells me. “I don’t know how I got out of Flint and how I got to do this, but now that I have it, they want me to speak for them, and so I’m doing my best to do that, to tell our stories.”
(How much contact he actually has with this population is unclear: The only interaction I saw between Moore and anyone who resembles the people he talks about was one with the workers laying the red carpet outside the Belasco on opening night. “Hi, Mike,” said one of them, who was confused to find himself shaking hands with Moore — he had been talking to Moore’s driver, who was also named Mike. According to the political strategist Chris Lehane, who has worked with Moore on and off for years, Moore “always maintained a connection — maybe it’s just an intuitive thing, but he has a feel for the people he grew up with.”)
Maybe the recliner is the source of his powers. In any case, according to Moore, he can bring perspective, and the stage is the best place to do it. The goal, he says, is to wake those people up and, ideally, inspire them to take some kind of action. What kind, specifically? “The details are scarce,” said the Times critic. Any kind is Michael Moore’s response to that. “Nobody in the French Resistance ever said, ‘Jeez, I’d like to help out, but I’ve got to get the kids to soccer practice,’ ” he points out. “Nobody ever said, ‘Jeez, I’d like to go blow up that Nazi bridge, but I got couples therapy at four.’ I mean, it’s that serious right now.”
But first, they must start with accepting the things they cannot change. “Repeat after me,” he instructs the audience at one point during the show. “Donald Trump outsmarted us all.”
“One of the reasons people feel absolutely awful is, how did that happen? By just dismissing him as a dumb idiot, that’s in part how it happened,” Moore says. “I think that liberals and Democrats have completely misread him. Everybody thinks he is so easily distracted by the shiny keys and he just jumps at whatever the latest bait is. The truth is he is the one holding the shiny keys. He’s an evil genius.”
Moore has never identified as a Democrat, or even as a liberal. When people used to ask his political affiliation, he would say he was from Flint. He once supported the Green Party and worked for Ralph Nader, and he supported Bernie Sanders in the primary. But he’d come to develop a genuine admiration for Hillary Clinton, and started to worry last summer when he noticed he could drive for miles in Michigan and never encounter a Hillary sign, not even those tasteful little arrow stickers people were putting on their cars on the coasts. “It just wasn’t a presence.” He says he called Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters and urged them to bring the candidate to Michigan, but the campaign declined.
He makes fun of this moment in the show. “Hello, Brooklyn?” he says, talking into his hand like it’s a malfunctioning iPhone. “Can’t get through the bubble. Headquarters! Can you send the candidate out here? ‘Sorry, Mike, we can’t hear you, the party’s so loud!’ ” (Senior campaign officials say they have no recollection of this.) Meanwhile, Trump was tromping all around the Rust Belt in his baseball cap and promising to bring back the good old days.
Sitting in Moore’s office and looking at the collection of baseball caps on his desk, you have to wonder if part of the reason he recognized Trump’s genius was that what the candidate was doing looked familiar: a rich guy traveling around the country in a baseball cap, railing about companies needing to keep jobs in America? That was something Moore had done in his 1998 movie The Big One, in which he visited CEOs like Nike’s Phil Knight and begged them to keep factories in America. Trump’s bringing Bill Clinton’s accusers to the debate was like a dark-side version of the kind of stunts Moore is famous for pulling, like when he brought victims of gun violence to Kmart and shamed the company into stopping its sale of bullets. Trump’s over-the-top statements, scorn for the mainstream media, glossing over of inconvenient facts — all of it was out of the Michael Moore playbook. “I have a distinct memory of being at the gym on the treadmill having a similar thought, which is that Trump tried to appropriate some of Michael’s approaches,” says Lehane. “Even the fact that he talks like a real person and communicates effectively.”
You could see the energy and commitment in Trump’s audiences. Even when he said things that were terrible. “They loved the brazenness of it,” Moore says. “Even when they didn’t necessarily agree with it, they thought, That took balls. They may not personally think McCain’s a coward, but they think, Wow, that’s who I want. Somebody who’s just going to say shit like that. I used to say this back when Reagan was president, I’d say, you know, the thing is that it’s not so much that the majority of Americans agree with Reagan on the issues. The majority of Americans want strong environmental laws so we’ll have clean air and clean water; they believe in equal rights for women. Even back then. But most Americans don’t identify themselves as ‘Oh, I’m a Democrat’ or ‘I’m a Republican.’ Americans, they want somebody who stands up for the things that he or she believes in and says it without any apology. That was what Reagan did, and that is what Trump does in spades.”
Clinton, on the other hand … “Remember at the 9/11 memorial last year, she fainted and the press found her like three hours later?” Moore says. “And they are all across the street yelling at her, ‘Hillary, Hillary, how do you feel?’ And she looks at them, smiles and waves, and goes, ‘I feel fine!’ I swear to God, she would have won the election had she said — ” He mimics smiling and waving. “ ‘I feel like shit! See ya in three days!’ I mean, wow! The honesty of that. The humor. The humanity. Everybody would have loved it.”
On Maher, Moore pointed out that the total number of electoral votes in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania was 64. “Mitt Romney lost by 64 electoral votes,” he said. “All he has to do is win those four states.” Now Moore sighs. “Believe me,” he says. “Never have I wanted to be more wrong.”
At one point, he says, he offered to pull together a consortium of comedians to help write jokes for the campaign, thinking they could particularly help with the debates: “His skin is so thin,” he says. “Something with his personality is, he cannot take being made fun of. We thought all she has to do is stick a little comedy shiv under that and we could watch him implode on national television.”
The campaign declined, he says.
This is how it has always been for Michael Moore. He tries to do the right thing, he tries to do the most good he can, and They say no. Like when he was a teenager and he decided to become a priest, inspired by the Berrigan brothers — radical Catholic peaceniks who destroyed draft records with napalm during Vietnam. In his second year at seminary, he was asked to leave. According to his autobiography, Here Comes Trouble, the dean told him he asked too many questions. “I pray for those who have to endure you,” he said.
As those who would come up against Moore found, the dean’s prayers were not particularly effective. Among them was the principal of the public high school Moore next attended, who walloped Moore in the hallway one day for failing to tuck in his shirt. Moore responded by running for the school board on a platform of firing the principal and his assistant principal and won, becoming the youngest elected official in the country. “See, I knew back then, keep it simple! Lock them up!” he says in The Terms of My Surrender, when he relays this tale as an example of how it’s not as onerous as you think to make change — you just have to get 20 stoners to sign a petition! — but he omits what happened next, which is that he went on to torture his adult colleagues so acutely whenever they disagreed (bringing an ACLU lawyer to meetings as an intimidation tactic, writing and performing a play in which he appeared as Jesus nailed to the cross by thinly disguised school-board members) that they held a special election to oust him.
And so it went for Moore, who founded a muckraking alt-biweekly, the Flint Voice, then moved on to Mother Jones, where his tenure as editor ended in similarly spectacular fashion when he refused to publish an article brought to him by the magazine’s co-founder, mining heir Adam Hochschild, who fired him.* At which point Moore held a press conference at City Hall, wherein he read the article aloud to demonstrate how terrible it was. He was right, many agreed, but did he have to make such a show of it? “People were apoplectic,” says Chris Lehmann, then a Mother Jones editor, who resigned in protest over Moore’s firing and is now the editor of The Baffler. “It was this pearl-clutching scandal in a way that I can’t even describe.” Moore sued for wrongful termination and reportedly used the money to make Roger & Me, which, when it set a record for a documentary at the box office, suggested he might have finally found the right outlet. Some critics were less than charmed, like Pauline Kael at The New Yorker, who took issue with Moore’s compression of the timeline and said it made her feel “cheap” to watch Moore, a “joker in a windbreaker,” manipulate his subjects so he “appears to be the only person in town who’s awake to the destruction of what used to be a thriving community. And we in the audience are expected to identify with his puckish sanity.” Others thought this was beside the point, that it maybe even was the point. “I liked it because it felt like Michael Moore was getting away with something,” Roger Ebert wrote. “He was thumbing his nose at GM, he was taking cheap shots, he knew it, we knew it, and it was about time.”
NBC gave Moore a show, TV Nation, and his lefty friends were tickled that he was getting General Electric, “an arms manufacturer,” as the writer Alexander Cockburn called it, to foot the bill for anti-corporate content. Neither the show nor the goodwill lasted. As Moore began achieving increasingly mainstream successes, with more movies and best-selling books, aggrieved employees complained about their treatment. “He works hard, and he pushes his staff to work hard,” says Karen Duffy, who worked on TV Nation and its spinoff, The Awful Truth, and retains “great affection” for Moore. Although: “Some people have a difficult time working with him.” (Cockburn, apparently aggrieved over Moore’s defection from Nader, termed him a “blowhard and a jerk,” a line that somehow ended up in Cockburn’s obituary in the Washington Post.) The media wasn’t too friendly either. Interviewers constantly pressed him to reconcile his politics with the money he was making, and they were especially eager to pick up charges that Moore “played fast and loose with the facts.” Which he sometimes does, often unnecessarily (in The Terms of My Surrender, for instance, an angry fan charges at Moore with a knife that in Here Comes Trouble is a pencil). But most of these complaints are small stones being thrown from huge corporations like Nike and Lockheed Martin that are annoyed about looking stupid. Moore helped create the era of snark, but he also bore a lot of it, and much of the criticism of him carries a whiff of classism. “One of the mosquito-bite irritations of being on the left is finding your ideals represented in public by Michael Moore, whose ball cap, burgeoning belly and self-promoting populism have made him an international brand name,” film critic John Powers wrote in LA Weekly of Moore’s Bowling for Columbine in 2002. You can see why he stopped reading reviews.
“The way I look at it, it’s because I don’t come from money,” Moore says. “I have a high-school education. My dad was a factory worker, my mom was a secretary. And how is it that I have had this career that most documentary filmmakers don’t get to have? The people who’ve said that, most of them are not from the working class. Most of them went to a good school. Most of their parents had some kind of money to be able to afford a decent college. It’s like, This is supposed to be for us. This was promised to us. We were raised, you know, we went to Horace Mann. And I went to Duke. Or Yale. Or, you know, just pick one. And they may not be where they thought they were going to be, where the promise of their privilege was going to take them. And so I have to listen to their … the sadness that exists inside them about themselves — that’s really what I hear.”
Which sounds sort of, you know, self-aggrandizing, except, on balance, he might be right. “I come from the elite,” admits Powers, who is now a film critic for Vogue. “I think a lot of his films are aesthetically rotten, and his books are lazy and sloppy and the jokes aren’t that good, but one of the bad things about the left that I fall into is that we tend to be too hard on our own. I know I am too hard on him. He is definitely more in touch with working-class people than many commentators, and he’s funnier, maybe he’s smarter than I am in some way, because his book had sold out when my book wasn’t selling.”
Still, enough people liked Bowling for Columbine that it won the Oscar for Best Documentary. The ceremony was held a few days after the United States began its assault on Iraq. Handed the envelope, Moore, naturally, couldn’t resist pushing it. “We like nonfiction, and we live in fictitious times,” he said. “We live in a time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons.” Moore kept going as the boos began and the music started playing.
Remember: This was in Hollywood, where you would think he’d be applauded for such a speech. But no, not Moore. “Being against the war in Iraq after it started was a lonely position to have,” he recalls. “Because there were so many liberals at the time that were in support of this invasion.” He can’t help but begin calling them out. “You had the New York Times supporting the war, David Remnick wrote an editorial in favor of the invasion of Iraq. You’ve got 29 Democratic U.S. senators voting to give Bush war powers …”
“That’s the end of Michael Moore,” one TV commentator said. “Oh, boy, he really blew it. He shouldn’t have said anything. He doesn’t understand the way the winds are blowing in the country.”
Like goldbugs and Fox News pundits, Michael Moore is the type of creature who thrives in hard times. “The Pied Piper Moore, leading his troupes from one disaster to the next,” his old friend Alexander Cockburn zinged him once again. Not that Moore didn’t have things to say during the Obama years.
“I love Obama,” Moore says in his office. “I think a lot of people were defensive, liberals and Democrats, because he was under such constant and relentless attack in a way that no president ever had been before.
And we knew the racist underpinnings of that attack. And so I think people who otherwise would have offered helpful criticism pulled back from doing that because they did not want to be seen as part of the onslaught he was getting from the other side.”
Moore was not so constrained. At one point, he lashed out over Obama’s handling of the Flint water crisis, which in his show he calls the “prologue to Trump’s America.” Thinking about it gets him a little worked up. “Why let that be your legacy? Why not go out by doing something profound, like sending the Army Corps of Engineers to dig up those pipes and save that town of majority-black people?” And there were other things. “I think in some instances Obama helped pave the way for Trump, because he made it okay to prosecute whistle-blowers. He had arrested and deported more immigrants than any president. He approved a drone program that was not well thought-out and has killed hundreds if not thousands of civilians, turning more people against us in the Middle East and in Africa … still.” Moore pauses. “We miss him desperately right now, that’s for sure. It’s awfully hard to say anything now, these many months later, negative about him.”
Some of Moore’s critics feel the same way about him. Well, sort of. “I walked out of Fahrenheit 9/11 or whatever,” says New York’s Andrew Sullivan, one of Moore’s more virulent attackers. “I probably would not walk out today, but I still can’t stand the man. Some people are right for the wrong reasons. But he was closer to the mark than most of us would want to admit.” Says John Powers: “We were on the same side before, but I didn’t like it. I wanted there to be a better side. Now I know now there are only two, and I’m on Michael Moore’s.”
Not Glenn Beck, who, despite having had a political change of heart, does not, for the record, apologize for saying he wanted to strangle Moore in a 2005 radio clip Moore makes use of in his show. According to a spokesman: “If Glenn has to answer for a comedy bit taken out of context 13 years later by someone trying to sell theater tickets, then, really, the only person Glenn will want to strangle is himself.”
After Trump’s inauguration, Moore told people he thought Trump was a one-term president. That he was sure he’d be caught breaking a law or — “No, no, no,” he interrupts when I bring this up in the car on the way to the theater on opening night. “I might have said that just to cheer people up, because people were so depressed.”
So wait, what does Moore, the soothsayer, the prophet, think is going to happen? He pauses for a long moment, long enough that by the time he speaks again we are almost at the theater. “I have to think about how to answer that,” he says. “I don’t want to depress everybody. But I also can’t do anything but speak the truth, so I want to have that conversation.”
A week or so later, I get the call to meet Moore in his office. The thing is — actually, I’ll just let the oracle speak.
“So, you know, I’ve really debated whether or not, how to answer your question, if I want to answer it honestly,” he says. “Because if I’m completely honest, I’m not one to want to bring despair to people’s minds. I am an optimist, I’m not a cynic. I do believe that most people are good at their core and will do the right thing. And I believe the world has gotten better, that it takes a while, two steps forward, one step back, but generally the progression of history has been toward the light, not toward darkness. With major exceptions. But I think it’s better to be completely honest and to deal with what I believe is the reality in front of us, because if we are willing to accept just how bad the news is, we might hunker down and find ways to protect as many people as possible during this dark time. So. Think about how old you are right now. Now, think about how old you’re going to be in 2025, which is eight years from now. Add eight years on your age. That’s how old you’re going to be when Donald J. Trump is still your president in January of 2025. That’s how much of your life is going to be taken up with him as your president.”
Naturally, in trying to think about this, I bring up the idea that They, the Smart People, think there’s some chance he might be removed. Moore, under his baseball cap, lets out a tiny sigh. Like: Why must he do this alone?
“It’s delusional,” he says. For him, the only hope is activating a real movement directed at the polls. “That’s why I’m on that stage every night.” But even that seems like a long shot: “Impeachment,” he says, “people don’t even know what that means. Or there’s that clause in the 25th Amendment where if the president goes insane, a majority of the Cabinet can remove him, or at least turn the powers over to the vice-president. People talk about that like it’s a real thing. Like they’re really going to do that. By now, most Republicans — because they’re only a year away from their election in the House, and a third of the Senate — they have done polling in their districts, and they have learned that being associated with Trump or having Trump as the standard-bearer of their party will not cost them their seat next year. They’ve done such an excellent job of gerrymandering their districts that even though people may not like Trump that much by this time next year, it will not affect them. It will affect a few, in some of the purple districts. Democrats will pick up a few seats, that’s just true historically, but … He just has to win his Electoral College states, and he doesn’t need to win all the ones he had, because what did he have, 304? And you need 270? He’s not going to lose 35 electoral votes.
“You know everybody’s saying, ‘Russia, Russia, that’s going to do it!’ Here’s what’s going to happen: People like Paul Manafort are probably going to be indicted. Don Jr. might be indicted. But it’s all going to be people around him. It’s not going to be him. This man has always made sure he’s never in the wrong. He doesn’t drink. He’s very careful. It doesn’t look like it, but on the things where he needs to be, he’s careful. With all of the shenanigans we have read over the years about Trump and the different things he has done to abuse workers, to skid past regulations, the man has never been indicted. He has never spent the night in jail. Anybody who is thinking he is going down on any of this Russian stuff clearly hasn’t paid attention to the adventures of Donald J. Trump over the last three or four decades. I’m not saying those things didn’t happen, but I can guarantee you he always made sure he wasn’t there and there was no witness to him being there. That’s why he waited for everyone to leave the room before he had that conversation with Comey. He’ll never be indicted for that, because it’s one person’s word against the other. There’s no witness, and there’s no tape. Because he is an evil genius. And he’s such a malignant narcissist that he’ll never resign or take the fall for his kids or his close friends or associates.
“So I don’t think Trump’s going anywhere. Not next week, not next month, and not next year. It’s like, you can hope and dream, or you can deal with the reality of it. It’s a wonderful thing to have, but, I mean, at some point, you have to wake up. Right?”
Of course, he could always be wrong.
Top two images: Grooming by Cecilia Romero for Exclusive Artists using Rene Furterer.
*This article appears in the September 4, 2017, issue of New York Magazine. It has been corrected to show that Adam Hochschild is a mining heir, not an oil heir.