News & Politics

Michael Moore on Why America 'Needs a Little Time in the Timeout Room,' and Whether Hillary Will Start a War

Michael Moore talks Trump and terrorism, Sanders and socialism, Hillary and war.

Michael Moore.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Michael Moore has entered a period of reckoning, a period of thinking about his legacy. This can be deadly for artists or it can kick them into a higher gear; there’s no general rule about this. (If William Butler Yeats had died young the way Keats and Shelley did, he’d barely be remembered today.) I’m not going to pretend to review Moore’s new movie, “Where to Invade Next,” which is more like a manifesto or a plea than a conventional documentary. It has abundant flaws, some of which are simply questions of timing. Moore could not have known that his film heaping praise on European social democracy would come out as Europe faces multiple overlapping crises: a million or so migrants from the Middle East this year alone, the rise of the neo-fascist right, persistent economic stagnation.

Despite those flaws, or maybe because of them, I also found “Where to Invade Next” intensely moving. Moore visits the remnants of the Berlin Wall with an old friend, as evidence that things we believe will never change inevitably do. He visits the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, a country 99 percent of Americans could not find on a map with 20 guesses, where he finds American undergraduates receiving an entirely reasonable education with zero tuition. (Maybe it’s not Yale, but it’s not Podunk Community College either. And I repeat: It’s free.) He visits Portugal, where no one is ever arrested for drug possession, because it’s no longer illegal — and where not only crime has declined, but drug abuse as well. He visits an Italian couple who have barely middle-class jobs by American standards, and who eat lunch at home together every day and spend five weeks at the beach every summer (paid vacation, of course). As Moore says in the film, his ventures into Finland’s legendary educational system (no homework!) and Norway’s prisons, where convicted murderers bake bread, go on nature hikes and record hip-hop albums, are about picking the flowers and ignoring the weeds. If his portrait is overly simplistic in many respects — in every single country he visits, some aspect of the social safety net is under vigorous attack from neoliberal reformers — its broad strokes remain vivid and valid. As I discussed with Moore, even Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim National Front, does not advocate major cuts to healthcare or retirement benefits. (Although she would surely like to restrict who gets them.) Britain’s governing Conservative Party has eaten away at the National Health Service in some ways, but would never be so foolish as to propose abolishing it.

In other words, even Europe in crisis — facing a million new residents many Europeans don’t trust and don’t want, and the trauma of two terrorist attacks in Paris inside a year — represents a level of collective commitment to equality and a decent living standard that America has never had. We came the closest, perhaps, under John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon — yeah, I said Nixon! Stay tuned for more on that. But the relatively mild Keynesian interventionism of that period has been under sustained ideological attack ever since, to the point where most Americans simply accept the dogma that the private sector always does things more efficiently and there’s no point trying to battle the tide of economic reality. More to the point, politicians accept that dogma or refuse to resist it; see the turgid tale of Obamacare, which represents a big improvement over the previous situation in roughly the same way as the moment when the horror-movie maniac stops beating you with a claw hammer.

Whatever you make of Moore’s movies or his screen persona as the bumbling American naïf trying to reconquer Europe’s best ideas — many of them borrowed from the American progressive movement in the first instance — he has never been the kind of leftist who distrusts pleasure. He would willingly have spent our entire interview talking about “Star Wars” (he’s a fan, although he hadn’t seen the new movie yet) and about his other populist campaign: to save the movie theater and redeem the moviegoing experience.

Moore runs two successful theaters in northern Michigan along with the Traverse City Film Festival every summer, and wants the Directors Guild of America to issue a “Good Housekeeping seal of approval” to theater proprietors who actually project films with the correct lenses and the correct aspect ratio, who keep the room dark, control smartphone use and set the sound system to appropriate levels. His theaters charge $2 for popcorn and $2 for soda (he calls it “pop,” of course). Anyone caught texting during the movie is banned, Moore claims, for life.

“We’re the only artists who, when we finish our art, we put it in a DHL bag and that’s the end of it,” Moore says. He gestures out the window at an art gallery visible across the street from our Manhattan conference room. “The guy whose paintings are hanging over there right now — he picked out the frames, he lit the show, he put them in the order he wanted. Every burned-out, stoned rock band shows up at the club for the 4 p.m. soundcheck. Every artist does this but us, and it’s the most bizarre thing. Because our art takes years to make sometimes. Years to make these films! And then we just let them loose in the Paramus 6!”

OK, Michael, here you are having made this film about all the wonderful things in European social democracy, and all we hear in the news from Europe for the past year, and especially this summer and this fall, are incredibly terrible things.

Sure. But still, in spite of everything that has happened in the last few months, French schoolchildren are going to get a filet of cod in dill sauce for lunch. Nobody in Germany or Slovenia or Finland is going to write a check to the bank for their student loan, because there is no student loan. All the things I point out in the film, despite the economic troubles they have and the terrorism stuff, are still true. They are committed to living their lives differently, and they do their best to hang on to the social order that they wanted to create for themselves. They’re to be admired for doing that. It isn’t always pretty and it isn’t always easy, but they’re committed to doing it.

And they haven’t just been doing it for a couple of years. The things I show in the film are not new ideas. They’re decades old. The drug thing in Portugal has been true for 15 years. Fifteen years of not locking people up for possessing or using drugs. My point is, they’ve tried these things, they’ve done their trial and error. They’ve made mistakes and fixed them, and now they’re at a point where this stuff works pretty damn well, about as well as anything run by humans can run. We don’t have to make the mistakes they’ve made. They made them for us! We can learn a lot from what they have accomplished.

There’s a crucial difference that Americans almost always miss when they compare Donald Trump to someone like Marine Le Pen in France. While I would agree that she is ominous and dangerous, she does not propose cutting pensions for seniors or funding for education. She might try to argue that to save those things France has to keep the Muslims out, but that’s a different question.

Right. Or the Tories in Britain — no one would run on a platform of destroying the NHS. No, no, no, no, no. There’s a consensus across the political spectrum that these things are important for our well-being. Conservatives in those countries like these programs not because they have such good hearts, but because it’s best for them. They’ll live in a safer society. It maintains social order. If there is national healthcare, people don’t come to work sick and make everyone else sick. People have paid vacations and they come back happy and feeling good and ready to work. It’s not just bleeding-heart liberal stuff. They see benefits to themselves, benefits to capitalism and profitability.

I bring this up constantly, but the one president in American history who actually proposed national healthcare for everyone was Richard Nixon. He wasn’t doing that out of the goodness of his heart, since he … 

Since he didn’t have one, yeah. Even Trump, in the first Republican debate, tried in his clunky way to explain single-payer health insurance, which he supported. [Trump voice] “Now I gotta deal with 50 state insurance commissioners and all their rules. If we just had one commissioner and one set of rules.” Which for him is a totally valid point. It made sense. In these other countries, people don’t attack these basic things because they know the country runs better with them.

People say to me, “Well, how come you didn’t point that they’ve got 10 percent unemployment?” For the same reason that it would be stupid if somebody from Denmark made a documentary about the genius of this invention [holding up his iPhone] — this is American genius right here, OK? — and then got criticized back in Denmark by somebody saying, “Why did you make a film about Silicon Valley when there have been 321 mass shootings in the U.S. this year?” What does one thing have to do with the other?

We have a lot of problems and we also have some great things. They have some great things and they have a lot of problems. This film wants to show the great things. It’s not about the problems. I also think it’s a little gauche for Americans to point out to anybody in the world what their problems are at this point. [Laughter.] I think we need a little time in the timeout room, you know what I’m saying? A little chill-down from running around the world: “You need democracy! Now you need democracy!”

I’m sure you know this story, but when Ford bought Volvo I think their managers went into Sweden expecting some kind of nightmarish government bureaucracy. And then they realized that it was actually much simpler. They didn’t have to worry about health insurance or retirement benefits, because those are already taken care of. The only thing they had to do, from a management perspective, was negotiate wages with the union. That was it.

Yeah. We’re done! They saved a thousand dollars per car, right there. When you study the healthcare plans in these other countries, their overhead, their bureaucracy, their red tape typically comes to 3 or 4 percent of the overall budget. The same as it is with Social Security. When you allow the private companies in, you get 20 to 25 percent of the budget going to the front office, to run the thing and of course to pay those great salaries to their executives.

I do know that story, and General Motors did the same thing when they moved their factories from Flint 60 miles away into Canada. Right away, they don’t have to pay for health insurance. Done!

For me the key question is how you combat the dominant ideology in the United States which holds that the private sector always does everything better, and that we have to outsource and privatize everything forever. Because you can’t say that Ideology is only found on the Republican side.

Oh, no. It’s Clinton-era ideology, very much. That would be a great documentary! I mean, somebody should make that film to show the fallacy of that argument. Privatizing things has led to one fail after another. It’s in the American belief system that the DMV would be so much better in private hands than this nightmare I’m going through right now. That’s a great idea, actually.

I love that scene at the end of “Where to Invade Next” where you visit the Berlin Wall with your old friend. It’s very touching but it also got me thinking. Did all of this happen in large part because of what happened in 1989? It was like, “Oh, we’ve defeated Communism! So obviously our way is superior and we have to pursue it to the most illogical extreme!”

You know, we were filming other stuff in Berlin, and Rod and I just went over there to the Wall to make a video for the grandkids, for the family scrapbook. We had been there 25 years earlier, by accident, and there we were again. That was not intended to be in the film. Only later, in the edit room, I kept noticing how many times people said to us that whatever idea I was admiring actually had its roots in the United States. Progressive educators and philosophers from this country formed the backbone of what the Finns do. May Day is not a Soviet idea. It’s a Haymarket riots idea, from Chicago in 1886.

So we didn’t plan for that to be part of the film. It kind of organically happened. I started thinking about the Berlin Wall and the way that masses of people made it happen, the images of people chiseling away at that wall. Images are powerful: Think about that image of the three-year-old kid washing up dead in Turkey, three or four months ago. It turned Europe around. They opened their doors because of one photograph. The image is powerful, and that isn’t lost on me in terms of what I do. My belief is that movies make a difference, that movies can change people. It’s not just something to kill two hours.

That’s beautiful and I’m so grateful you said it. But I was asking a darker question: Did the end of the Cold War have negative consequences, in a bizarre way? I’m not defending Soviet Communism at all, but that specter compelled the United States to adopt more progressive policies, to prove that our system could take care of poor people too. 

I know what you’re saying. That’s very true. And the thing you mentioned about Nixon — just thing about the other things Nixon did. Title IX, that was Nixon. Methadone clinics for heroin addicts, instead of putting them in prison. Federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

I’m pretty sure he also had a program to provide federal grants to minority-owned businesses and female-owned businesses.

Did he? Yeah. [Heavy sigh.] We are such a long way from that right now.

So maybe the end of the Cold War was a mistake, and forcing Nixon to resign was a mistake! [Laughter.] That’s a counterintuitive take on history for sure.

I hadn’t actually thought about it that way. But you have a point.

Where do you see signs of hope? Is the Bernie Sanders campaign a sign of hope, even if he doesn’t win?

Absolutely. A socialist was on the stage for a Democratic debate! There was a poll last month where they asked Democrats how they felt about socialism and capitalism, and 46 percent said they had a positive view of socialism, while 37 percent said they had a positive view of capitalism. Things are changing, and young people are making this change happen. My politics and Bernie’s line up almost exactly the same. I like Hillary too, or I should say there’s a lot of things I like about Hillary and there’s a lot of things I’m worried about with Hillary.

Yeah. I’ve said this in print: She’s a Cold War liberal of the old school.

Which means she’s a bit of a hawk, yeah. We may not want to go there. She has apologized for her Iraq vote, but I’d like to believe it. I’d like to believe that she’s not gonna feel she has to get into a war to prove that a woman is not afraid to pull the trigger. That we don’t need. There’s always this danger. As that Icelandic woman in my film says, “When you have one woman in the room, it is a token. When there’s two, it’s a minority. When there are three, things start to change.”

So when you have one African-American on the Supreme Court, you get Clarence Thomas. One woman and you get Sandra Day O’Connor. One female prime minister and you get Margaret Thatcher. But when the door opens and more come in, you’ll see that those people are the outliers, and they were allowed in only because they believed in the status quo and wouldn’t rock the boat too much. I gotta believe that Hillary would be willing to rock that boat. For peace.

I sure hope so. I can’t let you go without asking about the star of our show, Donald Trump. Here’s my take: I’ve defended Trump up to a point, or at least I have argued he was provided a useful service. First of all, he demonstrates how unhappy many people are with the bipartisan system, with mainstream politics. And he also showed us what the base voters of the Republican Party really want, which was not pretty. More recently, though, it has gotten a lot less fun, and less useful. 

Yeah, it turned dark, didn’t it? That’s all true, and again, Trump in the early debates talked about single-payer. He didn’t like George W. Bush. He came out against the Iraq war, within a year of the war starting. He wanted to tax the hedge-fund guys. He had an idea about reforming the V.A., even if it wasn’t that well thought out. Those ideas are of course totally lost now that we’ve entered his “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs” phase.

Where you’re from in northern Michigan, does he have a lot of support?

Yeah, I would say so. But only among white guys. It’s just a white-guy thing. Let me give you a statistic: 81 percent of the electorate in 2016 will be either female, people of color or young adults between 18 and 35. They don’t look like those men on stage for the Republican debates. When school started in September, for the first time ever the majority of our kindergarteners were not white. We are not the America those guys grew up in, or the America they think they’re talking to. Those three groups they have alienated: women, people of color and young people. By turning off 81 percent of the electorate, what is their plan to get into the White House? They can’t make it happen anymore. I mean, it really is a dead party.

Their only plan is to depress the vote so badly that most of that 81 percent doesn’t show up or is disqualified. Which they accomplished in the midterm elections. 

Yes. But the midterms also have the cheating card of gerrymandering. The presidential election doesn’t have gerrymandering. So they have a problem. The math is much more difficult. A lot of us would have to stay home on Election Day. Now, the danger of Hillary Clinton is that she does not inspire young people and does not inspire people of color. Two of the three parts of the voting bloc are not all that excited about getting out of bed on Election Day and going and voting for her.

It is reasonable to expect that she motivates a record number of women to turn out.

Absolutely. She’s gonna have to, because she’s gonna have a hard time with those other groups. That’s how we lose. But listen, in this primary I think people should vote for who they want. If you want Bernie, vote for Bernie. If you want Hillary, vote for Hillary. Whoever has a D in front of their name is gonna be the next president, because of the math.

So with Donald Trump, is the left basically freaking out over nothing?

Yes. I think so. We should focus on what we need to do. And Hillary really needs to quit listening to certain advisers. I can’t believe they’re running the 2008 campaign all over again, where they kicked back with a decaf latte at the end of the night, laughing about how there was this guy in the race whose middle name was Hussein. Ha ha ha, right? If they’re thinking about Bernie that same way, they’re thinking wrong. Because people are mad, and when they close that curtain, anything can happen.

 

Andrew O'Hehir is a senior writer for Salon.

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