For all of Donald Trump’s ugly bluster about making America great again, he’s awfully soft on what American greatness actually is. All that’s certain, it seems, is that it will involve the construction of a menacing wall—with a big, beautiful door—on our side of the Rio Grande. And no Muslims. Certainly, “Make America Great Again” is as ludicrous a sentiment as the rhetoric behind it is offensive. But as Michael Moore illustrates in his new documentary, there’s a kernel of truth in Trump’s basic plaint that we, as a nation, can do better.
Indeed, Where to Invade Next ought to be seen as an antidote to Trump’s odious buffoonery. Where the GOP preaches intolerance and inhumanity, Moore takes us on a tour of nations that treat their citizens with dignity and respect—free gourmet lunches in a working-class French public school, for example, and readily accessible, state-sponsored access to reproductive-health services in Tunisia. Finnish children reap the benefits of the world’s best-performing educational system, while spending fewer hours in class and doing less homework than students anywhere else. I could list more, but you—and your neighbor—should really just see the film.
It’s not man-on-the-moon stuff, and one of the messages of Where to Invade Next is that so-called “greatness” is not the answer to America’s problems. Rather, competence is where America’s path to rejuvenation and progress lies. We’re talking about adequate pay and affordable healthcare. Functional schools and equitable criminal justice. The basics.
Moore’s ultimate flourish is a bit of rhetorical jiu-jitsu on the conservative chestnut that the United States is the world’s “indispensable nation.” We’re not indispensable because we “kick ass” in a tanks-and-carriers sort of way—as Moore explains at the beginning of the film, America has not won a war since 1945. Rather, we’re indispensable because we think creatively and generously and flexibly. We’re problem solvers. Most of the ideas that Moore seeks to claim for America and bring back for Americans were actually conceived of and first implemented in the United States, and Moore’s international interviewees acknowledge as much. Today’s America scoffs at “the people who brought you the weekend,” but the European labor organizers Moore talks to certainly don’t. They’re grateful for prior American efforts to ban child labor and to mandate a 40-hour work week. And they’re stunned by our current shabby state of affairs.
Where to Invade Next is not as explicitly pro-union as, say, Roger and Me, but the film’s themes are consistently and appropriately undergirded by a strong pro-labor endoskeleton. In Italy, Moore lingers on Ducati factory workers as they enjoy their two-hour lunch break, then debriefs a middle-class Italian couple on where they’ve spent—and where they plan to spend—their yearly allowance of eight weeks’ paid vacation time. (They can afford to travel in part because their bosses give them a “13th month” of pay every December.) And of course, with typical Moore-ian aplomb, the stylish Italian factory owners manage to simultaneously express cool (but not smug) satisfaction about their system and perplexed befuddlement about ours. It’s hard not to feel the same way. In Iceland, Moore notes that, unlike here, that nation prosecuted (with the help of a US prosecutor)—and, in some cases, incarcerated—the bankers responsible for Iceland’s 2008 economic collapse. What’s more, given the deplorable course on which men steered the ship of state, Iceland has largely given the helm to women and boasts the highest score of any nation on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. They recognized a problem, found a solution, and implemented it. Why can’t we?
Moore’s wonderful conceit is that he’s bringing these reforms and innovations back to their nation of origin, back to where they can once again do some good for American citizens. It’s not terribly nuanced, but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s forget about making America great. Let’s make Americans great.