Michael Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. His Fahrenheit 9/11, a critical look at the presidency of George W. Bush and the War on Terror, became the highest-grossing documentary of all time and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: Months before Election Day in 2016 you went on Bill Maher’s show and said Trump was going to carry Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. At the time that seemed ridiculous. These were blue states. I thought you were just trying to get people mobilized to work on the election. Then on election night, when they announced that Trump had carried Michigan and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, the first thing I thought was “Michael Moore knew something that the pollsters and the Hillary campaign and all the networks did not know.” What was it that you knew?
Michael Moore: Well, I live in Michigan. I don’t live in the bubble of Los Angeles. I didn’t grow up in a city like New York where the media treated Donald Trump either as a joke or tabloid fodder, where many years ago they gave him an affectionate nickname: ‘The Donald.” They didn’t do their job, and he got to continue breaking the law, discriminating against black families in his housing units, treating women the way he treated them. I’m not of that world. I come from out in that flyover place. I also had the benefit of not really going to college. I used to feel really bad and ashamed about it. I only lasted for a year, and at a commuter campus. The whole college was in one building in Flint. So I wasn’t conditioned to think of things the way liberals and people on the left do. I live in that other world, where I watched The Apprentice. If we were able to ask everybody listening to this right now, “How many of you watched The Apprentice every week when Donald Trump was the host?” I’m guessing not many would say “I did.”
JW: I didn’t.
MM: Of course you didn’t. You don’t waste your time with crap like that. You went to college, and you’re an enlightened, educated person.
JW: Aw, shucks.
MM: That’s a good thing. That’s a compliment. But I didn’t grow up that way. I watched what the majority of my fellow Americans watch. But here was the beauty and the genius of The Apprentice, and I think this will help answer your question about how I knew what was going to happen on that election night. I’m not Cassandra. I’m not Carnac the Magnificent. I am not going to make other predictions in this interview with you.
I know people who worked with Trump on The Apprentice. It took them literally days to get him to say his lines right, just the simple line, “You’re fired.” Because he’s never fired anybody. He’s never said, “You’re fired.” Because he’s Donald Trump. He has some henchmen do that job. He has Don Jr. or Eric do that job.
It’s like what happened on the Billy Bush bus: after Trump said what he said, he went to get off the bus to meet the pretty woman that was standing out there, the woman he was taking his Tic Tacs for. He takes the two steps down to the bus door. He’s inside the bus, right? And he doesn’t know how to get out. He thinks the way to get out is to knock on the door. So he knocks on the door, from the inside. I looked at that, and I thought, “This guy’s never ridden a bus.”
JW: I think you’re onto something here.
MM: He literally doesn’t know how to get off a bus. And he’s never fired anybody. They had to get diction people and acting coaches to get him to say, “You’re fired.” But the genius of the show is that each week he would fire the jerk on the show. America would watch that, and they would go, “I know that jerk. He’s in the next cubicle.” “He works on the line with me here.” There was something cathartic about watching Trump go, “You’re fired,” because everybody wants to do that to that a-hole who is sitting next to them at work. In the first season, the final episode had 44 million people watching. Compare that to last month, when the highest-rated show was The Big Bang Theory on CBS. It’s a sitcom. It had 17 million viewers. Trump had 44 million. He became a beloved figure. This is something that the Democrats, the Clinton campaign, and our fellow liberals and lefties, didn’t know and didn’t understand. Because they didn’t watch the show.
JW: Your new film starts out on election night. Donald Trump wins, and you ask the question, “How the fuck did that happen?” The genius of the film, in my opinion, is that this documentary about Trump centers on Flint, and Trump really isn’t the cause of Flint’s troubles at all. He had almost nothing to do with Flint. The real turning point of the film comes with Obama going to Flint during the campaign, and drinking the water there. That is a terrible moment, and it explains so much about how Trump got elected.
MM: Well, it was the most painful part of the film for me personally. I love President Obama. I voted for him twice. So far, to this point in my life, he’s the best president that we’ve had. But in the making of this film, I realized that, as awful as Trump is, the day before Trump became president wasn’t really a great day for the tens of millions of people living in poverty, the tens of millions of people who are functionally illiterate because of the conditions of our schools, and so on. Trump didn’t just fall out of the sky. We helped create Trump. We were an unwitting Dr. Frankenstein—we collectively, because the Democratic Party, in ways that I’m sure that they regret, was helping to pave the way for him.
JW: And Flint provides a microcosm of how the Democrats paved the way for Trump.
MM: We all know that more people vote in a general election than in a primary. But the Democratic primary in Flint in 2016 had a turnout much larger than the general a few months later. Nobody has bothered to look at that or ask why. I do, in this film. And the reason isn’t because people in Flint decided there was no difference between Trump and Hillary. Nobody took that position. It was because the Democrats actively depressed the vote. First, in the primary debate in Flint between Hillary and Bernie, the DNC gave Hillary the questions in advance. When that was revealed a month or two later, the people of Flint, the mothers of the kids poisoned by lead in the water, the people who had stood at the microphone to ask a question that they thought that she was hearing for the first time, when they found out that it was rigged, many people in Flint, and certainly the people that were there at the debate, felt used as props by the Hillary campaign and by the Democratic Party.
Then one month after the debate, President Obama comes to Flint and drinks the water and says the water’s fine. But it wasn’t fine, and everybody knew it was still poisoned, and nobody could understand why he would do this. That was like a knife in the heart to the people of Flint. So on Election Day, the turnout was much lower than it had been in the primary. And Trump carried Michigan—by 10,000 votes. And it’s not just Flint. All over this country people felt that the party of the people has let them down.
JW: You find a lesson here—for November.
MM: Look, we’re not going to fix this problem if we don’t own up to our own mistakes. We have to do this differently if we’re going to be successful in getting rid of Trump. We can no longer vote for people who call themselves Democrats when they are people like Bill Clinton, who is responsible for everything from NAFTA, to his Defense of Marriage Act making it illegal to marry somebody that you love, to mass incarceration of black people through drug laws. All those things began with a Democrat. They really weren’t upended when another Democrat came into office in 2009.
Right now we’re close to the edge of the cliff with Trump, and with our democracy. So everybody, everybody, has to vote on November 6, and everybody has to bring five, 10 people with them to the polls, and they’ve got to vote for a Democrat. The good news is we have so many good progressive Democrats on the ballot. There are so many women on the ballot in November, so many young people, so many people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the ballot, all across the country. Let’s all make a commitment to not let this happen again.