Michael Moore, for decades on the political front lines, is hunkered down inside, riding out the pandemic from his Upper West Side apartment. “I literally have not stepped outside the door of my apartment building in 71 days,” he told me this week. He’s had one visitor in that time—a handyman—and sees his doorman from a distance when retrieving a package. Kind neighbors have dropped goodies outside his door. “I think they’re worried about me,” he says dryly. He fortunately has a balcony, a coveted feature for many sun-starved New Yorkers, and it’s there where he gets his daily exercise, walking back and forth in the small outdoor space until he’s logged a mile or two.
“The people across the street,” he said with a laugh, “it must look like there’s a lunatic who lives across the street from them.” Last month, on his 45th day in isolation, Moore turned 66, and his age and past bout with pneumonia make him a prime candidate to get hit hard by the virus. After spending much of the fall and winter stumping through Iowa and New Hampshire on behalf of Bernie Sanders, Moore opted not to travel ahead of the Super Tuesday primaries being held in early March, wary of a coronavirus crisis that was only just coming into focus in the United States. Moore recalled getting scared straight after talking to experts and academics and seeing “a runaway train heading in our direction.” To Moore’s friends it seemed like uncharacteristic alarmism. At that point in February, there had yet to be a death from COVID-19 reported in the U.S.; “social distancing” was still weeks away from entering the lexicon. “Everybody was like, ‘Dude, this doesn’t sound like you,’” Moore said. “I said, ‘No, I know, but I’m just using my own instinct here. I’m not a scientist.’”
What Moore had to figure out then was where to quarantine. A doctor recommended Michigan, where the Flint native has a home, cautioning that New York’s hospital system could be overwhelmed. But Moore had visions of the virus bringing about chaos and unrest, even angry mobs, a scene straight out of The Day of the Locust. He concluded that “it would be actually more dangerous to be in the place where people are carrying a lot of guns.” “This was all before we watched all the people I went to high school with show up at the state capitol with their guns,” he said, referring to the anti-lockdown protests in Michigan that have drawn some rifle-toting demonstrators and President Donald Trump egging them on with a call to “liberate” the state.
Moore distinguished himself in 2016 as one of the few prominent media voices to predict Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton. “I have had a different lens that I have looked through when I look at Trump, different from other liberals or lefties or Democrats,” Moore said. “I always have taken him seriously. I believe him when he says something. This is something other liberals don’t do, and this is why we were defeated in 2016.” Trump’s infamous boast that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing any voters? “I believe him,” Moore said. “I believe that’s a true statement.” And Moore believes that Trump may indeed be taking the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a preventive measure against COVID-19, as he’s claimed. “I think he’s very freaked out that his valet, the guy who’s getting him his Kentucky Fried Chicken, came down with it,” Moore said.
The studio audience at HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher erupted in boos in July 2016 as Moore predicted Trump’s victory. What he saw emerging in the summer of 2016 was a “Rust Belt Brexit.” He likened Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to the middle of England, teeming with voters who were ready to roll the dice. Ohio looked like a possibility, despite Barack Obama carrying it in both 2008 and 2012, but Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—none of which had gone red since the ’80s—seemed like a stretch. But, as Moore warned Bill Maher’s liberal viewers, many voters in those states loathed the Clintons over their support for NAFTA. And he pointed out that more Republicans turned out for the Michigan primary than Democrats. Trump ended up sweeping all four states in November en route to the White House. “I could not get anyone to listen to me,” Moore says now.
Many more are listening in 2020, with Democrats and liberals hell-bent on winning back states they had long considered safely blue. Joe Biden made his appeal in the Rust Belt one of his central pitches to primary voters, touting himself as the Democrat best suited to win in the region. There is recent polling to buttress Biden’s argument, and the 2018 midterms—which saw Democratic governors elected in Michigan and Wisconsin, and one re-elected in Pennsylvania—offer some encouragement to the party. When we spoke on Tuesday, Moore wasn’t quite as bullish on Trump’s chances this time around. But Moore has another concern: He isn’t so sure any votes will be cast at all. “There will be no November 3 election if things keep going the way they’re going right now,” Moore said. “I think he would have figured out a way, even without the coronavirus, but this is a gift to him because I think he never really intended on leaving in the first place. He admires dictators. He admires strongmen, wishes he was one. I think the writing is on the wall right now that he is in deep electoral trouble.”
Legal experts say Trump doesn’t have the authority to delay or cancel the election, but Biden has predicted he may try. Son-in-law Jared Kushner only helped fuel speculation last week that there could be some kind of election holdup, and on the morning after we spoke, Trump threatened to to withhold federal funding to to Michigan and Nevada over their plans for mail-in ballots. Even if the election does happen in November, Moore isn’t convinced that Biden will be on the Democratic ticket. “This has been a crazy year, a crazy election year, a crazy year on so many levels. Anything you would have predicted back in December or January is out the window. The year we thought we were going to have on any level is out the window. So if it’s all out the window, what else is out the window?” Moore said. “Nothing is lined up right this year. Just because he’s got the most delegates and everybody’s conceded, it doesn’t mean he’s going to be the nominee. They’re not even going to have a real convention. Anything can happen.”
There have yet to be any real indications that the Democrats are plotting to remove Biden from the top of the ticket, but speculation has been rampant online. New York governor Andrew Cuomo has been a popular choice as a potential replacement, but Moore floated California governor Gavin Newsom as another possibility. “The Democratic establishment ditched Biden back in January, when he was losing everything so badly. What’d they do? They changed the debate rules to let [Michael] Bloomberg in. They were so desperate,” Moore said. “They were ready to dump Biden like a hot potato, and they will do it again if they need to.”
It was during that moribund period for Biden’s campaign when it appeared that Sanders, for whom Moore acted as a surrogate, might be the one pitted against Trump in the fall. Two months after Biden’s stunning turnaround, Moore still isn’t quite sure where it went wrong for his candidate. “Looking back, I don’t know what we could do differently,” he said. “I mean, I’ll say this: It takes a lot of time when you’re going door-to-door to explain Democratic socialism. We live in a country where 40% believes the earth is only 6,000 years old. It’s a hard thing to explain,” Moore said. “I would always explain that you need to think of it as, What would Jesus do? Democratic socialism means everyone has a seat at the table, and everybody gets a slice of the pie. Pure and simple. What American is not for that? That’s what Bernie stood for. That’s what his belief system is. The emphasis should be more on the Democratic part than the socialism part so people would understand.”
Labels aside—and notwithstanding the possibility of a dramatic nominee swap—Moore believes Biden must embrace more of Sanders’s proposals to avoid getting left at the altar by would-be Democratic voters in November. “Biden does not generate the necessary enthusiasm that it’s going to take to get people out,” Moore said. “The Democrats are cynically counting on everyone’s desire to remove Trump.” All that gives Moore flashbacks to 2016, as do the anti-lockdown protests erupting in those same Rust Belt states that sealed Clinton’s fate four years ago. Trump’s supporters, Moore said ominously, “are more rabid than ever.”
A half hour into our conversation, Moore suddenly paused midsentence. The 7 p.m. clapping had started outside his window. Participation in the nightly ritual is still robust in his Upper West Side neighborhood. A kid in the apartment next door had started to use the occasion to perform a drum solo out on his family’s balcony. “I think the part about doing it to honor the doctors and nurses has turned more into a primal scream up here,” he said. But even as he closes in on his 10th full week cooped up inside, Moore has not succumbed to ennui. “My new normal has been 71 days of having all day to be creative,” he said. “The last thing you want to do is give people like me—and other people who are reading this, I’m sure, are thinking this for themselves—three months to be at our own will. It’s dangerous and good for the country.”
At 66, Moore is arguably as prolific as he ever has been. He launched his own podcast in December, a talk show called Rumble in which he interviews politicians and entertainers alike. (Fortuitously, he chose to build the studio in the guest bedroom of his apartment rather than buy new space in Manhattan, allowing production to continue without a hitch during his time in quarantine.) The experience has been a thrill for Moore, taking him back to his days as a young disc jockey at a local rock station in Michigan, where he hosted a show called Radio Free Flint. Emboldened by its success—during our phone call, according to Moore, Rumble hit its 10 millionth download—he has quietly been interviewing and auditioning others to host new programs to form a podcast network, a more subversive analog to Crooked Media, the liberal juggernaut launched by ex-Obama aides. He envisions a show for each day of the week. “I’m not talking about four or five other people who are just like me. I’m talking about a real, diverse group of idea people and thinking people and people who are good conversationalists and people who are funny and people who are entertaining,” Moore said. “On these podcasts you’re going to hear things and experience things that you just don’t hear.”
Moore hasn’t abandoned the medium that made him famous. He has one documentary in preproduction, as well as a screenplay for a fictional movie, though he wouldn’t divulge the subject matter for either. And Moore is now embarking on a role as a film distributor, with plans to release the work of other directors on his YouTube channel. The maiden voyage for that experiment came last month with the online release of Planet of the Humans, directed by frequent Moore collaborator Jeff Gibbs. The documentary, which Moore produced, offers a brutal assessment of renewable energy, arguing that the likes of solar panels and wind turbines have done nothing to meaningfully avert the planet from the dangers of climate change. Many environmentalists have reacted just as harshly, accusing Moore and Gibbs of giving succor to climate deniers. “The film does not deny climate science. But it promotes the discredited myths that deniers have used for years to justify their position,” wrote Guardian columnist George Monbiot. “It claims that environmentalism is a self-seeking scam, doing immense harm to the living world while enriching a group of con artists. This has long been the most effective means by which denial—most of which has been funded by the fossil fuel industry—has been spread. Everyone hates a scammer.”
Criticism of the film has put Moore at odds with erstwhile tribesmen. The author Naomi Klein and documentary maker Josh Fox, both fellow Sanders surrogates, have publicly criticized the film, with Fox even leading an effort to have the film removed. As of this writing, Planet of the Humans has racked up more than 8 million views on YouTube. Moore insisted he doesn’t want anybody to remove solar panels or stop driving hybrid cars. “All Planet of the Humans is doing is asking, ‘Have we succeeded in beating climate change?’ No,” Moore said. “Well, then, should we not all have a discussion?” He compared the people criticizing the film to those who jeered him for using his Oscar-acceptance speech for Bowling for Columbine in 2003 to condemn the just-launched invasion of Iraq, and who years later would concede that he was right about the war all along. He expressed frustration with liberals or lefties who “don’t want to change” or consider there could be another course of action.
For decades the director’s work has always cast an unsparing lens on the most powerful people and groups who constitute (and often corrupt) U.S. politics. But another common thread in Moore’s films is his diagnoses of the American psyche: what makes us tick, and how do those impulses shape our society and government? In the aforementioned Oscar winner, Moore connected the dots between a citizenry consumed with fear and paranoia, and the country’s unrivaled gun carnage. With the coronavirus, Moore believes experts and political leaders opted against a candid approach with an American public ill-equipped to handle bad news. “We sort of revel in our ignorance,” Moore said. “We’d rather not know because it’s hard to deal with the awful truth. And I’ve always believed that I want to hear the worst-case scenario, so then I can figure out what to do.”
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