Current Affairs

Michael Moore On the 2020 Election, Trump’s Brain, and What We Can Do Next

Michael Moore and Nathan J. Robinson take a deep dive into Trump’s bizarre appeal and the reasons why the election outcome is impossible to predict.

Filmmaker Michael Moore recently joined Current Affairs editor in chief Nathan J. Robinson for a conversation about Trump, Biden, and the election. Follow Michael Moore @MMFlint. This interview has been edited lightly for grammar and clarity and reduced in length. The full version can be viewed here on YouTube or listened to on the Current Affairs podcast. 

NATHAN J. ROBINSON

Good evening, Current Affairs listeners. My name is Nathan Robinson, I am the editor of Current Affairs magazine, and I am here with the legendary filmmaker, activist, and author Michael Moore, who needs no introduction, but I will tell people they should all be listening to and subscribe to the Rumble with Michael Moore podcast. Hey, nice to see you.

MICHAEL MOORE

It’s great to see you. And I… I miss having an introduction.

NJR

Oh, sorry. You can get the introduction! Ah, okay. He’s the author of how many books? Quite a few… He did [television shows] The Awful Truth and TV Nation, [documentary films] Sicko, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, Fahrenheit 11/9, Where to Invade Next—half a dozen incredible films that changed political documentary filmmaking forever. Oscar-winning! Well, I could go on—see, I can do the introduction, if you want the introduction.

MM

Eagle Scout.

NJR

Eagle Scout. There you go.

MM

NRA Marksman of the Year Award, 1967.

NJR

Okay. Maybe we won’t mention that one, but that’s, ah, that’s something, too.

MM

And if you do the math, you’d have to be asking why were they letting 11-year-olds shoot guns with no adults around.

NJR

Well, this was Michigan?

MM

Yeah. Yes, Michigan.

NJR

No, I think that question answers itself.

MM

Well, I’m honored to be here. And as I’ve said, publicly and privately,  your magazine is one of the best, if not the best magazine in this country… I love reading it. I love the writing. I love the thinking. It’s fresh, it’s original, it’s daring. And for my take on it, it’s spot on in terms of what we need to be talking about. So thank you, Nathan, for publishing and editing this magazine.

NJR

Well, everyone on the staff really appreciates the support you’ve given us. The reason I wanted to talk to you—we’re recording this on a Thursday [10/29]. The United States presidential election is on Tuesday. I wanted to talk to you specifically because I think by the end of the cycle in 2016, you were almost the only person in the country saying that Donald Trump was going to be the president of the United States. That turned out to be true. So, how are you feeling now?

MM

Hmm, it’s a good question. Because this is not 2016. Funny, at the time, I didn’t think I was making a prediction. I was just commenting on what I saw in Michigan and I didn’t see much support for Hillary. And she lost the state by an average of two votes per precinct. So, now I have been virtually around the country every day, in some kind of Zoom. I’m always giving a speech somewhere over the internet, going on an MSNBC show or somebody’s podcast. I am of two minds and I don’t have a gray zone. I think it’s going to be one or the other. I think it is very possible Trump is going to be buried in a tsunami of ballots. I think that is actually something that can happen. I also believe that he is an evil genius and I put nothing past him. And I think that he’s smarter in this sort of way than all of us.

NJR

You’ve used this phrase before, “evil genius,” to describe him, and I agree with that. But I think that probably most people you say that to think you’re crazy. Because the consensus about Donald Trump is that he’s an idiot. He’s incompetent. He’s a horrible president. He has no idea what he’s doing. And I think I share with you the view that actually it is a real mistaken understanding of Donald Trump to just see him as a buffoon and a clown. He is those things, but that is a lack of a particular type of intelligence. And there is another type of intelligence, which is the intelligence of the con man. And that is a kind of smarts that he has.

MM

He and I are members of the same organization. It’s called the Screen Actors Guild. He’s the only sitting president I believe we’ve ever had that is still an active union member while he was president. Reagan was the president of the Screen Actors Guild back in the day, but not when he was in the White House. This guy is still a member of our union. So I think just as you could say “That Jim Carrey, he’s crazy,” some of the craziest people in show business have been some of the smartest people and some of the most—not in Jim Carrey’s case, but I’m thinking of others—some of the most devious and some of the worst human beings that people have run across.

The fact that [Trump] had 14 seasons on NBC with that show of his—they’re not a charity. They just don’t let anybody on TV. They kept him on because he had an audience of millions and millions and millions of Americans. And millions and millions—60 to 70 million—are going to vote for him this week. That’s how many people we share the country with that love Donald Trump. So this is a problem. This is a problem because the enthusiasm level amongst his supporters is amazing. And the enthusiasm level for Joe Biden—no offense to Joe Biden…

NJR

Even to talk of an “enthusiasm level” for Joe Biden…

MM

Yes. So, exactly. That’s a problem. Why is the Republican in Michigan running for Senate, John James, almost in a virtual tie with our incumbent Democrat? What does that tell you about Michigan? Maybe not so solid blue. Maybe we should take nothing for granted in these last four or five days. So that’s why I think it’s better that we be game face on, all of us on our toes. Take nothing for granted and understand that if he did it once he could do it again.

NJR

Yeah. People would make fun of Trump every time he brags about his ratings on The Apprentice. But he has a real skill as an entertainer. And if you watch his long speeches, the guy has energy. You watch him for 90 minutes—

MM

And he’s still standing up straight! Watch it when he goes up the stairs or down the stairs of Air Force One, he’s not grabbing [the rail]. I’m going to be grabbing it when I’m 74… it’s amazing. There’s something. And I can’t explain it… He does not eat a single vegetable.

NJR

He’s a miracle of medical science.

MM

Well, he’s proof. He’s proof that the human body wants to live, no matter what abuse we do it.

NJR

He got COVID! He got COVID and it couldn’t hurt him.

MM

Three days later, he ascended the staircase to the balcony. Took his mask off, like a man, and then looked around at his fiefdom.

NJR

It’s maddening, but there is something incredible about it because he seems to have more energy than I do. And I watched these speeches. And the other thing is, he’s funny. He is compelling in a real way. His speeches are not boring. He makes fun of his opponents and it makes people laugh. And he says things that are often kind of true… And I think we have to understand what the source of his appeal is. And it’s not just that people are crazy. You can’t just blame the idiot voters, right? He’s a manipulator.

MM

Yes. But all art is manipulation. Right? All acting. A reality show is not a reality show. It’s a manipulation. Everything’s being manipulated with performance and with timing. And he has great timing. It’s amazing when he knows how to switch it up. And then he goes off onto some—he starts talking about semi-trucks for no reason, you know? And then about Biden’s sheets and pillowcases, and you’re just left gobsmacked. And for the next minute or two, he’s moved on, but you’re still with pillows and sheets that he’s just talking about Biden having. And what does that mean? What’s the coded message there? 

The way he did that—the other night with the senator from Arizona. He made her come up on the stage saying “Come on, get up here.” Come on, come on. Like she’s a dog. Just talked to her like she was a dog and the crowd was going crazy! They loved it. And then he booted her off! It was like, wow. And I think, especially now, speaking—I’m speaking inside of the white man’s head, because I have a white man’s head—a lot of guys, oh man. They look at him and they go, “Yeah, get up here now, get outta here. Now, get up here, get outta here.” They love that. We love that sense, whatever that is that he has. 

But let me say, to that point of timing, that first debate, his timing was way off. I mean, he had to get COVID, then he had to have been on some kind of drugs or whatever. You go back and watch the debate now, it is so out of whack. For his history as an entertainer and a performer, he completely blew it. And I think the smart thing for the Biden people would have been after he refused to show up for debate number two, just say, “that’s the end, we’re not messing around with this.” That’s the end of the debates. Don’t give him another microphone. ‘Cause he will get it together at some point. And he did, I think, in that second, or what should have been the third debate.

NJR

In 2016, I remember watching the debates with people who were saying Hillary was winning them. And I think it was kind of wishful thinking, because when I watched them, I was like, “My God, he’s actually scoring some points here.” Not intellectually, but points where I can see people at home cheering them on.

MM

Well, yeah. And especially like in Michigan—his rallies in Michigan, he was constantly talking about how he was going to tax those hedge fund guys on Wall Street. He hated Wall Street. He knew it was going to play well and it would sound believable because it is believable for him. He knows that the elites in New York hate him, the uber-rich hate him, Wall Street hates him, always hated him. And he’s always been treated like he came from the trailer park called Queens and that they are never going to let him into the elite of the elite…  So when he would say, “Those hedge fund guys, they’re sitting there not paying their taxes… They’re going to pay more taxes.” All the cheers would go up in Ohio… But the reason it sounded like he meant it is because somewhere inside he wanted to really stick it to those guys. And that’s why it sounded so believable.

NJR

He’s got this nouveau riche thing even though he was born to a millionaire. It’s crazy. It’s so fake, but he’s so good at playing it. Like he’s excluded from the millionaire club, even though he owns the millionaire’s club.

MM

Or the fake gold-plated version of it.

NJR

He’s got an aspirational image, he’s what you would do if you won the lottery and you could be an asshole to everyone. You could order people around, you could gold plate everything. You could drive monster trucks on the White House lawn. Like he had big trucks in front of the White House at some point.

MM

Because he wanted to go out there and honk the horn.

NJR

Hamburgers every day at the White House. He’s the kid’s fantasy of a president. And the base instincts that everyone has. You can disregard the rules. Everyone will have to listen to you.

MM

This is why I’m telling you that the other part of me, the part where he doesn’t lose in a landslide, the part that says, “You know what, he could pull this off because it’s really only about a few votes now.” And it’s about who’s going to get there in the next few days to vote. And it’s about how much has he destroyed the U.S. postal service, and what other measures has he put in place so that votes don’t get counted? He’s already said every day for the last three days that the vote count has to end on Tuesday night, midnight, or maybe if he’s generous midnight Hawaii time… He’s gonna maybe try to get away with that… and you could say, you don’t think he’s going to get away with it, but he’s gotten away with it every time anybody has uttered the word “he can’t get away with that.” When you say that, you’ve just guaranteed he’s going to get away with it. 

NJR

There’s an Onion [headline that goes “This Will Be The End Of Trump’s Campaign,’ Says Increasingly Nervous Man For Seventh Time This Year.” Donald Trump’s position is always: “Who’s going to make me?”] And often it turns out that so much [of what we assume to be the “rules” of what can happen] is built on convention and polite agreements. And when someone just breaks the rules and says—and he did this throughout his business life where he’d just go bankrupt and then go “Well, who’s gonna make me pay my debts?” And it turns out that often the answer is, well, nobody, if you’re rich enough and shameless enough. Democrats are complaining about this Coney Barrett thing, for instance. And the right’s perspective is, “Well, we got her on the court. You can complain all your life, but we won. Sucks for you!”

MM

Right? And again, white men have a certain fantasy: if only I could live like that, if only I could be like that. This is why he will again get two-thirds of the white male vote, because they are so enamored with him. It’s really kind of amazing to watch… It’s not good to be scared of it. You need to lean right into it and do what you’ve got to do and be ready to fight for our democracy. 

NJR

There’s this assumption looking at the polls that Joe Biden has to win a fair election. But he doesn’t have to win a fair election. He has to win a rigged election and that’s much harder. And I mean, it’s not a conspiracy theory. We have had stolen elections. The first election I remember in my lifetime was a stolen election. You remember it very well, too: the 2000 election. We’ve watched an election be stolen in front of our eyes before. And there’s not that much you can do about it once it’s done.

MM

You know, when he’s telling his supporters that the rigging is happening on the other side, that the Democrats are going to rig the election. What exactly, I’ve wondered, what does he mean by that? What power do Democrats have? I just look at it and Trump is running the country. You’re the one in power!… How are the Democrats going to do this? What’s his thinking there? Well, I don’t understand it and I don’t understand why people buy it… I think Democrats, I may have this statistic wrong, but of the 50 states, only in 12 states Democrats have both houses and the governorship, that’s it. We don’t have the Senate. We don’t have the White House. We certainly don’t have the Supreme Court. Where exactly does our power lie? Other than the fact that the majority of Americans agree with us. 

NJR

Well, you say, where’s he getting it from? What’s his argument? [Of course] he doesn’t have an argument. This is the thing he succeeds at so brilliantly: muddying the waters. He’ll point at you and say “you’re rigging the election.” You point at him and say “he’s rigging the election.” And even if the facts are all on one side, you’ve created enough confusion to where people aren’t able to figure out what’s what. It’s really quite brilliant. Republicans so excel at making themselves appear weak and the victims. “The Democrats are crushing us. We’re in dire straits because the massive Democratic machine is crushing the weak Republican Party.”

MM

I’m glad you brought up… you are one of the few, or maybe the only person I’ve heard publicly admit—because I’m afraid to admit it—there’s something weirdly bizarrely entertaining about Trump. The way that he has segued into Monty Python this week. He now just takes the stage and he declares “COVID is gone! The single greatest accomplishment of my presidency is the elimination of COVID!” And then you hear somebody go *cough cough.* “I said COVID is gone!” And then everybody goes “COVID is gone!” And it’s like, wow. So that’s his plan! The more you say it, the more it goes away. Wow.

NJR

Well, you know his family was enamored of Norman Vincent Peale, the “power of positive thinking” guy. His whole life philosophy is “if you say it, it becomes true.” And so his entire presidency is making declarations about all of the things he’d done. And you’re left going, “But… you didn’t do that.” But we live in a TV era. So it’s just, what do you hear? “Well, I heard he did it. I heard he did the thing.”

MM

But to your other point, you have to be aware of when he’s being honest, when he’s actually telling you the truth. He’s lied to you so much. But “I’m not going to allow any more counting after Tuesday.” You don’t hear it because so much of it is a lie, but when he’s being honest… you don’t know what to think. It’s very confusing to people because sometimes he will actually be telling them the truth. He isn’t going to allow the counting to continue past a certain time. And he has every intention of sticking to that. 

This has gotta be studied. I hope he does donate his body to science at some point. It has to be studied. I know they kept Einstein’s brain. Somebody’s got to keep this guy’s. 

NJR

Yeah, I agree. I’m fascinated by him. Another example of that “telling the truth in the middle of the lies,” is something that really scared the hell out of me. This was when in his speeches he talked about the Antifa guy who was accused of shooting a Trump supporter. He said “I sent the marshals in and they didn’t want to arrest him. So they just killed him and it’s retribution. You’ve got to have retribution.” I’m listening to it and he just drops it casually. And I’m thinking, “Wait a second, what about trials? We have these things called trials when people are accused of crimes. Did you arrest him?” “Oh, no, I just went and put a bullet in his head.” 

MM

He has often admitted to crimes. In this case, he admitted that the federal agents were sent in to murder this guy. How about during the Hillary debate in 2016, where she says, “You know why he doesn’t want to show you his taxes—because he hasn’t paid any taxes.” And he right away goes into the microphone—perfect timing—and says “That’s ‘cause I’m smart.” Well, that’s an admission. What she just said is true. That’s right. You’ve gotten away with it because you’re smart, because you and your dad figured out a long time ago how to go up to the line of legal-illegal. You go up and put your toe across that line into illegal. And then you know how to bring it back really quickly and cover your tracks so that the prosecutor goes “We really need to charge the Trumps with this.” And then somebody in the room goes “Yeah, but, you know, they played it right on the line. This is going to be a hard one. What if they win?” And then they decide time after time over the years not to prosecute him or his father. That takes genius.

I wish I knew how to—not that I want to break the law, but boy, if I knew how. My whole high school time was trying to figure out what was I going to do not to be drafted. I was not going to kill Vietnamese [people]. So now what do I do? Should I get arrested and go to jail for that? Or do I go to Canada? I’m right there on the border there in Michigan. So I’m thinking the whole time, “there’s gotta be a way I can figure out how to go to Canada, but stay in Michigan.” I don’t know quite what that means, but I know that Trump would’ve already figured that out. In his case, his dad just got the right doctors to keep saying that he had bone spurs. And that was that.

NJR

He thinks purely in terms of consequences. So whether you’re doing something illegal is a question of whether they’re going to put you in jail for it, whether you’re going to be caught. It doesn’t matter what the law says. It matters what’s going to happen to you. And so he can violate any law he wants. And he issues this challenge, which is: stop me. You don’t like it, stop me. And I noticed this during the Republican debates in 2016, where the moderators were always going “Mr. Trump, you can’t, you gotta stop interrupting. You gotta, there’s a rule here.” And he would keep doing it because he knew they weren’t going to cut his mic. So it’s not a rule if they’re not going to enforce it.

MM

Right. And when they did decide to enforce it, I don’t think he spoke once while his mic was cut off during that last debate… He was willing to play by the rules in that way, in order to hopefully come off looking a little bit better. And [it] probably helped. You know, they say there’s the hardcore Trump supporters. And then there’s what’s called soft support for Trump. He probably hardened some of that soft support after that debate is my guess.

NJR

One of the scariest things about him has been to me is that if we tried to boil down his kind of “political philosophy,” if there is one…

MM

You’re being generous assuming he’s got one.

NJR

But to the extent that there’s something [consistent] underlying there, it’s a kind of raw Social Darwinism. The world is winners and losers and the winners get to the top. And if you are disabled, if you’re sick or you die, that’s because you’re a loser. [You can see it in that infamous] horrifying remark about John McCain, good soldiers don’t get captured. And you’re like, “but…[McCain] got tortured.” Well, that shows that he’s one of the losers. Trump’s entire philosophy is you deserve what happens to you. So if you’re the strong guy and you get to the top and you tell everyone else to shut up and they do, that makes you better than them.

MM

Yes, it’s very Darwinistic thinking. Somebody once asked General Patton in World War II, “do you have a plan for winning this war?” And he said “Yes, we kill more of them than they kill of us.” And it’s really just that. Trump is always about wanting to beat, beat, beat, beat, beat the competition, have the bigger numbers. My crowd is bigger than your crowd. Nonstop. 

I think it’s somewhere somewhere deep down, and if I had done a different kind of documentary about him, I would have really gone and found the people that went to the military boarding school with him as a kid. Something happened there. Something really, really happened there. And we’re all paying the price for it.

NJR

Yeah. Although he was like this from a young child. I think his second grade teacher was quoted as saying “he was a little shit, even then.” 

MM

Should never say that about a second grader! They’re not themselves. 

NJR

Well, Donald Trump was Donald Trump when he was eight. You know, you mentioned [your movie about Trump], Fahrenheit 11/9.  An interesting thing to me watching it was that you did make an interesting choice in how you were going to frame it. A lot of it is a movie about Trump, but it’s not about Trump. You spend as much time talking about the Flint water crisis and Obama and AOC as you do about Donald Trump. And what you kind of focused on in the end was the America that made Donald Trump. The water in which he swims. How did we get this thing? What have we become as a country? And I think if we’re trying to understand—whether he gets reelected or not—how we make sure we don’t have a Trump again, it’s important to address that underlying foundation, what he came out of.

MM

Yes. Well, it’s what has bothered me about Trump from the beginning. I want people to please accept that he did not just fall out of the sky. He is a product of this country. He’s the end result of a nation that has allowed the wealthy to call the shots. Since the beginning of Reagan 40 years ago, there’s been a transfer of $47 trillion from the poor and the working class and the middle class to the wealthy elites. $47 trillion that people didn’t have in their pocket or have a chance to spend or use for the greater good. It went to the top of the top and we are worse off for it. And the fact that we would end up with a failed casino owner as our president… if you are writing the fiction version of this… if 50 years from now, this is the Charles Foster Kane story. 

Just getting rid of Trump isn’t going to be enough. It’s just the first step. I mean, we have so much work to do. First, to repair was what was already an unequal society where everyone didn’t have a seat at the table. So we have to fix all that. We have to fix what he did to the EPA, to our national federal lands, the forest, the oil and gas licenses that he gave out, all this stuff that we’ve got to fix.

And then we need to fix a piece of our soul. I think it’s been stomped out in some way. The level of despair that people feel. We don’t want to speak about how we’re not really going to save this planet. It’s not really going to happen. It’s too late. I know this pain, I hear it constantly from people, but we have to do all that. And then we have to go back to the business that we were in starting, I guess, with Roosevelt of saying if we’re called a democracy, let’s make it a democracy. It’s never been a democracy. We have all that work to do along those lines. 

So everybody listening to this, I know you think, “Oh, geez, Mike, please. I’m just trying to get to Tuesday.” I know. But after Tuesday, we all have work to do and there’s no crying in baseball. If you were in the French Resistance during World War II, there’s no excuses. You know, you can’t say “I’d love to go blow up that Nazi bridge with you, but I’ve got couples therapy at 3:00 PM.”  Nobody said that in the French resistance. Work it out with your wife when the war is over, but for now, get along with her and show up at three o’clock so we can blow up the Nazi bridge.

NJR

I always try to remember that no matter how many obstacles we face, to be in the United States today—I don’t want to say we are fortunate, because we have such serious globe-threatening problems—but it’s true that generations and generations of people before us have fought in conditions that were much more likely to get them killed and tortured than some of us face. Not all of us. But many. 

MM

We’ve never had to go through what many of our parents or grandparents or great grandparents had to go through. If you’re white, you’ve never had to go through what a Black person has to go through. If you were born into money, you really don’t have an idea, and if you were lucky enough as a working class person to go to a nice school, well, what did you do with that? Did you turn your back on the people that you came from, or did you use that education to help change this world in which they live and which we all live? I mean, these are profound questions. And most Americans have not had to go through what the rest of the world has had to go through just to get to the next morning.

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