Michael Moore knows many people are still too depressed and paralyzed to feel they can do anything to fight Trump and his cronies who are bent on destroying the United States and the rest of the world. That’s why his one-man Broadway show is for those “self-hating liberals.”
“They’re the liberals who weren’t paying attention to what needed to happen last year to stop Trump,” he tells Rolling Stone the day after opening night. “Trying to break through that bubble was very difficult. Trying to warn them what was going to happen, it was an impossible task. This show is for them. It’s why I’m glad I’m doing it here in New York, right now, rather than in Atlanta or some other place. … Unless you have the attitude that you’re in the French Resistance at this point, I don’t know how we’re going to defeat this. All of us have to be willing to put ourselves out there.”
In that way, his stage presence in The Terms of My Surrender – which opened last week on Broadway – feels crucial after these first six, grueling months of Donald Trump’s toxic presidency. Although it may feel a bit disorganized and disorienting, it’s meant to be a way for progressives to wake up, “be bold” and realize they can do things, any number of small, feasible things, to help the fabric of society from completely unraveling. It’s not a political rally, as he’s said before (although it does involve a moment in which Moore announces his 2020 presidency on the simple platform of having a single, universal charging cord for all electronic devices), nor is it “a kumbaya piece of theater.”
The woman seated next to me in the orchestra last Wednesday – a pleasant, gray-haired woman who responded vociferously to the many pokes, prods and revelations on stage – certainly seemed to need a balm to assuage her worry about her political moral compass. After Moore urged everyone to download the 5calls.org app to make daily calls to Congress a part of their morning ritual, she turned to me and whispered a confession: “We live in D.C. We don’t have any representatives.” And I empathized with her. She obviously does want to be fired up, as did the majority of the thousand or so people packed into the Belasco Theatre who had paid hundreds of dollars to bask in Moore’s presence and hear his calls to action. Although respectful, the audience’s energy crackled, electric with needing to grumble, chuckle and respond to any and all criticisms of the current administration. He may be preaching to his choir, but there’s nothing inherently wrong about needing a little bit of preaching.
On previous nights, Moore has interviewed guests on stage – Representative Maxine Waters of California, MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell and documentary provocateur Morgan Spurlock – but that wasn’t the case the evening I attended. Moore says it hasn’t been scrapped, and that the segment depends on who they see in the audience or who may agree to the spotlight. He says Stephen Colbert has already agreed to sit in the hot seat, and he hopes Hillary Clinton will be one of those notables. “I’d love for her to visit, and I think we have a 50/50 chance,” he says, adding, “I predict that by the end of this run, someone from the Trump administration will attend – well he may be a ‘former member’ of the administration, the way he’s firing them.”
He also explains that the show is constructed so as to address headlines of the day, that it’s “flexible to respond to any type of nuclear attack. Not that there’s going to be an actual nuclear attack.”
But for those who are expecting fire-and-brimstone proselytizing weighed down with a lot of concrete facts or motivational moments, they may be left slightly disappointed. In some ways, this production is meant to showcase Michael Moore the man, toned down from Michael Moore the brand, the symbol, the polemicist.
The visual and rhetorical gimmicks in the show include a bit about what the T.S.A. now prohibits passengers from taking on a plane, in which he pulls objects – dynamite, a cattle prod, a Muslim woman – from a Mary Poppins-esque carry-on and a game show that pits the “dumbest Canadian” against the “smartest American” sourced from willing audience members. Spoiler: The Canadian always manages to win since their competitor ultimately fails at correctly answering the number of provinces of our neighbor to the north and how many Americans have lost their homes due to medical expenses, since the answer for Canadians is indubitably zero.
The most surprising, and moving segments are when Moore turns the attention on himself, revealing his own vulnerability. After airing a recording of Glenn Beck’s 2005 radio show in which he openly discusses if he should assassinate Moore, we learn about the many attempts against Moore’s life – and the body guards that have protected him. “I’m conflicted about the decision to include that,” Moore admits. “I’m telling people, ‘Stand up and be brave.’ But I’m also telling them that one of the side consequences could be harm to themselves.”
He says he’s not concerned that protestors, or worse, may try to disrupt his show, the way members of the alt-right did this past summer during the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar in Central Park. “I haven’t anticipated it, but I’m sure it could happen,” he says. “What usually drives the right crazy about me is when they see how wide my audience is. When they think I’m in Noam Chomsky territory, they don’t have to worry. But if they suddenly see me appearing on the Martha Stewart show – that I’m reaching a very wide, mainstream audience – that’s scary to them. This show has sold out every night. So I’m sure when it dawns on them, thousands of people are coming to see this, they will do what they do.”
(Moore is quick to correct and assert he’s not criticizing the left’s revered social critic and political activist. “You know, I love Noam Chomsky. I wish more people listened to him,” he says. “I wish ESPN would hire him as a commentator on Monday Night Football. I’ve lived long enough to see Howard Cosell in the booth – a real smart, thinking individual – to Tim Tebow now, so there you go.”)
The longest, most passionate segment takes place when Moore zeroes in on the Flint water crisis, accusing Michigan Governor Rick Snyder of murder. When asked whether it was meant to shore up his argument after being criticized that he didn’t do enough for his hometown, he explains why the story continues to be so urgent.
“We’re the canary in the coal mine,” he says, referring to why Flint matters. “Starting in 2010, we were living out what was going to happen in America in 2016. With Roger & Me, my first film, I was showing the beginnings of the end of the middle class. That wasn’t going on anywhere except in steel towns. In places like Pittsburgh or Gary, Indiana, and places like that. If you lived on Long Island or Santa Monica, you did not think the middle class was going anywhere. That’s the point of that story, that Flint was prologue to Trump’s America…”
Moore goes on to explain an important detail he left out during his delivery the night I attended: That Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the doctor in the city of Flint whose work exposed the lead in the water and what was happening to the city residents who drank it, is an Iraqi-American.
“I started wondering, ‘If the way we want go is the way of Trump’s travel ban, what if that had happened months or years earlier?’ If Trump’s America existed six years ago, there may not have been any Dr. Mona. Her crime was that she was a Muslim and Iraqi, and we may not have ever found out the truth. The repercussions of allowing Trump and his ilk to get away with this, it goes way beyond the things we can imagine. I need to tell that story.”