The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The return of Michael Moore, showman of the left

Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore left a note for President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Towers on Nov. 12. (Video: The Washington Post)

On Saturday afternoon, the scruffy liberal activist and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore arrived at the base of Trump Tower in Manhattan, hoping to deliver a message to the president-elect.

Wearing a dark sweater and a San Francisco 49ers hat, he rode the escalators through the gold-and-marble interior, looking for the elevators to take him to the business mogul’s offices. Camera crews followed close behind, as did a crowd of onlookers, their smartphones out. Moore streamed the entire affair on Facebook Live.

“We’ll see if they let me talk to him,” he said into the camera at one point.

Someone asked how far he planned to go.

“I don’t know,” Moore replied, telling followers he was surprised that police had let him into the building in the first place.

Secret Service agents stopped him at the security desk. After trying unsuccessfully to negotiate his way to the high floors, Moore scribbled a note on a folded piece of paper. “Mr. Trump. I’m here,” it read. “I want to talk to you.”

In a tweet later in the day, he said:

It was a classic Michael Moore moment. For decades now, Moore has reveled in his role as a gadfly of the left, and cornering powerful figures — often in awkward or unannounced appearances at their homes and offices — has been a key part of his M.O.

But it was the type of stunt that hasn’t made headlines for the 62-year-old filmmaker in recent years.

Indeed, it was fitting that it took the ascendance of one consummate showman, Trump, to bring out another, Michael Moore. Both have been called demagogues.

After rising to hero status among liberals during the administration of President George W. Bush, Moore seemed to fade from public view when President Obama entered the White House. He continued to champion liberal causes, but some of his targets became more provincial. In the meantime, personal problems cropped up. In 2011, he fought a year-long legal battle against his financial backers over profits from his blockbuster documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11.” In 2014, his two-decade marriage ended in a messy divorce. He went six years without putting out a film.

But the 2016 presidential election has brought Moore back into the spotlight, or more accurately, he has thrust himself back into the spotlight, and Saturday’s visit to Trump Tower was the latest reminder of his skills as a propagandist and his capacity to grab attention.

Moore, who prides himself on his understanding of working class Americans, was one of few to predict Trump would win the nomination, telling Business Insider in December that Trump would “absolutely” be the Republican candidate. In July, he was one of even fewer people who saw the writing on the wall for Hillary Clinton, saying in a post on his website that Trump would be elected president, despite poll after poll indicating otherwise.

“This wretched, ignorant, dangerous part-time clown and full time sociopath is going to be our next president,” Moore said. “President Trump. Go ahead and say the words, ’cause you’ll be saying them for the next four years.”

“Never in my life have I wanted to be proven wrong more than I do right now,” he added.

As Election Day approached, Moore fought for the Democratic nominee, releasing “Michael Moore In TrumpLand,” a slapdash pro-Clinton film seeking to win over skeptical voters. In a four-minute recording made during a promotional event for the film and posted to YouTube, Moore said Trump’s forthcoming win would be “the biggest ‘f— you’ ever recorded in human history.” It drew a response from Trump himself:

Moore seized the moment again last week after Clinton’s stunning loss in the Electoral College. On Nov. 9, he published a five-point “Morning After To-Do List,” calling on Trump opponents to take over the Democratic Party, fire political pundits and pollsters and take other steps to mobilize against the new Republican-led administration and Congress.

Meanwhile, he has made the rounds on cable news, most recently CNN’s “State of the Union,” where he told Jake Tapper that Democrats would have been better off running Oprah Winfrey or Tom Hanks instead of Clinton.

It’s a version of the Michael Moore persona that was more visible during the Bush years than the Obama years. Moore developed a following in the late 1980s with his documentary debut, “Roger and Me,” a critique of General Motors CEO Roger Smith’s decision to close auto plants in Moore’s hometown of Flint, Mich., and the impact it had on workers. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that Moore became a household name — not to mention, a nemesis of the political right — with a pair of enormously successful films.

In 2002, he released “Bowling for Columbine,” a probe of gun violence in the United States told in the wake of the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. The film won the Academy Award for best documentary the following year. In 2004, Moore put out “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a conspiratorial attack on the Bush administration and the rationale for war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bringing in more than $222 million at the box office, it still ranks as the highest-grossing documentary of all time, according to Box Office Mojo.

The films propelled Moore into celebrity status, and in 2005 he was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people.

Actor Sean Penn wrote up the segment on Moore: “Through endless appearances on talk shows and cable news networks, Moore never backed down from his impossible level of righteousness, even when Katie Couric referred to him as a jerk,” Penn wrote. “By doing so, Moore, the Bobby Knight of the left, inspired his fellow Democrats with a workingman’s toughness they have lacked for some time.”

But “Fahrenheit 9/11” had its harsh critics, most notably, the late Christopher Hitchens.

He called the film “a sinister exercise in moral frivolity” and Moore a “silly and shady man.”

“To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability,” Hitchens wrote. “To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental.”

Confrontation has always been one of Moore’s specialties. In “Roger and Me,” he repeatedly needled General Motors staffers and others in hopes of getting an interview with Smith, eventually infiltrating a shareholder meeting to fire off his questions. In “Bowling for Columbine,” he presented the former National Rifle Association president with a picture of a gun violence victim, ending what was already a painfully awkward interview. And in “Fahrenheit 9/11,” he read the entire text of the Patriot Act to Congress through a loudspeaker on an ice cream truck.

The trip to Trump Tower on Saturday had all the same hallmarks.

“It went well,” Moore said of the visit. “They didn’t kick me out.”

More from Morning Mix

The post-election hate spike: How long will it last?

Joe Biden reimagined, pranking Donald Trump

Video shows group viciously beating man in Chicago, yelling, ‘You voted Trump’ and ‘Don’t vote Trump’