As it’s been noted, the 2016 election feat. Donald Trump mirrors a certain 1980 election feat. Ronald Reagan, insomuch as both involve celebrities combining their history of populist appeal with the simplistic, dogmatic promise to bulldoze all enemies, and an unsettling sense of confidence in their respective promises to “make America better again.”But there are more than just superficial similarities between the two elections. In particular, the nerve-wracking upcoming election recalls — in both the issues it’s being fought over and the problems it risks exacerbating ad extremum — to factors of American life that were catalyzed by the Reagan administration and have since advanced to extremes. (Recall, for example, how Reagan lowered the income tax for the wealthy from 70% to 28% over two terms — then recall that the wealth gap is currently at its zenith.)
The potential silver lining is that the system forged by Reaganomics has also led to such an economic fissure in the country that for the first time ever, people aren’t horrified to take seriously a candidate whose politics bear the word “socialist” in his self-description. And that, it seems, is how we’ve come to an election involving both the most exciting candidate liberals have seen in a long time and simultaneously the most exciting candidate racists classists xenophobes concerned ultra-conservatives have seen in a similarly long time. The polarization of politics is complete.
Television this year has also been interested in the origins of the current polarized state of America: there’s been a sudden surge in TV shows using the Reagan era as a real-life backdrop for their fictional worlds. The “TV Reaganaissance,” as the New York Times referred to it in August, has seen shows like Fargo, The Americans, Narcos and genre outlier Wet Hot American Summer: Last Day of Camp charting the president’s rise to power. (Fargo Season 2 takes place before the election in 1979, The Americans and Wet Hot American Summer take place in the early 80s, and Narcos is set during Reagan’s second term.)
While most of these series/seasons were conceived before we knew the potential extremity and polarity of the upcoming Presidential election, their invocation of Reagan often seems both like foreshadowing for their own era as well as our current one. Across these shows, we’re presented with various fictionalized visions of the Bedtime for Bonzo star/former leader of the free world juxtaposed with smaller-scale human dramas (and a little comedy). The everyday collision of micro and macro is highlighted through Reagan’s appearance as a distant, but potent, figure.
The Netflix series Wet Hot American Summer — a spinoff of the 2001 film of the same name, and a standout in that it doesn’t take itself, or its Reagan, at all seriously — forges a semblance of a plot through hilariously conspiratorial revisionism. It finds Reagan dumping toxic waste (which has the ability to turn able-bodied men into cans of mixed vegetables!) on the grounds of Camp Firewood. There’s little reason to mine this for political critique, except to note that in 2015, creators Michael Showalter and David Wain chose to give their show a Reaganist backdrop, while Reagan was nowhere in sight in the original movie. This choice suggests a growing omnipresence of Reagan’s political ideals — and a pervasive neurosis about this fact — as we get farther away from his presidency.
Fargo, which concluded its second season last night, features Reagan in a far more subtle fashion than WHAS. It uses his rise through his 1979 campaign as an accent to its second season, and the show’s creator Noah Hawley discussed the idea of the character of Reagan making a cameo — and playing a symbolic lead — on his show earlier in the season. He implied that amidst an air of loss following the Vietnam War and weakness following the 1973 Oil Crisis and 1979 Energy Crisis, Reagan was perceived as a messianic presence:
This Beckett, Waiting for Godot-waiting for Reagan idea sort of hangs over the [season]. We have fun with it, but there’s definitely the sense of — and we also play with the death of the family business and the rise of corporate America. We have the hindsight, and I felt like if we could turn all those historical elements into a crime story, now we’re making something interesting to me.
The crime story of which Hawley speaks involves a crime family defending itself against being subsumed by a corporatized big-city (well, Kansas City) crime syndicate. Another old family business randomly caught up in the midst of this all is the local butcher shop, which gets burnt down, taking with it the small-scale entrepreneurial aims of a kindly-turned-murderous butcher. This narrative, set against Reagan’s campaign, foreshadows the toll Reagan’s faux-folksie presidency would take on the American Dream, leading to a stagnant culture of large scale corporate domination.
Another similar symbolic presence — possibly another savior or possibly a sinister object of destruction — pervades the second season of Fargo: UFO sightings repeatedly distract characters in key moments. The show’s narrative is thus framed by two illusory saviors for a population looking for solutions after a useless war. This life-altering alien vehicle seems to, by proximity, suggest the change Reaganism would similarly impose on the American economic landscape. The object that comes from the sky beaming light onto America could, it turns out, be deadly.
The fact that all of the violence in Fargo stems from groups whose profits come largely from drugs makes for timely television, as we now look to candidates to deal with the legacy of the ongoing and futile War on Drugs — a war started by Nixon but escalated dramatically by Reagan, and often criticized for creating a prison state and actually perpetuating drug-related violence. If there’s a sense of hope for a less violent America around the corner for characters in Fargo just before Reagan’s election, well, that’s funny.
Reagan was exalted by many as a hero who kept the country safe — strengthening the economy, ending the Cold War, ramping up the War on Drugs, all of which sounded like positives, and had him leaving office as a paragon of conservative success. But Narcos (which admittedly does not hinge too heavily on historical accuracy) depicts Reagan’s eagerness for the War on Drugs not so much as having stemmed from his concern about the increase of drug-related homicides, but rather the fact that American money was disappearing into Colombia. The show also uses Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” advertisements as a hilarious counterpoint to the violence underscoring it all — noting the ineffectuality of Reagan’s policies, which today continue to lend a fat helping hand to making America the country with the highest prison population in the world.
The War on Drugs, of course, isn’t the only war Reagan involved himself in that’s left an indelible — and growing — mark. The current crisis in the Middle East can also be traced back to our 1980s “savior figure.” (The rise of Osama Bin Laden has been hypothesized as traceable to Reagan’s Operation Cyclone — which helped finance and arm the Afghan mujahideen… and you can trace the rest).
Season 3 of The Americans (which follows two Russian spies pretending to be a suburban American couple) draws a lot of its tension from attempts to get classified information surrounding the Soviet-Afghanistan War. It traces the beginnings of the end of the Cold War, and catalyzes recollections of factors, like Reagan’s involvement in Afghanistan, that’d have a seemingly heavy bearing on America’s own future, and how a perceived solution to one problem could open up another that’s just as vast. The third season’s final episode features Reagan’s famous “Evil Empire” speech, and what’s fascinating about the show is that we know it’s inevitable that the Soviet main characters’ cause (which is equally scary in its extremism and support for a totalitarian regime) will be shattered. But that victory is hardly a cause for celebration, considering what came next.
The Americans, and all of these other shows, to a less focused extent, hark back to a time where the biggest threat to capitalism was perceived to be communism. But after Reagan, the biggest threat to capitalism proves to have been post-Reagan capitalism itself. And now we find ourselves in a place where capitalism has become so unhinged that the country of McCarthyism is warming to considering a leader who advocates some light Marxist ideals (or, conversely, a leader who’d make McCarthy look mild.)
In this current election, both ends of the political spectrum seem stretched further than they’ve ever been — a fissure that mirrors the growing wealth gap. On the Democratic end, it’s because the party has never stretched particularly far to the Left. And at the other end, there’s Trump, a symbol of promise for yet another wave of acceleration of wealth disparity, more brawn-based foreign policy reminiscent of Reagan’s “Peace through strength,” and general apocalypse. (Just as Reagan made it easier for the country to access an abundance of oil following an era of oil crises, Trump has said he would cut the EPA while advocating for fracking and renewing permit talks about the Keystone pipeline.)
A victory for Trump would seem like the final triumph of the 1% — but on the flip side, for the first time in America’s history, a democratic socialist has actual standing in the primaries. Thus, two viable and polar options are being offered here (while the less drastic options, Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton, remain intact as always): elect Reagan’s even scarier cultural predecessor or consider loosening our bond to unadulteratedly capitalist ideals. With so much at stake, it’s unsurprising that we also find ourselves in a TV climate that re-examines on the strange and insidiously pivotal era of Reagan’s presidency, an era that in many ways seems to have brought us here to this potential crossroad.