Risky Business: Political Upheaval and Inversion since 1980

People who came of age after 1980 seem to be having a harsh reaction to the age of Trump, but for older people who remember the shocking and awesome transformation of politics in the early 1980s, the rise of Trump seems sort of deja vu. As one commentator put it, referring to the people now in Congress and the White House, Ronald Reagan was “the ideological sperm donor,” to the extent that there is a discernable ideological lineage among those who hold power now.[1]
In November 1980, I was appalled and frightened for the future of the planet, but Reaganism was soon normalized and people got on with their lives. In fact, Americans seemed absolutely thrilled with the new gilded age. Lacoste polo shirts were worn proudly by university freshmen who wanted to join fraternities and begin networking for their future careers. Nothing seemed capable of dampening the mood of optimism, though nuclear war almost started a couple of times during Reagan’s first term, but Americans lucked out somehow. At this point, it is difficult to say whether Trump signifies something worse, or whether America’s circumstances have degraded too much since the 1980s to say, “This is no big deal; We survived the 80s,” but experience has taught me to never underestimate America’s capacity for normalizing the continuous degradation of the ecosystem and economic and social relations.
I was born in 1959, which meant my fragile child and adolescent mind was shaped to the Vietnam War, Nixon’s resignation, Hunter S. Thompson, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, and films like Taxi Driver, Save the Tiger, Five Easy Pieces and The Godfather. People born in the late 50s to early 60s were the tail end of the baby boomers, so we have spent our lives in a borderland between two generations. People a little older than me had read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but people a little younger had missed the ethos of the 1960s and 70s and come into the 80s breakfast club as blank slates being written over by MTV.
I missed the heyday of the counter-culture, but I absorbed the zeitgeist as I grew up, and I think I had an expectation that it would still be there when I was ready to play a part in it. No one told me that ship had already sailed, and I was a little slow to figure it out, even though the signs were all around. Jimmy Carter wasn’t as benign as he seemed, as he was letting his national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski fund Islamic radicals to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Reagan just picked up on that initiative and throttled the engine, and we all know how that worked out about 20 years later.
The 1970s were also the era of disco, the “Me Generation” and Cosmo magazine, a sure sign that feminism and much else from the cultural awakening had been co-opted by Madison Avenue. In 1974, the original cast of Saturday Night Live was sticking it in the eye of establishment, but then came Saturday Night Fever, which could be seen as a harbinger of all the dreadful films to follow in the 1980s. Another writer, Peter Birkenhead, who seems to also have also been born about the same time as me, described the shifting times this way:
Anyone who was alive in 1981 knows that our present moment is less of a beginning than a fruition. It can be difficult to communicate to those who weren’t there just how quickly and radically the culture inverted itself in just a few years, how disorienting it was for so many of us. Reagan, who liked to tell stories about being present at the liberation of concentration camps he had never visited, whose White House operated under the guiding principle that, “If you tell the same story five times, it’s true,” was first called the “Great Communicator” in August of ’81, giving Orwellian punctuation to a summer when economic supply and demand traded places, music became a visual medium, and Jeff Koons became famous. When it premiered in 1983, it wasn’t until about 45 minutes into watching Risky Business that I realized the filmmakers weren’t kidding, that they actually expected me to root for Tom Cruise’s amoral frat-boy and not against him.[2]
It was “morning in America,” which was just another way of saying “hope and change” or “make America great again.” It was obvious that the cultural products being marketed were not a sign of the shifting public mood. This was a top-down project, with the military and other government agencies lending support to films like Top Gun and An Officer and a Gentleman. Just a few years previously Francis Ford Coppola had needed to rent helicopters from the Philippine government because he couldn’t get any help from the US military when he was making Apocalypse Now. In the 1980s, the military was ready to help any Hollywood film that would glorify the armed forces and help with recruiting now that the draft was over and an all-volunteer force had to be rebuilt.
The actual public mood, coming from below, was more diverse and perhaps a more formidable opposition than what had preceded it in the 1960s. Public opposition wouldn’t allow Reagan to fight an overt war in Central America, so he had to fight it covertly, and even that was met with more opposition than the Vietnam War was in the earlier years. Throughout the early 1980s millions of people hit the streets in peace walks and anti-nuclear rallies throughout the Western world, and these undoubtedly were an influence on Reagan as he revised his extreme rhetoric about “the evil empire” and learned to view the world, just a little, from the adversary’s perspective. As if he had been blind all his life to the perspective of his Cold War rivals, or deluded that America was perceived everywhere as an infallible white knight, he wrote in his memoirs, “Three years had taught me something surprising about the Russians. Many were genuinely afraid of America and Americans.”[3] Yes, it was difficult to imagine that an arsenal of 30,000 nuclear weapons might engender fear in some parts of the world.
Though it was difficult to explain how disorienting the cultural inversion was, the latest inversion seems even more bizarre, like a funhouse mirror reflection of the pre-existing weirdness. In the 1980s, the shift could be seen in the difference between films like Taxi Driver and Risky Business, but what disorienting change could come now, several years after a piece of fascist cinema like American Sniper has come and gone without the mainstream society noticing it was a piece of fascist propaganda that would have made Nazis blush? This time the inversion and disorientation comes in the form of the Democratic Party transforming itself, in the absence of a communist foe, into the red-baiting party of war and corporate interests. Or it can be found in the Oscar award for best documentary going to The White Helmets, a propaganda project launched years ago to raise public support for the American overthrow of the Syrian government. Like Peter Birkenhead watching Risky Business all those years ago, I was slow to realize that the academy wasn’t pulling a prank. They really did expect me to root for these soldiers of fortune posing as first aid responders.
Much has been written about the “controversy” surrounding the White Helmets. It appears that this group has provided some useful aid to individuals injured in the war in Syria, but the nefarious aspect of the group is in the larger context of how and why the group was formed, and how they received their astronomical budget from foreign sources. The White Helmets was funded by various organizations supporting the nations that fomented the false “civil war” in Syria in the first place, so the situation could be compared to a politically motivated pyromaniac setting fires all over his hometown in order to discredit the mayor, while in the meantime getting his political allies to fund the private ambulance company run by his nephew. When that succeeds, the pyromaniac hires a public relations firm to portray them as heroes in the local media.
Detailed criticisms of the White Helmets have been written elsewhere.[4] They describe the motivations of the groups funding the White Helmets and falsely portraying them as politically neutral. The group has also been accused of staging fake rescues, falsely labelling images from other conflicts, rescuing the same child repeatedly, and being caught in their “day job” of fighting for various non-moderate rebel groups. They operate only in territories controlled by foreign mercenaries, described elsewhere as “moderate rebels.” Every positive view of the White Helmets ignores the essential question about the conflict and why there are victims for the White Helmets to attend to: how so many foreign nations could have participated first in fomenting civil unrest in a sovereign nation and then participated in attempts to violently overthrow it.
The latest outrage that should, but won’t, terminate the good reputation of the White Helmets, was described by Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova on March 16, 2017:
It is obvious to us that the hyped story of the White Helmets has reached its climax. That organization, which has been toiling in Syria, was awarded the “alternative Nobel Prize,” then a film about these activists received an Oscar. It is obviously just a large-scale PR campaign. We have repeatedly raised this issue during briefings, casting doubt on the noble efforts of the White Helmets. Particularly, we questioned and even exposed videos and other materials that that organization released. This time we would like to draw your attention to the conclusions that independent Swedish human rights activists arrived at after analyzing a video posted by White Helmets. The monthly Indicter magazine of the European Human Rights Front has published an article detailing the degree of cynicism and absolute heartlessness displayed by these gifted “stage directors.”[5] The authors turned to qualified medical professionals to help them study a video showing White Helmets administering emergency aid to children. Their conclusion: not only does the treatment violate medical standards or appear to be staged, but it is also dangerous... [the child] receives a shot right in the heart area. According to qualified medical experts, if the child was still alive, such a shot would certainly kill him. It is telling that some Western and Middle Eastern politicians have repeatedly and with tears in their eyes suggested using the White Helmets’ video and other materials as irrefutable evidence of the crimes committed by the “Syrian regime.” Naturally, we are unlikely to hear any of them address the revelations of the Swedish Indicter magazine...[6]
There was a time when artists in Hollywood strived to be critical of the status quo; that is, they were engaged in an activity known formerly as producing art. The government struggled to keep subversive elements out of the film industry, but they always reappeared. The Coen brothers portrayed this aspect of Hollywood to satirical effect in the period comedy Hail Caesar, set in 1953. A group of covert communist screenwriters kidnaps a studio star and demands a ransom. They explain to the star their function in the dream machine:
Our understanding of the true workings of history gives us access to the levers of power. Your studio, for instance, is a pure instrument of capitalism. As such, it expresses the contradictions of capitalism and can be enlisted to finance its own destruction. Which is exciting. It can be made to help the little guy, the regular Joe.[7]
Perhaps the film industry workers who voted for the Oscar winners still believe they are in it to help the little guy, thinking the guys in the white helmets are the little guys. The members of the academy have good intentions perhaps, but they are deluded about their own greatness, unaware their ignorance and how their own minds have been shaped by a propaganda system that has taken hold of Hollywood and all other branches of the media. The CIA used to worry that Hollywood was a hotbed of communism, but their counter-attack has been so effective since the 1980s that now all critics, and even neutral participants, have been cleared out. Hollywood now actively cheers for whatever project the State Department is running. Any film with a disturbing political message will be slammed by critics for being heavy-handed or blunt, for lecturing audiences, or the biggest sin of all, for not having fully developed backstories, characters, relationships, and engaging performances.[8] Forget the politics. Give us that human angle and put the romance in the foreground. When a documentary like The White Helmets comes along, people are too ignorant of the outside world to recognize a blatant propaganda tool for what it is. The American public has become so accustomed to military interventions and illegal wars on sovereign nations that every new regime change operation is now literally synonymous with humanitarian aid and freeing the world of tyranny.
These comments only describe the losers in the recent electoral sweep in which the Republican party won Congress and a majority state governorships and legislatures, and a posse of rank outsiders bent on destruction occupy the executive branch. Ronald Reagan seems like a towering intellectual next to the crew that has taken over government. It is difficult to describe what kind of inversion they have ushered in. Reagan at least had an ideology, some speech writers who could help him express a coherent message, and a staff with experience in government. But then came the radicalized, nihilistic spawn of Reaganism. By 2001 Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, said he wanted to shrink government until it was small enough to drown it in the bathtub. Now his fellow travelers are in Trump’s wrecking crew, the second generation spawn of Reaganism who formed their world view after 1980 and know nothing else. They are primed to go on a destructive tear of government agencies that daddy should have but never could have foreseen.
Matt Taibbi has perhaps made the most astute observation of what is happening in this new era:
We always assumed there was a goal behind it all: cattle cars, race war, autocracy. But those were last century’s versions of tyranny. It would make perfect sense if modern America’s contribution to the genre were far dumber. Trump in the White House may just be a monkey clutching history’s biggest hand grenade. Yes, he’s always one step ahead of us, and more dangerous than any smart person, and we can never for a minute take our eyes off him. But while we keep looking for his hidden agenda, it’s our growing addiction to the spectacle of his car-wreck presidency that is the real threat. He is already making idiots and accomplices of us all, bringing out the worst in each of us, making us dumber just by watching. Even if Trump never learns to govern, after four years of this we will forget what civilization ever looked like—and it will be programming, not policy, that will have changed the world.[9]
Then again, there is small comfort in knowing Trump had been to Moscow before he became president, making deals with people like himself. One can demonize the oligarchs and weak democracy of Russia or any other country, but at this point the two nuclear superpowers are pretty much equally degraded in terms of democracy being representative of the interests of the population rather than a tool of oligarchy. At least Trump doesn’t need the CIA to give him a custom made briefing video to tell him about what kind of weather to expect in Moscow. It won’t take him three years to wake up to the perspective of the other. Completely ignorant about life in the USSR, as a true believer in the evil empire, Reagan took the world close to the nuclear brink in 1983 with a series of NATO war games and other dangerous provocations. With that in mind, it’s hard to say that Trump’s brand of recklessness is more dangerous. To repeat, everything that is happening now is deja vu, or the present is a fruition, the predictable freak show reiteration of the past. It’s all been one long, bad dream since a certain smirking teenage pimp lit up the big screen in 1983.

[1] Jeffrey St. Clair, “Roaming Charges: My Brain is Hanging Upside Down,” Counterpunch, March 17, 2017.
[2] Peter Birkenhead, “Of Mice and Murder,” Salon, March 19, 2017.
[3] Ronald Reagan, An American Life (Threshold Editions, 1990, 2011), 588.
[4] Max Blumenthal, “Inside the Shadowy PR Firm That’s Lobbying for Regime Change in Syria,” Alternet, October 3, 2016.
[6]Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, March 16, 2017, Embassy of the Russian Federation to the United Kingdom. The translation posted on this site has been slightly edited for clarity. The article that Zakharova refers to notes that in the footage the rescuers do not plunge the syringe into the child’s heart. If they had it might have killed the child, but the ethical question is why an apparently suffering child was used to stage an unnecessary medical procedure on a semi-conscious infant.
[7] Joel and Ethan Coen (directors), Hail, Caesar, Universal Pictures, 2016, 00:40:30~.
[8] Richard Brody, “The Exemplary Badness of War Dogs and Hell or High Water,” The New Yorker, August 19, 2016. This review is an example of the genre of criticism that finds fault in “political” films. Films that attempt to educate viewers about the destructiveness of capitalism, such as War Dogs, Hell or High Water and The Big Short, are said to “suffocate in their makers’ intentions” which “don’t just govern the action but seem to clog it like wet cement, bulking up the screen and filling in the space.” The directors “flatter themselves with the goodness of their motives.”
[9] Matt Taibbi, “Trump the Destroyer,” Rolling Stone, March 2017.

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