Of course Oliver North is back.
The National Rifle Association’s plucking of the star of the Iran-Contra scandal from exile on the Fox News Channel just makes too much sense in this back-to-the-future age in which we live, and not just because of the easy colluding-with-foreign-powers, gun-running wisecracks to which the move lends itself.
No, North is back because the 1980s are back — or at least a funhouse-mirror version of them is. For as much as President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan yearns to evoke an Andy Griffith-esque 1950s U.S.A., we seem trapped in the bright lights, big city, greed-is-good swirl of three decades later.
That is appropriate, though: Trump is after all, a creation of that decade. Sure, he may be famous now for his turn on “The Apprentice,” but he only got that gig because of what he built in the 1980s. Not buildings (though he did still construct those then), but the brand — the success of celebrity for being a celebrity success. It was a simpler time, when The Donald seemed to merely be a charmless, self-absorbed blowhard rather than the grifting con-man who we know half-dozen bankruptcies and one Trump University later.
Trump’s own rhetoric and policies are often rooted in the 1980s. When he first flirted with a presidential run in 1987 (fresh off a trip to Russia, of course), he ran a full-page ad in three national newspapers decrying our international allies as freeloading parasites who should be compelled to pay for America’s protection. “The world is laughing at America’s politicians,” he warned back then, not realizing how prescient that warning would become in conservative circles (or how much he’d recycle it with a straight face 30 years later).
And of course his signature line, so often distilled to MAGA, is a straight lift from Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, though the Gipper never had the good capitalistic sense to trademark the phrase. Trump is himself like a distorted reimagining of Reagan, shorn of charm and warmth: Screen stars — Reagan big, Trump small — who in office are most intent on cutting taxes and regulation and reasserting American swagger on the international stage.
And their administrations have other marked similarities: Reagan had an EPA administrator embroiled in scandal whose “short, tumultuous tenure was marked by sharp budget cuts, rifts with career EPA employees, a steep decline in cases filed against polluters,” The Washington Post noted last year, in what could easily be a description of Scott Pruitt’s stewardship of the agency. (In what would qualify as an Easter Egg in pop culture, Trump appointed the son of that Reagan EPA Administrator, Anne Gorsuch, to the Supreme Court.)
The Gipper also had Iran-Contra, the face of which is returning to the spotlight just as Trump prepares to roll back relations with Col. North’s once-favorite trading partner by withdrawing from the nuclear proliferation prevention deal.
Reagan came to power as the modern political evangelical movement blossomed, styling itself the “Moral Majority”; today, that movement’s unyielding devotion to a thrice-married serial liar who has bragged about sexual assault threatens to leave it a caricature.
But because remakes are also notable for what they change, there are important differences between the president of the 80s and the president from the 80s: Reagan ran for re-election on “Morning in America,” but Trump eternally sees a country entombed in a dismal midnight. Reagan was not a details man, but had a firm grasp of the big picture and a clear ideology and priorities which helped him advance his agenda; Trump is a philosophical void and the closest thing he has a to a big picture is the six-foot portrait of himself he bought with his charitable foundation’s money.
And, of course, where Reagan vilified Soviet Russia as an “Evil Empire,” Trump embraces the modern iteration of the country as a worthy role model and a moral equivalent.
“The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” President Barack Obama needled Mitt Romney, his GOP challenger, in the 2012 presidential debate for identifying Russia as the top U.S. geopolitical adversary. Time (and not very much of it at that) has vindicated Romney and Obama had it backwards: Russia was calling to ask for the 1980s back.
Its interest in the decade seems apropos after 2016, as the 1980s saw the dawn of the computer age, which brought with it fears of the dangers of hacking — perhaps most famously in 1983’s “WarGames.” Only now we’ve recast lovable computer nerd Matthew Broderick with dead-eyed autocrat Vladimir Putin. "Shall we play a game?" indeed. (Hey look: “WarGames” is actually getting remade.)
In so many ways, the 1980s are back but with a demented twist, almost like the decade was interred in Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” (not the 1983 book version but the 1989 movie's, which, yes, is also getting remade): It didn’t come back right.
Or perhaps it’s better to see ourselves as living in the “Empire Strikes Back” of that decade — the dark and harrowing sequel to the original. Except that, like most sequels (though not “Empire”) this one shows no signs of living up to the original.
Robert Schlesinger is a veteran Washington journalist and commentator. He is the author of “White House Ghosts: Presidents and Their Speechwriters.”