Our Current Shade of the ‘80s: Is It All Roses?

In early November, Terminator: Dark Fate reigned on Oberlin’s Apollo Theatre marquee as Hollywood revived another 80’s hit. In our current 80’s Renaissance, many modern films cash in on the nostalgia. It and It 2 either take place in or focus partly on, the 80’s. The Blade Runner sequel travels back in time to capture the thrill of the 80’s classic. Stranger Things on Netflix is nothing more than a pastiche of the era, in its vibrant clash of neon, Dungeons and Dragons, and the introduction of technology. This 80’s fever is everywhere in America, and it’s been around for a long time. To quote Jen Chaney, in her article, “It’s 2016. Why Are We So Still Obsessed With the 80’s?”: “Our cultural fixation on the Duran Duran decade has now officially lasted longer than the decade itself.” Whether through remakes, sequels, or docudramas, the flashy past has dominated our present.

What is at the root of this cultural craze– what is it about our present that makes us focus on the past? Although many factors lend themselves to the 80’s trend—the technological boom, the nostalgia, the bold fashion choices—I want to focus on politics. Our current political turmoil causes many to retreat towards the simpler times of cassette tapes and Pacman games, as Hollywood cashes in on cathartic nostalgia. But I would argue the 80’s does the opposite, providing not an escape but a mirror. At its core, the 80’s presents a clear parallel to the present– as long as we stop painting the decade through rose-colored lenses.

Let’s paint a picture of the eighties, starting with its most infamous figure: Reagan. Once a Hollywood actor, he was well-liked by voters for his confidence and optimism. Upon taking office, however, he became well known for “Trickle-Down Economics”– rewarding those with money, by letting them keep it, assuming it would benefit others down the financial chain. Of course, that did not happen; by 1982, America was in a recession comparable to the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929 and nine million people were left unemployed. The military, however, gained from his presidency. The Pentagon’s spending would reportedly reach $34 million an hour, free from budget cuts and tax. 

Reagan’s “Tough on Crime” policies disproportionately affected people of color, ignoring the failure of trickle-down economics and previous drug policy. Despite accumulating more debt in the decade than all our nation’s history, however, Reagan left the office with the highest approval rating since Franklin Roosevelt. In further upheaval, disaffected liberals made up the majority of Reagan’s voters. Known as “Reagan Democrats,” they provided millions of votes for his candidacy because they wanted any kind of change from the norm– no matter if their hopes were later bellied by recession and debt. 

While Reagan and Trump’s candidacy has glaring differences, the disenchantment of the Republican party remains similar: now, and in the 80’s, Republicans feel disillusioned after a period of liberal executive rule, and give seemingly less-establishment right-wing candidates the vote. Today, Trump draws a thin line between him and Reagan by directly quoting him and his policies. In Trump’s 2018 “America First” speech in Davos, Switzerland, the president argued that a strong America would lift the world’s economy: suggesting, a global trickle-down system. By establishing massive corporate tax cuts, he aims, “to get the rich to be even richer and therefore the poor will do better. Kind of a world trickle down.” Even though Reagan’s economic policies brought about the worst recession since the Great Depression, as Trump tries to expand the system to a global level “Trickle Down Economics” has been brought back into the political narrative. 

Trump also perpetuates the narrative of law and order– disregarding the harm that has been done in the past. In his 2000 book “The America We Deserve,” Trump states that “Tough crime policies are the most important form of national defense.” Trump is using the law and order narrative of the 80’s, and focuses not only on African Americans, but also on another minority group: immigrants. He utilizes 80’s rhetoric to paint them as the new “criminals,” stating in an infamous campaign speech: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re bringing rapists.” Detaining more than 52,000 immigrants across the nation, Trump continues to use the prejudiced foundation of Reagan “Tough on Crime” rhetoric. Even Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” is a direct reference to Reagan’s slogan, “Let’s Make America great again.” The “Again” Trump is referring to is that of Reagan’s 80’s– which in reality, is characterized by recession, nationalism, and propaganda crusades.​

Once again, the 80’s become glamorized, but without the charm of girls with psychokinesis or Street Fighter arcade games. Trump doesn’t have Reagan’s approval numbers, but his renewal of 80’s political rhetoric and policies has brought the decade back to life in a harmful way. From “Trickle Down Economics,” to “Tough on Crime,” to “Make America Great Again,” both decades reflect the same issues. As our media continues to romanticize the 80’s, it may be time to question our fascination with the decade. The silver screen tends to paint the 80’s with a rose-colored hue– for example, Stranger Things does not acknowledge the racism or homophobia of the decade. This version of growing up in the 80’s is as idyllic as it is fictional. The truth, however, is that the issues of the 80’s mirror many of our current struggles—but are we learning from the past, or idolizing it?

In The Guardian’s review of Terminator: Dark Fate, Peter Bradshaw states that the decades-long series from the 80’s about a weaponized robot force and humanity’s fight for survival, “absolutely will not stop – not merely repeating itself but somehow repeating the repetitions.” Thus is the modern curse of the romanticized 80’s. As we repeat our past mistakes, we dig ourselves deeper into a societal rut stuck in the past and run on circular time.