The revenge of the 1980s
If you squint hard enough, 2018 looks a lot like 1988, only with cooler phones.
Think about it: Politically, we're once again led by a septuagenarian president who made his name in showbiz, a politician who presides over a skyrocketing stock market while delivering huge tax cuts and exploding deficits all wrapped up in a bow of racial grievance.
Then, on Monday evening, The New York Times published a story detailing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's misspent youth. It turns out that during his junior year at Yale, Kavanaugh and his friend, then-future NBA center Chris Dudley, were involved in a bar fight over whether or not a man sitting at the bar was the lead singer of the '80s reggae band UB40.
And with this ridiculous story, America's return to the 1980s was complete.
"Getting older mostly sucks," writer Sean Thomason tweeted after this story broke, "but I feel sorry for anyone too young to understand how funny someone getting into a fight after a UB40 concert is."
Every generation gets its moment in the pop cultural and political spotlights. For a long time, it seemed as though the baby boomers, who took firm hold of politics with Bill Clinton's ascension to the presidency in 1992, might never leave the stage. It also seemed like we were doomed to relive their fights forever: Clinton's presidency is remembered these days as much for his womanizing as anything, but he spent much of his first campaign defending himself against accusations of youthful marijuana use and draft-dodging in Vietnam. Subsequent campaigns — George W. Bush vs. Al Gore in 2000, and Bush vs. John Kerry in 2004 — also turned on what those candidates did during the war. What you did when you were 20 mattered as much as your record and policy positions when you were 50.
There was a brief moment when Barack Obama seemed to offer a path out of those old arguments. Indeed, that was the rationale offered by Andrew Sullivan in 2007 for Obama's candidacy: "Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America — finally — past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the baby boom generation that has long engulfed all of us," Sullivan wrote.
But Obama came, then went, and the 2016 election seemed to plunge us back into the baby boom era: Trump vs. Hillary Clinton appeared to be yet another battle of postwar kids.
Now, we've come full circle again. Trump might have become an adult in the 1960s, but it was during the '80s that he became "Donald Trump," a prime symbol of that decade's "greed is good" bonfire of the vanities excess. And the themes on which he ran for president — making America great again, cracking down on crime — would be familiar to Americans who remembered Reagan's campaign against Jimmy Carter, who had come to symbolize America's post-Vietnam "malaise" for many.
So we're having another 1980s moment. The Goldbergs, cram-packed with references to the decade, is one of the most popular sitcoms on TV. Magnum P.I. is back on CBS. Karate Kid has been rebooted, with its original stars, on YouTube. Oh, and did I mention that Alex Trebek — whose run on Jeopardy! started in 1984 — was moderator at Monday's Pennsylvania gubernatorial debate?
We're also reckoning with that era's lasting cultural effects in our politics. The testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and other #MeToo survivors has sparked new arguments about the sexual ethics of once-beloved movies like Revenge of the Nerds and Sixteen Candles. What was Kavanaugh's Friday testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee if not the embodiment of a middle-aged Billy Zabka character, all snarling preppy entitlement? News of his 1980s bar brawl just sealed the portrait.
There are differences, of course, between the current era and the politics of the 1980s. Reagan was not a fan of Russian tyrants. He was welcoming to immigrants, both in rhetoric and policy. And when appointing a woman to the Supreme Court was the smart political move, he made it, instead of appointing yet another white guy. There are cultural differences, too: We're making do without the era's shoulder pads and massive quantities of hairspray, thank God.
But the problem with the 1980s, which we'd do well to remember, is that the bills eventually came due.
In 1987, the stock market crashed. In 1990, George H.W. Bush oversaw a tax hike after the gap between federal spending and revenues became too big to responsibly bear. The crackdown on crime that Republicans promised in the 1980s became the mass incarceration of the 1990s and beyond. The list goes on. For many Americans, the excesses of the decade simply stopped being fun.
Yet here we are again. Kavanaugh's nomination might be one of the first chances we have to wrestle with the excesses of our own era, but it won't be the last. And as the UB40 story demonstrates, there are going to be moments when it all seems absurd and stupid.
Might as well put some Men Without Hats on the stereo and prepare yourself. History repeats itself, after all — the second time as farce.