BERLIN – The 1980s have been making a comeback — and the nostalgia goes far beyond shoulder pads or neon heels and big hair. In the United States, it seems to be about a search for lost identity — and emotions that are familiar to me as someone who lived through that decade in Moscow.
On the conservative website Townhall, Nick Adams recently argued that Donald Trump’s success in the presidential race has a distinctly ’80s flavor:
“Trump is in many ways the 1980s retro-renaissance man who has come back to save America and restore it to its greatness, by killing political correctness and resurrecting 1980s sentiments and values. Might is right, and America is always right. And he’s bringing out all of the 1980s hotshots out of hibernation to Make America Great Again with their last breath. Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, Kirstie Alley, Jean Claude Van Damme, Gary Busey and countless others. It seems they are all coming out of their collective hibernation to support the man who can make America what it once was: great again, just like it was in the ’80s.”
It’s hard for me to share Adams’s warm feelings for that decade. I spent it on the losing side. Life in the other superpower was increasingly squalid, and the future was murky. We loved Willis and Van Damme, too, though: We’d seen them on pirated, officially disapproved videotapes. Many of us wished we’d been in the America that Adams remembers, and many of us ended up there during the following decade. Yet nobody could win an election in Russia on ’80s nostalgia: President Vladimir Putin’s reference points are the more idyllic 1960s and 1970s.
It gives me a certain sense of vindication, then, that the U.S. — or at least its Republican part — is being forced to live through a mild reenactment of our 1980s, not its own.
Thirty years ago, Saudi Arabia was directly responsible for our squalor: Worried about the Soviet Union’s increasing oil production, the kingdom decided to use its low production cost as a weapon and pushed prices through the floor. It worked: The Soviet Union had come to depend on the commodity for most of its hard currency, and when the petrodollar river dried up, it choked.
The Saudis are trying to do something similar now — but this time, to the United States. Economists expected this “Back to the Future” scenario to have a net positive effect on the U.S. economy, but growth is slowing and investment is down. The first quarter’s 0.5 percent growth looks sickly, and American voters across party lines don’t see themselves benefiting. The U.S. economy is performing worse than expected: The Bloomberg consensus forecast for the first quarter promised 1.9 percent growth.
Russia, of course, has been affected by low oil prices, too, and its economy is in recession. But it’s doing better than expected. Economists polled by Bloomberg predicted Russia’s gross domestic product would drop 2.5 percent in the first quarter; it was down 1.4 percent.
And performance relative to expectations matters. Winning or losing is, to a great extent, a matter of perception.
In his speeches, Trump keeps saying that America is losing: Giving up too much to its enemies, failing to stand by its allies, frittering away its military might and making bad trade deals. His supporters seem to agree. Talk to a Putin supporter, though — and they are the majority of Russian voters — and you won’t hear any talk of losing. To them, Russia is holding its own against a hostile West. It’s gotten away with grabbing Crimea from Ukraine, and it has stolen the show from Western powers in Syria, where it is now a major force after a relatively cheap intervention.
The current version of the Cold War is much more of a propaganda farce than the original of the 1980s, because a direct military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia is much harder to imagine. In the war of words, Russia is indeed holding its own. Trump seldom misses an opportunity to hold up the Russian autocrat as an example of a true leader, “highly respected within his own county and beyond” — and to assail President Barack Obama as a weakling.
That may help explain why the Russian characters in “The Americans” — a cable-television series about deep-cover Soviet agents in the 1980s U.S. — inspire the sympathy of American audiences. In today’s Russia, a TV show about deep-cover American agents would have bombed; gone are my school days, when we could side with Rambo against a system we knew and hated.
This phenomenon is hard to understand. Americans have far fewer reasons to feel oppressed or defeated than Soviets did in the 1980s. Their country leads the world in science and innovation — the areas that matter most. So why are they listening to a guy with a parody of an ’80s hairdo who says they should feel bad? It’s 2016, just listen to “Me, Myself and I,” the song that’s dominating the charts now and compare it to a tune with the same title that was a hit in 1988. It’s a different era, and the concepts of winning and losing have changed dramatically with the global economy and the world order. There’s no DeLorean time machine to take Americans to the Reagan ’80s, and if it existed, it would take them elsewhere. It’s time to move on.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Berlin. He is also the author of three novels and two nonfiction books.