A view from the Class of ’80

The years 1979 through 1981 were strange days.  A no-mans land, the uncertain age as the seventies began to turn into the eighties and the eighties were trying to shed the tired old skin of the seventies.  It has been noted that decades, as they are defined as a cultural event, are determined not by chronology. Rather, they are marked as having begun or ended with certain historical events. It is those events and not the calendar that form the boundaries of what we may commonly recognize as being the sixties or seventies, eighties, etc.

This is of course subject to some debate, but one might say for example that the sixties were launched not by the date 1 January 1960. Instead the sixties, as we understand it as an age, commenced with the Kennedy assassination 22 November 1963.  All of the tumult and madness we know as the character of that decade did not conclude until the Nixon resignation 9 August 1974. The day after that marked the beginning of the seventies. The Beatles as much as anything else helped to define the sixties and their “white album”, as it has come to be known, stands as one of the iconic markers of the age. The same might be said for Sgt. Pepper, but I digress…

For all of its eclectic nature the one track from this LP that was probably the most revolutionary for the time was, aptly, Revolution #9. Number 9, number 9, number 9, the repetitious and hypnotic loop amid electronica, random samplings, words and voices. In retrospect one finds an eerie prescience in this. The sixties, if they did indeed end on the 9th day of August 1974, then surely the seventies ended on the 9th day of December 1980. Although all four members are credited it is recognized that Revolution #9 was the brainchild of John Lennon. The number 9 always figured prominently in his life, marking the day of his birth, in October 1940, and the day of his death in December 1980. A life begun and ended on the 9th. His creation perhaps heralded the beginning and the end of the sad days marking the decade succeeding the Beatles’ heyday.

Six weeks following that tragic night outside the Dakota saw the swearing in of our 40th president, Ronald Reagan. This did not mark the start of the decade though it was certainly one of its milestones. Besides synth-pop, big hair, acid washed denims and bad movies the eighties were identified just as much by the years this man occupied the white house. If you listen to discussions of Reagan amongst the political class you will conclude that he was a polarizing figure; you either loved him or you hated him.  I have some fair recollection of that 1980 campaign, though to be honest I was not really paying that close attention at the time. There are two things about it, however, that I do recall quite distinctly. One of these is the horror and dread that was whipped up with people of my age group concerning the dire consequences awaiting us with a Reagan presidency. The other is the utter white faced shock of the network pundits on election night.

I graduated from high school a few short months before the election that year. It was the first election that I was eligible to vote in, though I confess that like most of my peers I did not exercise my franchise that year. I was a big, dumb farm boy from a rust-belt swing state. I wasnt paying the bills yet and thus did not have an appreciation for how dire things were economically. What I was aware of as a recent graduate was the prevailing forecast of the day that we were headed into a still deeper recession and that jobs would continue to grow scarce. Speaking from my own experience I can say that this was indeed true for the unskilled and inexperienced worker. With Reagan’s election most of the nation experienced a glimmer of hope for the future with the sobering understanding that things were likely to get worse before they got better.

Despite the media portrayals of Ronald Reagan, ranging from the doddering, senile, has-been B-movie actor to some sort of anti-christ ( r o n a l d, 6 letters, w i l s o n, 6 letters, r e a g a n, 6 letters), most of us found that the old guy kind of grew on you. Even among the younger crowd, at least in the working classes. The same might not be said for those populating college campuses of the day, but to a lot of us Reagan reminded us of our grandfather.

We were struggling. 1980,81 and 82 were lean years. Not everyone was patient and there was a lot of grumbling. Those who were opposed to Reagan by their nature anyway only took this to add fuel the fire, assuring us all “see! we told you this would happen!” But Reagan stayed the course. Like our grandfather he was there to coach us along, reminding us that if we would just keep at it and follow his advice we would be rewarded in the end. it would all pay off in the long run. He had that confidence of our grandparent’s generation, the sincere belief in the american ideal. Yes those days were tough, but we did get through it and in the end, just like our wise old gramps he was proven right. By 1983 and 84 there was work everywhere.  You had to be purposely not looking if you didnt find opportunities for yourself.

I remember this. I lived it. I have grown kids now, they are young and still in the entry stages of the workforce. I try to explain to them what that had been like but its foreign to them. They have no frame of reference from their own experience. They’ve never witnessed it and for all of my efforts they  can’t imagine it. Their experience has conditioned them to “the new normal”. This is just like the malaise of the Carter years; the age of diminished expectations. The majority of americans did not want to swallow that pill then and if the results of this election are an indication they still don’t want to swallow it now.

I wont for a moment try to suggest that Donald Trump is a Ronald Reagan. He is who he is and love him or hate him you have to agree that he is genuine. I mean that in the sense that unlike a career politician he simply says what he has to say. No filter, no equivocating. You don’t have to agree but there is no disputing that with Trump all the cards are on the table. What you see is indeed what you get. Aside from their distinct differences as individuals there are clearly strong parallels between the 1980 and 2016 elections.

First and foremost there is the defiance of experts, prognosticators, the political class in general. They also despised and underestimated Reagan. More importantly they despised and underestimated the electorate, in both instances. Then there is the fact that like Reagan Donald Trump takes the reins of a wagon that has steered way off of the trail. He enters to form an administration that must preside over the chaos and damage wrought by his predecessor. In Reagan’s case he was inheriting simple incompetence. Trump inherits a lot of damage that has been deliberately inflicted.

Finally, there is that same glimmer of hope for the future that accompanied the start of the Reagan years. We must remember, however, that as it was in 1980 so is it today: things are quite likely to get worse for a time before they get better. Whether Trump has that same ability to steer us through those troubled waters as Reagan did remains to be seen. There will be a chorus of voices raised against him and anything he does. That is the province of the executive branch in this country, regardless of who sits in the oval office. Whether you voted for the man or not I would entreat you to be patient and give the man a chance because we are in rough shape, people.  No matter who is in charge it is going to take a lot of work to fix what is broken in Washington. There will be pain. There will be blood. Like it or not this is the horse we all get to ride for at least the next four years. If Trump can not succeed then neither do we. We’d all do well to remember this.

 

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