Analysis & Comment

Opinion | The Long Shadow of the Reagan Years

I came down the stairs, hungover and shattered. I sang a song by The Doors. “This is the end, beautiful friend, the end.”

My mother, standing in the kitchen, threw her arms around me, elated and joyful. “This is the beginning,” she sang back to me, although she didn’t know anything about Jim Morrison.

That song, “The End,” was already 13 years old by Nov. 5, 1980, but it was everywhere that year, after it was used in the 1979 film “Apocalypse Now.” For me, it was the anthem of the times.

My election night party the evening prior had ended before it began. Ronald Reagan had been declared the winner before most of my guests — a cohort consisting largely of my boyfriends from high school — had even arrived. The television anchors started discussing the size of Mr. Reagan’s mandate while California was still voting. It was a wipeout: Jimmy Carter won only six states and the District of Columbia.

It was the beginning of the Reagan era, which is what made my Republican mother so happy. But for me — 22 years old and just out of college — it was the end, not just of the Carter presidency, but of childhood too, and the world I thought I’d known.

The upheavals of our current era did not begin with Donald Trump, nor will they will end now that he has been defeated. Nov. 4, 1980, was 40 years ago, a long time ago now. But in so many ways the cataclysms of 1980 created the world we live in today.

I should have known the world was changing when Mount St. Helens exploded on May 18 of that year. My sister, who lived in Portland, Ore., then, swept some volcanic ash out of her driveway and mailed it to me. I still have those ashes, somewhere.

But that wasn’t the only volcanic event of 1980. Mr. Reagan’s insurgency was accompanied by a flip of 12 seats in the Senate, giving the Republicans control of that chamber for the first time since 1952.

If you’re a conservative, all of that was great news. I considered myself a moderate then, but I still thought it was a disaster, and not even primarily because I distrusted the theory of trickle-down economics, or “voodoo economics,” as George H.W. Bush accurately called it. But what distressed me wasn’t voodoo. It was the idea, popularized by Mr. Reagan, that government isn’t the solution, that government, in fact, is the problem.

No one in her right mind would make the case that government programs are models of efficiency, and I won’t do that now. But the idea that we should therefore conclude that good governance is impossible and that we should place all hopes for improving our lives in the hands of beneficent and loving corporations is absurd. It was absurd then, and it’s absurd today.

For the life of me I have never been able to understand how so many Republicans talk about their patriotism and their love of the flag and at the same time despise the very government the Constitution created. Is that what patriotism means now — hating governance, but getting all teary-eyed and sentimental about Exxon Mobil?

It’s this enduring frame of mind that still eats away at us. It explains, just to pick one example, Republicans’ hatred of the Affordable Care Act — and why they’ve been trying to repeal it for all these years, even while swearing that they’ll protect so many of its provisions.

Because since Mr. Reagan, it’s been apostasy to suggest that good governance could ever do anything to improve people’s lives. Even the resistance to mask-wearing can arguably be traced back to November 1980: Just look at all the people who find that a mandate to wear a mask to keep other people from actually dying is somehow suppression of their freedom.

Sure, blame Donald Trump for his inept pandemic response. But blame Ronald Reagan for encouraging people to hate their own government, or to view an individual sacrifice for the common good as some kind of tyranny. The pending erasure of Mr. Trump from the White House means that the tone will change in January, from cruelty to kindness, from narcissism to empathy. But Joe Biden will find it a greater challenge to alter the core belief, now held by so many Americans, that their government is the gravest threat to their freedom.

Forty years ago today, Veterans Day 1980, I left my parents’ home and moved to New York City to — I think the phrase is — “seek my fortune.” By the end of that week, I had a new roommate, a young filmmaker named Charlie Kaufman. In months to come, Charlie and I would work on novels and films, each of us at our respective desks, and then head out into the night to close down the bars of Morningside Heights. A very different world had begun — for the country and for me.

The day I left home, I had packed up a U-Haul, filled with all of my junk. Suitcases of clothes. Boxes of books and records. My childhood bed. A little plastic bag containing the ashes of a volcano.

Just before I drove off, I got down on my knees and hugged my old dog. I’d gotten the dog, named Sausage, for my 11th birthday. Now that dog was gray.

My mother burst into tears. “This is the end!” she sang to me, just to prove she’d been listening the week before. “Beautiful friend!”

She didn’t sound much like Jim Morrison, but I knew what she meant.

“This is the beginning,” I said.

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