Why Ronald Reagan Was the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Punk Rock
In the 1980s, all you needed to be a hardcore band was two chords, an attitude, and a drawing of Ronald Reagan with a Hitler mustache.
If you were an American punk rocker at the cusp of the 1980s, you had a well-defined shit list: hippies, jocks, parents, and anyone else insufficiently pissed off with the general concept of existence. But your rage, more likely than not, was somewhat directionless, a heat-seeking missile in search of a warm body. Then, on January 20, 1981, the American punk scene found both a solid adversary and catalyst when Ronald Reagan, the former California governor and movie star who was basically a 1950s cartoon of a conservative. For the next eight years, his right-wing rhetoric and policies inspired the clumpy mixture of hatred and contempt that would fuel the American hardcore punk scene for a decade.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what made Reagan so hatable in a way that his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, never was. Chalk it up to the Gipper's screwing over of the poor, his long history of going after left-wing activists, or just the way his public image (and that of his anti-feminist, anti-drug wife) made him seem like an avatar of a phony American Dream—whatever the cause, it wasn't long before anti-Reagan anthems became a bona fide subgenre.
You could point to the track "Fucked Up Ronnie" by pioneering Canadian punkers DOA, released on its 1981 EP Positively DOA. Or you could highlight songs like "Hey Ronnie" by DC's Government Issue, "Reaganomics" by Texas's D.R.I., and "If Reagan Played Disco" by Southern California's Minutemen. Nancy got plenty of hate too, in the form of tunes like New Jersey's TMA's "I'm In Love With Nancy Reagan."
That last one hinged mostly on the idea that punks yelling about fucking the first lady was self-evidently hilarious, but other bands got more explicitly political, if not more explicit. Jello Biafra and his Dead Kennedys took every chance they could get to skewer the false sense of security that Reagan doled out like creamed chipped beef, calling him a fascist warmonger and worse. (That band headlined the Rock Against Reagan concerts in 1984.) And let's not forget the San Francisco fanzine Maximum Rock 'N' Roll, which had Biafra on its masthead for the early issues. Started in the summer of 1982, MRR featured long-winded articles like "Punk Propaganda: Protest or Proselytism?" and "An Introduction to Situationist Theorists." But you didn't need to have a postgrad degree to call our tax-cutting, anti-communist, Grenada-invading, government-overthrowing president an asshole—punks will always question authority, especially an authority who looked so great with a Hitler mustache drawn above his lip, devil horns on his head, and a swastika on his sleeve.
But by the time Reagan won his second term in '84, that spark of unrest he ignited seemed to have fizzled out; maybe the hardcore scene had realized that anger alone wouldn't drive him from office, maybe singers just ran out of lyrics. Even a band like LA's Wasted Youth, whose debut LP in 1981 was titled Reagan's In, was now putting out wacky carefree records with titles like Get Out of My Yard! On the Dead Kennedy's farewell LP from 1986, Bedtime for Democracy, Biafra delivered his usual anti-Reagan rants on songs like "Rambozo the Clown" and "Gone with My Wind," but by then, it struck many as repetitive. Social awareness had become something of a tired shtick in hardcore by the late 80s, when straight edge culture ran rampant.
Punks' hatred of Reagan might seem a little dated now, but these bands rescued and reinvigorated the protest song, which by the 80s had ossified into snore-worthy crap like Genesis's "Land of Confusion" and Midnight Oil's "Beds Are Burning." Reagan left behind a pretty shitty legacy, but it wasn't all ignored AIDS deaths and illegal arms deals—how can you entirely hate a guy who inspired tracks like "Reagan Youth" by Reagan Youth, "White House" by Sector 4, or "Hinkley Had a Vision" by the Crucifucks?
As the 2016 presidential election approaches, it's worth looking back on all this in order to find a silver lining in the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency. Sure, he's a racist, lying, orange-skinned torture enthusiast, but could he lead a punk rock revolution similar to the one we saw in the early 80s? In Trump's America, you might have to bury your collection of first-press Dangerhouse singles in your aunt's backyard like it was kiddie porn, but there's no question some great songs would be written about what would be a terrible four years for the country. All I know is, I'm about to copyright the band names Trump Youth, Trump SS, and Millions of Dead Trumps.