If the election of an American president abetted by Russian interference seems stranger than fiction, you’re almost right. Exactly 30 years ago, in the midst of the Cold War, ABC aired a seven-night, 14-and-a-half-hour miniseries depicting life 10 years after the Soviet Union manipulates the presidential election as meek and deflated Americans shrug. “Amerika,” was heavily criticized at the time for peddling the histrionic premise of a bloodless coup. And while much of the production remains implausible, its core message is more relevant today than ever: They did it because we let them.
In the alternate universe of “Amerika,” (available only in VHS, though it can be found on YouTube) a puppet government was installed in 1988, after a sham election in which both major party candidates were Soviet stooges. By 1997, the 50 states had been replaced by 12 “administrative areas.” Communication systems had been taken out – no Internet or cell phones in this version of 1997 – cutting Americans off from each other. The mighty U.S. military is no more; the areas are patrolled by Soviet-controlled “United Nations Special Service Units.” Dissidents, if not simply exiled to desolate parts of the country, are brainwashed at the “People’s Acceptance Hospital.” Older Americans grumble about food shortages and a lost way of life, but are resigned to their fate. Kids are taught their “ancestors” were “bullies” who only killed Indians, exploited workers and dumped those who couldn’t work into “slums” to die. (Lincoln is still revered, but his image now gets paired with Lenin.)
Hope for a restoration of democracy is personified in Devin Milford, played by Kris Kristofferson. Milford, clearly styled on then-first term Senator John Kerry, is a Vietnam vet-turned antiwar activist-turned Massachusetts congressman. He was the last gasp for freedom, running as an independent in the 1988 presidential election before being sent to an American gulag. “Amerika” begins with his release after a six-year imprisonment. He’s not free. He’s confined to 25-mile area in his hometown of what was called Nebraska, but is now part of the “Central Administrative Area.” The Russians try to pressure him to help stifle nascent protests, but he is too stubborn and becomes the symbol of the resistance.
Milford’s refusal to bend is contrasted by his childhood friend Peter Bradford (Robert Urich). Bradford begins as a county administrator disgusted by his Russian overlords. But as he tries to do as much good as he can within the system, he gradually becomes closer to the regime. He eventually agrees to help formally dissolve the United States by turning the administrative areas into rump countries – the final phase of the Soviet’s grand plan, expedited by a false-flag massacre of the entire U.S. Congress, blamed on American terrorists. Bradford is tapped to become president of the new country, “Heartland.”
Hovering over them is the Andrei Denisov (Sam Neill), a KGB agent effectively running the Central Administrative Area (not to be confused with the real-life Andrey Denisov, who is Russia’s current ambassador to China). Cynical manipulation comes as easy to Denisov as breathing – he casually takes credit for a “controlled provocation,” stirring up “young people” to “resist in ways that make them feel good, not those that actually accomplish anything.” But he holds a soft spot for America. At key moments, he lectures Milford and Bradford – with a trace of sadness – on why their fellow Americans surrendered the Cold War.
How was it that the Soviets were able to waltz into America? The specifics of the coup are never spelled out, but various explanations are given as to why Americans were too demoralized to resist. Milford, in archival footage from his doomed presidential campaign, blames the scars from Vietnam, which “struck the core of our perception of ourselves as a people.”
Some point to economics. One man cites the decline of American manufacturing: “They wanted a country which didn’t have a productive capacity. I guess we were [already] well on our way to giving it up.” Marion Andrews (Wendy Hughes), Milford’s conniving ex-wife who betrayed him in 1988, rationalizes that Americans chose to welcome the communists because they were tired of chronic inequities: “Many of us took the opportunity to create an America we believe in. There were millions of people who never participated in the so-called ‘American Dream.’”
Milford has a different explanation. In a separate scene, he tells his sister soon after his return home that Americans were too scared and selfish to support his campaign and stand up for democracy: “I lost faith in everybody. Nobody wanted to risk anything for anybody else. Everybody afraid they were going to lose what they had. They knew it was bad. They were just afraid it’d get worse.”
Bradford, angrily defending his decision to be the face of secession from America to his horrified wife, echoes Milford: “For most people, being an American never meant that much anyway … Damn, I am so tired of this ‘I’m an American’ bull! Where was all that patriotism when it counted? Where was that willingness to sacrifice? Nobody wanted to join the damn Army to defend the country unless they got paid well. Nobody wanted to give any time to public service unless they could make a career out of it.”
But Denisov sums it up most succinctly, “You lost your country before we even got here.”
The mini-series is all but totally forgotten today, largely because it was an overhyped ratings bust. In the run up to its premiere, it had attracted massive controversy, especially among the left, which presumed it was going to be seven nights of right-wing war-mongering propaganda. (Mother Jones magazine published a six-article attack spread ahead of its airing.) Not only did the Soviet Union complain, but so did the United Nations, which threatened legal action over the use of its name and logo. (In fact, “Amerika” treats the U.N. like an essential institution; Milford laments America “abandon[ed] the principle of a United Nations,” letting Russia, “usurp its name and debase its function.” Denisov further explains that America’s disinterest in the U.N. and international affairs was what turned the world against it.)
Mother Jones’ Todd Gitlin hoped that “CBS and NBC will rise to the occasion with some ingenious counterprogramming.” NBC came through. While “Amerika” won the ratings battle on its opening night, attracting 22 million households, “The Facts Of Life Down Under” was close behind with 19 million. Lacking a gangbusters premiere installment, ratings for “Amerika” steadily declined over the week.
Beyond artistic merits, “Amerika” suffered from poor timing. Production began a few years earlier, when President Ronald Reagan declared the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and joked on a hot mic that he signed legislation to “outlaw Russia” so “we begin bombing in five minutes.” (Many presumed ABC greenlighted “Amerika” to pacify conservatives livid over “The Day After,” its 1983 depiction of nuclear holocaust, though the network denied it.) But by February 1987, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had acknowledged the USSR’s economic troubles, begun his glasnost reforms and reached out to Reagan. “’Amerika’ became an anachronism before it ever saw the light of day,” crowed The Nation’s Andrew Kopkind in his critical review.
Watching “Amerika” through the lens of 2016 is a wholly different experience.
It’s still a slog. This is not a pulpy “Red Dawn” or a grippingly tense “Manchurian Candidate.” The pace is slow, the lectures often leaden and the editing nonexistent. Seven hours could have easily been lopped off, if not for the desire to have a momentous, week-long television event. The New York Times TV critic warned, “getting through the enormous glut of stereotypes and preachifying dialogue … will tax even the most willing suspenders of disbelief.” The Washington Post was more charitable, deeming it “worth enduring” because of its “daring grimness.”
And there are plenty of outdated references. The 20th century Cold War with the Russians was an existential battle against communism. The question posed by “Amerika” was whether Americans were capable of giving up on democracy, but also on capitalism. In turn, “Amerika” is at its most incredulous when depicting Americans accepting the thin gruel of communism. An early scene shows Bradford at the local diner, wistfully ordering “Aunt Jemima pancakes, real maple syrup and tiny pork link sausages.” The owner, in no mood for jokes, shoots back, “I’ve got soybean cakes and I’ve got molasses and that’s better for you anyway.” This is nonsense. If there’s one thing Americans would get up off the mat for, it’s pork.
But the New York Times TV critic’s conclusion in 1987, “that the United States would simply crumble from within because of a national moral flabbiness — is monumentally implausible,” doesn’t seem so implausible today.
With the economic argument over communism resolved, the remaining divide with Russia is political: democracy vs. dictatorship, humanitarian internationalism vs. cold nationalism. Access to sausage is not in danger, giving Russia a fresh opening.
American conservatives with a nationalist, and even authoritarian, bent like Donald Trump are not unnerved by the prospect of Russian influence over the U.S. government. Some see common cause with President Vladimir Putin in the war against Islamic militants, shelving concerns about Russia’s imperial ambitions and comfort with genocidal tactics. Much like how the Russians in “Amerika” want the United States of America to dissolve, both Putin and Trump have rhetorically undermined the European Union, and Trump has questioned America’s commitment to Putin’s bête noire, NATO. Weaker global and regional institutions make it easer for individual nations to act with impunity.
Russia isn’t popular with most Americans, but Trump supporters did not flinch when he deflected allegations that Putin’s government murdered journalists by defending him and smearing America: “at least he’s a leader … I think our country does plenty of killing also.” And those in the “alt-right” movement see Putin as a symbol of white nationalist values. News of how Russia used hacking to manipulate voting behavior has only increased Republican approval of Putin in polls. His net favorable rating among Republicans has jumped from minus-66 to minus-10 in little more than two years, while Barack Obama’s festers at minus-64.
What’s even more disturbing is Trump’s dismissal of the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia not only meddled in the election, but actively sought his victory—and then celebrated it. Trump’s reaction has been to mock and misrepresent their findings, while blaming the victims for being hacked. His aides scoff at the implication that he’s too pro-Putin: “He is going to modernize our nuclear capability, he’s going to call for an increase in defense budget, he’s going to have oil and gas exploration—all which goes against Russia’s economic and military interests,” Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway recently noted. But these moves are not all that provocative if Trump and Putin have overlapping foreign policy goals. Moreover, Trump himself has had every opportunity to clear up any misconceptions, and he hasn’t done it. American presidents have had warm relationships with Russian leaders in the past—Reagan and Gorby, Clinton and Yeltsin—but this feels different.
Before America in “Amerika” is fully occupied, we see Milford in 1988 make a final desperate pitch to the country: “No, we’re not all in prison camps. We’re not all beaten down by an occupying army with tanks on every corner. But we don’t need troops to tell us we’ve lost our vision. We don’t need Soviet advisors to prove that we’ve lost our national purpose. Americans have allowed themselves to become immobilized by their own selfish concerns. Immobilized by a lack of understanding of the freedoms secured by our forefathers into which most of us were born, and now have lost.” Today we see immobilization as well, from those plaintively wailing on Facebook that Russia has executed something akin to a coup, but feeling powerless as to what to do about it.
“Amerika” did not foresee that Russia’s entry into America politics would be greased by a bombastic right-wing populist billionaire. The fictional president is a mild-mannered, self-described “figurehead.” But he is not without insight, telling Bradford, “Totalitarianism doesn’t need armies. It only needs to control a couple of things: the media, and the ability to dispense privilege to some, and withhold it from others. And of course, a weak and divided people helps.”
The seeds of that dark future are already in the soil. Russia executed a subtle control of the media—weaponizing mainstream institutions through releases of stolen emails and flooding social media with fake news. Fox News is airing uncritical interviews with Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, an organization U.S. officials have linked to Russian intelligence. And the American people are not only deeply divided along geographic and cultural lines, but new research shows them to be increasingly dubious about the importance of democracy.
“If the dream of democracy cannot survive in America, it cannot survive the 20th century,” Milford declared in his announcement address. Denisov, studying videotape of the speech, notices his normally apolitical American girlfriend transfixed. “He’s touched you,” he purrs to her, his expression both intrigued and disturbed. Part of Putin’s agenda is to convince Americans not to be touched, but instead, to believe that our democratic institutions can no longer be trusted. Our challenge, in the face of Russian interference, is to remind ourselves that despite the deep ideological and cultural differences that are testing American unity, the unifying principle of America remains.
Thirty years ago, a bloated, overwrought TV miniseries tried to make that point and missed the mark. We didn’t need to fear the gulag then, and we don’t now. Hysterical prophesizing of totalitarianism can also be counterproductive, making it easier to shrug off quieter erosions of democracy. But no matter how imperfect, “Amerika” was more prescient than its creators ever could have expected, reminding us that we can only can lose what makes America great if we surrender it ourselves.