America’s 40th president was a lot of things: a right-wing talk radio host, a Hollywood actor, a Red Scare monger, a charismatic liar. A great leader wasn’t one of them but for some reason Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War seems keen to revive that long-standing conservative fantasy.
I can only guess how many hours and how many indie game budgets went into meticulously detailing every weathered crack, mole, and discoloration in Ronald Reagan’s 70-year-old face so he could tell a room of CIA spooks in a voice of unwavering, fatherly assurance, to go do crimes in foreign countries.
I can also only guess why, in an otherwise cynical single-player campaign full of untrustworthy spies and conflicting truths, Treyarch and Raven Software chose to portray Reagan, whose legacy is now marked by scandal and disgrace even in many centrist circles, as a commander-in-chief of unimpeachable integrity and clear-sighted decision making.
Instead, Reagan provides the game’s clear moral throughline, reminding the player that, no matter how messy the fog of war or the spycraft nations use to influence geopolitics, the United States’ intentions are good and its safety and dominance must be safeguarded at all costs.
The scene introducing Reagan begins with a political aide complaining that Black Ops Cold War’s protagonists are being too paranoid about shadowy Soviet menaces, and later that illegal clandestine operations could blow up in the administration’s face. The CIA agents, framed as world-weary badasses, fire back that everything they do is illegal, and if they don’t take action innocent people will die. When a secret service agent enters the room, everyone goes silent, stands, puts out their cigarettes. Reagan strides in, full of swagger and his big-boss pants pulled up tight, to break the bureaucratic gridlock: The Soviet menace is real, the fate of the free world is at stake, and you and your spy bros will blow up whatever you need to ensure that the U.S. remains top dog.
It’s a dick-swinging caricature without an ounce of irony that might make even the National Review blush. The real Reagan, of course, did have a soft spot for backchannel sabotage, illegal CIA operations, and blowing stuff up. As the New York Times reported a year ago based on recently unsealed documents, 1980 presidential campaign surrogates Reagan worked with closely admitted to trying to impede the Iranian hostage negotiations in order to prevent Jimmy Carter from winning the election.
The infamous Iran-Contra scandal saw the U.S. sell arms to Iran to fund right-wing rebels in Nicaragua who kidnapped, tortured, and executed men, women, and children. Unlike Black Ops Cold Wars’ Reagan, who is very keyed in on the details of every CIA operation, the real one claimed to have no knowledge of people in his own administration breaking international law to fund death squads in South America. Ultimately fourteen Reagan administration officials were indicted, including Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, who at the time was part of the National Security Council, and later went on to consult on Call of Duty: Black Ops II.
Most Reagan hagiography focuses on his Cold War bluster, perhaps because his legacy on the homefront is even more damning. Morning in America is a foregone conclusion in Black Ops Cold War. What are you defending? Booming capitalist markets and low inflation rates, of course. But in reality Cold War warriors were protecting the looting of America’s working classes by turning unregulated markets and union busting into anti-Soviet virtues. Reaganomics saw the rich get richer while the minimum wage continued to stagnate.
Meanwhile, Reagan blamed the immiseration at the bottom on “welfare queens” and addicts, escalating the war on drugs and paving the way for the modern prison industrial complex that disproportionately incarcerates and disenfranchises people of color, especially Black men. More funding went to police departments under Reagan, and newly implemented mandatory minimums sent more people to prison. All of this under a backdrop of campaigning on racist appeals to states rights, small government, and individual freedom meant to undermine federal legislation around voting rights and desegregation.
What’s weirdest about Black Ops Cold War’s nostalgic homage to Reagan is that it’s coming not in the years of Bill Clinton’s “the era of big government is over” capitulation to Reagan’s legacy, or George W. Bush’s “with us or against us” global war on terror, or even the unseemly Reagan bootlicking of the 2012 and 2016 Republican primaries, but in 2020, a year in which even the so-called standard-bearers for principled Reagan conservatism let the mask slip off their corrupt, reactionary faces and then ran it over with a pickup truck just so Donald Trump might tweet nice things about them.
Maybe after four years of Trump Black Ops Cold War was supposed to offer a call back to a more respectable time when political leaders of deep conviction with clear moral compasses guided the country through tough and divided times. We’re in a pandemic after all, and some actual leadership on issues of literal life and death would be much appreciated. Of course, Reagan oversaw his own national health crisis—the AIDs epidemic—and he didn’t give a shit about it either. In fact, his administration started out by making fun of it.
Do I want to fight to save Reagan’s America? No, I do not. And fortunately Black Ops Cold War doesn’t ultimately force you to. What I would like to do is play a time-traveling bounty hunter and wheel Reagan’s ass before the Hague. Because, in case one of the soon-to-be best-selling games of the year gave you the wrong impression, he was an absolute piece of shit.