Belief  /  Antecedent

The 1980s Hearings That Explain Why Trump’s Base Still Loves Him

Bombshell revelations won’t hurt the former president with his core supporters. We have only to look at Oliver North to know why.

Tuesday’s bombshell testimony before the Jan 6. committee from Cassidy Hutchinson, former assistant to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, about President Donald Trump’s behavior before and during that day’s insurrection captivated Americans and set social media aflame. But 35 years ago this summer, it was another set of hearings that lured Americans to their televisions to watch Congress investigate a popular president’s alleged subversion of the rule of law.

Over the course of six days in early July 1987, Lt. Col. Oliver North testified in defense of his actions and those of his commander in chief, Ronald Reagan, in the Iran-contra scandal. In front of the cameras, North transformed himself from a disgraced soldier into a clean-cut, medal-bedecked national hero. A reality television star before the era of reality television, North was a harbinger of what was to come. Uniting religious and secular conservatives in a right-wing populist movement, North redefined patriotism and prefigured the current crisis of American democracy.

North stood accused of carrying out illegal covert operations involving the sale of arms to Iran to secure the release of American hostages while using profits to fund the Nicaraguan contras — something explicitly prohibited by Congress. The former National Security Council staffer admitted to lying to Congress and to shredding documents, but North was unapologetic. “This is a dangerous world,” he said. He did what he did for the love of God and country. And for North, the ends justified the means.

Many Americans concurred. That summer, “Olliemania” swept the country. A store in Albany sold T-shirts emblazoned with an American flag and the words “God, guns, guts and Ollie made this country.” A restaurant near Buffalo added an “Oliver North Sandwich” to its menu — made with “red-blooded American beef,” topped with shredded lettuce and served up on a hero roll. Pocket Books printed 775,000 paperback copies of North’s testimony transcript to meet anticipated demand.

North was found guilty on three felony counts (a verdict that would be overturned on a technicality). Before long, Olliemania began to fade for most Americans. One subset of the country, however, continued to celebrate North’s hero status. Conservative evangelicals embraced him not despite his illegal actions, but because of them.