President Reagan has seen Rambo and admires his foreign policy. According to the box office, it appears that audiences do too. It is the critics who disapprove. They are appalled by the chauvinistic anticommunism. But chauvinism is not a terribly new phenomenon. It has been around throughout the 1980s, getting its start with ayatollah-bashing and a boost from the 1980 Olympic hockey victory. (Our biggest win since Inchon, and more riotously celebrated. It apparently made up for the Soviets' acquisition of Afghanistan.) The wave of patriotic good feeling continued through such recent entertainments as the '84 Olympics, which gave us the chance to beat up on the whole world except for communists, and "Red Dawn," which took care of the omission.
Anticommunism is fine. My concern about Rambo is his domestic policy. It is his anti-Americanism I don't like. Oh, I admit, there is a lot about America he loves: guns, vets, Americans. It's just its corrupt, spineless, traitorous government that he despises.
This celebration of everything American except its most distinctive institution is by now a fairly common theme. A quite charming version animates the last big patriotic movie, "The Right Stuff." There the anti-institutionalism is handled endearingly: seven brave and plucky men make it into space despite the politicians and the bureaucrats.
This is, of course, nonsense. The space program is one of the greatest bureaucratic triumphs since the pyramids, and the pharaohs didn't need to look for volunteers. Apollo made it to the moon on the back not of individuals but of an acronymed governmental beast called NASA.
We are in the midst of a severe outbreak of rugged individualism. It shows up in other popular entertainments too. The magazines proclaim this the age of the entrepreneur. And, at a larger scale, there's been a flood of books celebrating the cult of the CEO, the one man, the boss man who turns things around. Iacocca, of course, is the biggest cult hero of them all: Rambo in pinstripes, sent on a mission to bring Chrysler back alive. And so he does.
Wrong again. As economist Robert Reich points out, Iacocca was deft and able, but Chrysler was saved by the coordinated action (and sacrifice) of several vast and despised bureaucracies: unions, banks and feds (the last two of which, by the way, are the stock villains of the modern pseudo- western, the "Country" movies). Chrysler was the triumph of institutional dinosaurs headquartered in New York, Detroit and Washington.
Of all the institutions, Washington comes in for particular abuse. It is a ready target for every politician who makes his living here. President Reagan will no doubt still be running against it in 1989 and beyond. Hollywood, on its usual tape delay, is simply catching up with the zeitgeist.
Not that Rambo and Reagan invented the Washington-bashing. The current wave goes back to Vietnam and Watergate and entered mainstream politics with Jimmy Carter's 1976 presidential campaign, which was based on the premise of a vast moral gulf between American government and the good, decent, loving, etc., American people.
In Washington, anti-Washington feeling is now standard. It goes by the name of populism and knows no party lines. Liberals and conservatives vie for its mantle. Everyone is anti-institutional, anti-bureaucratic. No one, for example, talks anymore of government programs. However, since everyone knows that government has to intervene in a complex society, new, disguised means to do so have to be devised. Hence the '80s' singular obsession with taxes, the supreme instrument for intervening with a hidden hand. Invisible government: the next best thing to no government at all.
It is not just Washington that plays the populist tune. Exploiting the distinction between people (good) and government (bad) has always been a favorite activity abroad. Robert Trautmann, TWA hostage, reported on his jailers' view of America: "They like the people. . . . It is the government they object to." Terrorists, totalitarians and others with not an inkling of what democracy is about invariably declare themselves friends of the American people and at war with the American government.
Of course, this dichotomy denies the central premise of democracy, namely, that when people choose their government, the result is authentically representative of the people. We should perhaps not expect from terrorists too firm a grasp of democratic theory. Rambo, too, an apparent aphasia victim, can be excused. The rest of us have no excuses.
The appeal of anti-institutionalism -- whether it takes the form of individualism or populism -- is no doubt strong. It can, however, take us only so far. Up to the point where we discover that, in a self-governing society, we are our institutions.
You can have contempt for them. Or you can have love of country. What you can't have is both at the same time.