Jamelle Bouie had my favorite tweet of the entire Republican National Convention, when during the epically bizarre Clint Eastwood “speech,” he said: “This is a perfect representation of the campaign: an old white man arguing with an imaginary Barack Obama.”
You can’t escape the racial subtext of what happened last night. Eastwood scolded an (imaginary) black man for his perceived slights to the American way in front of an audience of millions, and a sea of mostly white faces laughed and egged him on. There isn’t anyone for “America” than Dirty Harry; like John Wayne before him, Eastwood stands in for the American sense of masculinity and rugged individualism. In his babbling incoherence, he was telling this effete liberal, possibly foreign, definitely un-American, black man the way things are really done around here.
It also brought to mind Eastwood’s Gran Torino. It didn’t receive any Oscar love, but in 2008 Eastwood fielded a lot of praise for playing Archie Bunker with a muscle car and rifle. Critics and audiences couldn’t help but love a character that says to a black street gang “What are you spooks up to?” or tells a southeast Asian character “You’re wrong, eggroll, I know exactly what I’m talking about.” It was cinematic gold to hear jokes like “A Mexican, a Jew, and a colored guy go into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, ‘Get the fuck out of here.’” Hilarious stuff, right?
It perfectly encapsulates conservative thinking on race. Bigotry isn’t much more than a quirk, like drinking warm beer or being a bad tipper. In the film, Eastwood’s not a bad guy, just a lonely old war veteran further disgruntled by the deterioration of his neighborhood from a white suburban enclave to an ethnic gang wasteland. Don’t let the pandering and tokenism of a few minority eloquent minority speakers fool you: this is the mindstate of the Republican party today. Mitt Romney, who won the nomination in part because he was supposed to be the adult in the room, has played right into it with his lies about welfare and birther jokes. But he’s not a bad guy, he’s just trying to protect the America we all love. Never mind it’s an America some of us have never known.
It’s not a huge leap from “get off my lawn” to “we own this country” to “take our country back.” Someone in this equation is an intruder, claiming something they have no legitimate claim to, and for that they must pay. If Mitt Romney wins the presidency, the rest of us are stuck cleaning his Gran Torino.
This Eastwood episode didn’t overshadow Romney, the convention, or the campaign. It was the campaign.