Like many people, I was puzzled by Clint Eastwood’s twelve-minute performance last Thursday at the Republican convention. I searched for analysis of what I took to be a revealing moment but found nothing in the media so far. So I am giving a closer look at some of my feelings after watching those twelve minutes on the web. He didn’t follow script, if there was one, and this fact made the moment fascinating. I was ill at ease the whole time and watched it only once, partly because the dignity of an old person was in play (other old people were on my mind, including myself), partly because the grudging admiration I have for the professional quality of Eastwood’s later films, no matter my distaste for their political and ethical message, clashed with the discombobulated performance.
I presume that the Republican grandees and masters of ceremonies expected the images—if not the values themselves—of rugged individualism and proud rejection of timid government, epitomized by his violent films, to be the undergirded messages suggested or delivered by the actor-director. I say images, and not the values themselves, because the political establishment—of both parties—depends in one way or another on real governmental institutions to arrogate to themselves and their interest groups health insurance, financial protection—including huge risk-abatement programs by the Treasury—, projection of their own image, derivative access to the heroism of young people, its leveraging for political self-aggrandizement, and especially thoroughly militarized industrial support and aggressive defense of their economical interests rather than those of the people.
He did echo those images, but not in the darkly threatening, understated, wise-cracking way one could expect from a meticulously, professionally prepared script. The vulgarity, obscenity, and appeal to violence were all too obvious, palpable, and miserable. A sort of botched “Get off my lawn” that was meant to convey danger, and perhaps is very dangerous, very much as empires sur le retour d’âge can be, when they hang on to dreams of past grandeur and all pretense of rational discourse has been abandoned. He accepted to play a role in an event not staged by him, and to be part of this large lying machinery even though, or because, his movie characters have a strange relationship to institutions like city halls and suggest that order and institutions are built on cruel, vengeful, pitiless acts.
By not being true to his image of slick performer and executioner, he revealed the truth of the political show. Part of this is the myth of the white savior at the center of modern history. Eastwood is known for his portrayal of individualistic, violent, quietly threatening or domineering and often (subtly or not so subtly, depending on the observer’s point of view) racist characters. For the exercise of power over minority characters, see the last scene of The good, the bad, and the ugly, or Gran Torino. People from other countries or minority groups tend to be portrayed as either evil or subservient to the great white savior. His more recent movies still feature violence as the main aspect of human behavior (in the name of fighting evil, the usual ploy used by all powers) but frame it within a darker vision of a world where males pursue their macho perversions, make tragic mistakes, and occasionally sacrifice themselves.
So, I assume that the form and content of his appearance mirror the ideas of the Republican party. Paul Ryan seemed uneasy in the “make my day,” applauding crowd. He had good reason to be. The party’s destructive budget ideas, its attacks on labor and immigrants, contempt for electorate, posturing about mythic self-making, and a missionary view of the world that serves as foreign policy were shown to be what they are: an obscene, masochistic, pitiless, confused, view of a world that self destructs. The emperor naked.