[T]he subject of the dream is the dreamer. The fabrication of an Africanist presence is reflexive; an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly conscious. It is an astonishing revelation of longing, of terror, of perplexity, of shame, of magnanimity not to see this. — Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992)
I did a post called “Playing in the Dark” four years ago when a cranky old white guy was facing off against a slender young half-black guy in the race for the White House. I recycle the title now because it seems dispiritingly apt in the wake of this week’s Republican convention, which was, long before actor Clint Eastwood took the stage Thursday evening for his bizarre colloquy with a chair, given over to boxing with a phantom: the America-hating, welfare-loving, freedom-killing, Muslim socialist “Barack Obama” conjured by the fevered imaginations of white men terrified of losing their power and privilege. Eastwood’s crude, contemptuous rant might have been the most off the wall, but it was by no means off message. From the moment Obama took office, Republicans have sought to depict him not only as a failed president but somehow an illegitimate one. They’ve indulged the birthers in their midsts, bragged about their determination to deny him a second term, and framed his every move as an assault on liberty. Eastwood’s suggestion to the Invisible Obama in the chair that he should “just step aside” so that “Mr. Romney can kind of take over” is perfectly consistent with this strategy. Republicans have been saying ever since they tried to remove a president from office over a sexual indiscretion that elections don’t matter. Voters don’t know what’s good for the country. We’re the ones who should be running things, as we always have. Step aside, boy, Eastwood might as well have said. The people had their tears of joy, their happy little moment of racial harmony. Step aside.
WaPo‘s Dan Balz thinks the effects of Eastwood’s speech will be short-lived, that “the big debate will reengage. Attention will shift back to the issues that really count” — though he recognizes that the focus on substance will only last “until the next Eastwood-like moment distracts everyone again.” I may be wrong, but I think the effects of Eastwood’s speech may be longer lasting and more damaging to the Republican campaign than Balz supposes. Viewed on television, Eastwood’s 12 minutes of semi-coherent public disrespect for a sitting (get it? sitting?) president came across not as funny but as callous, arrogant, and creepily anti-democratic. Oh, and more than a little bit racist. The party faithful in and out of the hall might have been amused, but I have a hunch those 12 minutes will turn off independent voters and fire up a Democratic base that up to this point has seemed lacking in enthusiasm for this election.
Eastwooding may prove to be more than an amusing meme or fodder for some rip-roaring good moments of Jon Stewart because those 12 minutes aren’t really off the Republican message. They are the message of a party worried about “not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” Eastwood’s speech is not unlike Rep. Todd Akin‘s recent remarks about “legitimate rape.” Both said exactly what they meant to say, and when a $hitstorm of controversy erupts both produce the kinds of reactions satirized in a New Yorker cartoon this week. A politician stands at a podium and earnestly addresses a camera: “I regret that my poor choice of words caused some people to understand what I was saying.” (Eastwood hasn’t said anything since his appearance at the convention. I’m referring to the GOP’s nervous backing away from his remarks as analogous to the politician in the cartoon.)
Here’s my prediction, which I will be bold enough to post before Nate Silver has a chance to gather and carefully analyze the post-convention polls: Romney’s post-convention bounce is going to be underwhelming and will quickly fade, even if Obama doesn’t get much of a bounce from a convention likely to be even less suspenseful than the GOP snooze-fest was. Romney will lose the election, by more than polls have been suggesting is likely. And when the history of the 2012 election is written, Clint Eastwood will be blamed for thwarting Romney’s momentum by crystalizing for voters the race and class resentments that are the heart and soul of today’s Republican party.
If I’m right, I’m a genius. If I’m wrong, I’m just an English prof who ought to keep her day job. Still, kids, mark my words: You play in the dark, sometimes you’re going to get lost. And sometimes you’re going to bump smack into your own damn self. Remember where you heard it.