Eastwooding: Dirty Harry and rightwing populism

In its own strange way, Clint Eastwood’s tense confrontation with a chair during the Republican convention illustrated the dynamics of the contemporary Right far better than anything much else at that event.

Take this moment, right at the end of his rambling speech.

 I would just like to say something, ladies and gentlemen. Something that I think is very important.  It is that, you, we — we own this country.

At one level, this is standard American civics, an exposition of Frank Capraesque democratic theory. But in a speech delivered to a conference full of wealthy old white people determined to replace a black political opponent, it has an entirely different meaning.

Eastwood’s ideally placed to draw out that second meaning. His breakthrough role in Dirty Harry (a movie originally entitled ‘Dead Right’) was a key moment in the developing right-wing backlash against the civil rights movement and the sixties subculture more generally. Pauline Kael famously dubbed the film ‘fascist’, describing it as ‘a remarkably single-minded attack on liberal values, with each prejudicial detail in place, a kind of hard-hat The Fountainhead.’

If you look at the key scenes, you can see how neatly they synch with today’s politics.

You’ll recall when the severely wounded detainee Abu Zubaydah was taken into custody early in the War on Terror, President Bush himself supposedly asked CIA director George Tenet: ‘[W]ho authorized putting him on pain medication?’ (Zubaydah, of course, would eventually be waterboarded 83 times in August 2002 alone).

Compare this iconic Dirty Harry clip.

Dirty Harry is entirely constructed around that Bush-style hostility to the rule of law. That’s the central tension in the movie: Harry’s struggle against the killer remains subsidiary to his struggle against the supposed liberalism of the establishment.

‘Where the hell does it say that you’ve got a right to kick down doors, torture suspects, deny medical attention and legal counsel?’ asks the district attorney. ‘Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must have heard of the Fourth Amendment. What I’m saying is that man had rights.’

In response, Eastwood growls: ‘Well, I’m all broken up over that man’s rights!’

Furthermore, the film shows Harry’s opposition to legality as part and parcel of a hostility to those minorities said to be the beneficiaries of them. He’s dubbed ‘Dirty’ by his peers not because of his indifference to rules but because of his racism.

Kael’s famous critique drew that out, noting that all the minorities in the film are portrayed as criminals of one kind or another. Remember the famous ‘Do you feel lucky’ scene? It’s easy to forget that it involves a white man standing over a black one.

Similarly, here’s the origina of the phrase ‘Make my day’, in the film Sudden Impact.

Yes, that’s right. At the end of his speech, when Eastwood led the Republican convention in a chant of his catchphrase, he was drawing upon a collective memory of Dirty Harry single-handedly exterminating a posse of eye-rolling, jive-talking black criminals.

But there was also something else going on. At times, Eastwood, whose own politics, both on film and in real life, are more complicated than Dirty Harry, seemed to be berating Obama from the left, attacking his failure to close Guantanamo and his persistence with the Afghan debacle.

Now, at one level, the cheers these points elicited seem entirely incomprehensible at an event convened to nominate Mitt Romney, a man deeply committed both to Gitmo and permanent war.

But that’s the point. The Republicans can draw on a deep well of anti-incumbent rage, an anger that’s no less real for being entirely incoherent. The sentiment embodied by (but by no means confined to) the Tea Party contains multitudes. It’s a tent broad enough to enclose calls for savage government cuts alongside complaints about collapsing infrastructure, demands for total victory abroad next to anger about American’s dying for foreigners, and cries for the abolition welfare in parallel to narratives about the difficulties facing senior citizens. The populist sensibility consists less of a platform and more of an emotion – a deep sense that America’s gone off the rails and a yearning for the restoration of an idealized past.

Can Romney deliver what the Republican faithful want? Of course not. But at this stage, that doesn’t matter, especially since the narrative of decline fits so well alongside traditional racial resentments.

By contrast, what does Obama offer? Louis Proyect’s piece from Overland 207 handily chronicles how little Obama’s delivered for those most enthusiastic about his presidency. Democrats might chortle over Eastwood’s crankiness but it remains far from certain that their candidate can generate a fervour comparable to that bubbling away inside the Tea Party.

In any case, whatever the result in the election, there’s very little that either party can do about America’s relative decline or its ongoing economic decline.

So get used to ‘empty chair’ style hijinks. Whoever wins, there’s plenty more craziness to come.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Eastward was lucky to garner the DH role (he wasn’t the first choice) and the director of the original film was the rather liberal Don Siegel. (Siegel’s later “Kill Charley Varrick” is much more interesting in way of antihero politics.)The DH film and its sequels were nonetheless continuations of the off shore Spaghetti western genre Eastward came from as the main theme is this chronic libertarianism that underlies so much US political culture going back to the Confederacy. Eastward was one means employed for the transfer of westerns anti-hero brutality to the mean urban streets. It’s vigilanteism — the same thrust behind all this superhero-dom in comics and film. (Go read the original KickAss for instance: obsessive racism with purging violence but written by a Scottish guy.) Much as I appreciate Eastward’s films and while I think he is much over rated and excused there are threads there that nonetheless break from some of the rusted on traditions you got from John Ford et al. Nonetheless, he utilizes the US allied Mong as the resident ethnicity to confront racism in “Gran Torino” –albeit to stress the exceptionalism of the neighbors next door. My point is that the thrust is bigger and more complex than Eastward’s seeming penchant to take cultural revenge on ethnic groups and it isn’t all a straight line POV. You could just as easily, and rightly, blame Eastward for “Play Misty For Me” (which he directed) — which was later reprised of course as “Fatal Attraction” –despite the irony that its top song was written by the Marxist folk singer Ewan MacColl (originally to express his love for Peggy Seeger)!

  2. Nice comment Jeff. The only thing that came to mind watching Eastwood crash and burn was ‘oh the humanity.’
    I think it’s in Dirty Harry that the terrorist villain is actually a supposedly peace loving hippie. It’s a powerful American narrative that runs through Nixon Reagan and the Bushes. Harry is probably a more accurate ideal imago for US administrations than John Wayne. Compared to Harry the Duke looks like someone’s benign but crusty grandad.

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