Republicans Love Clint Eastwood’s Empty Chair

A look at the GOP's awkward mean-girl relationship with Hollywood.

Oh, sure, Republicans love Clint Eastwood now. All the man had to do was show up Thursday night at the Republican National Convention, start rambling and riffing his way through a bizarre (and instantly meme-able) anti-Obama dialogue with an empty chair, and suddenly convention delegates who had spent parts of the previous few days sneering at Hollywood celebrities suddenly became giddy star-struck fanboys trying to collect autographs at Comic-Con.

Yes, Eastwood had recently made a pro-America car ad during the Super Bowl that Republicans interpreted as pro-Obama. Yes, it drove them crazy—Clint had made decades upon decades of tough-on-crime uber-patriotic movies that had led conservatives to adopt him as one of their own. But Republicans aren’t great with even a hint of heresy.

Then, Thursday, when Eastwood assured Tampa Republicans that lots of movie stars were on their side. “They don’t go around hot-doggin’ it,” he told them. “But they’re there.” And all was forgiven.

The whole thing was kind of hilarious and maybe a bit embarrassing, but it also mirrored the Republican Party’s broader, broken relationship with popular culture. Everybody knows that Hollywood is filled with liberals, people who—when they’re not filling the tabloids or getting Botoxed—are filling President Obama’s campaign coffers with cash earned from making Americans laugh, cry and marvel at their high-definition screens.

And that makes conservatives cranky.

Yes, it’s true that conservatives also don’t see their values overtly embraced on television. Sitcoms like Modern Family feature gay parents; dramas like The Newsroom seem to have a particularly anti-Republican bent. Often, conservatives are depicted in villainous, caricatured terms. There are conservative websites wholly devoted to decrying Hollywood liberalism.

Which means that Republicans end up sneering at celebrity itself, as though everybody who achieves fame is vacuous and unserious. One of the more devastating John McCain ads back in 2008, in fact, dismissed then-Senator Obama as a mere celebrity, somebody about as serious and deserving of respect as Paris Hilton. Dan Quayle took on Murphy Brown; Bob Dole bizarrely decried Nine Inch Nails.

But Republicans go gaga over celebrities who turn out to have a conservative streak—and it sometimes seems they recruit nearly every one of them to run for office. Eastwood himself was considered for the vice presidency in 1988, despite having almost no qualifications for that office. Character actor Fred Thompson was briefly a senator, and even more briefly a presidential contender in 2008. Heck, they’ve even gone the reality show route—electing former Real World star Sean Duffy to Congress in 2010.

And, oh yeah, their biggest hero was a B-movie actor.

All of which suggests that Republicans desperately want to love Hollywood celebrities, and desperately want to be loved by them. They’re not turned off by popular culture—Ann Romney is a Modern Family fan, after all.  It’s why Janine Turner, Jon Voight, and Kid Rock–people whose impact on the culture isn’t (ahem) what it used to be—have been so prominent in Tampa this week. The GOP will take its celebrities where it can get them.

Like Clint’s speech, it sometimes ends up being difficult to watch. Doesn’t matter. “Eastwood has a movie out next month,” conservative columnist John Podhoretz noted on Twitter. “Every Republican in America will go see it on Friday night.” That’s how much Republicans want Hollywood to love them: Clint Eastwood doesn’t even have to be coherent to be a hit with them.

And if that’s true, that probably means something wonderful: Come 2016, expect to see Tom Selleck at the Republican National Convention, interrogating an empty chair. It’ll be great.