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The President, rendered invisible in a chair

Clint Eastwood addresses an imaginary President Obama during his Republican National Committee speech on Thursday night.
Clint Eastwood addresses an imaginary President Obama during his Republican National Committee speech on Thursday night.AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

I have trouble buying his line about wanting the President to succeed, but there was one genuinely magnanimous moment which Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney offered in an acceptance speech last night heavy on rhetorical symbolism but virtually free of any substance. It was contained in this sentence:

"Every American was relieved the day President Obama gave the order, and Seal Team Six took out Osama bin Laden."

He followed this up with warmongering about Iran, which was problematic in and of itself. But given that Romney was following what our own Rachel Maddow called "the weirdest thing I've ever seen at a political convention in my entire life," the one-sentence olive branch ended up being as empty as the chair next to Clint Eastwood.

Sure, I have questions about just what in the hell was going through the mind of the octogenarian Hollywood legend when he delivered that speech, but I'm not interested in conducting amateur psychoanalysis. That story may be told someday not by the speechwriter he so clearly ignored, but hopefully by Eastwood himself or a mental-health professional. For now, we're left to account for the actions Eastwood took on stage last night, which included speaking and listening to an empty chair as if it were the President of the United States.

Given the way they treated George W. Bush this week, Barack Obama was hardly the only president Republicans rendered invisible. He's been called much worse by their nominee alone. But one of the tenets of racialized criticism of President Obama in the last four years has been to treat him as an illegitimate holder of the position, someone who didn't belong there. He's been called everything from an affirmative-action idiot to a socially-engineered superman engineered since birth to usurp the Presidency. Romney alluded to the godlike aspects of the largely Republican Obama myth in a clumsy climate-change joke, made at a moment when New Orleans was flooded once again by a hurricane. That said, the former Massachusetts governor has finally found a properly tuned dog-whistle, calling the President ill-prepared and all but patting him on the head for trying as hard as he can, but not doing well enough. Eastwood wasn't so delicate.

Eastwood may have been ignorant of the fact he was joining those who delegitimize Obama's very presence, but he's in that league now. As Jamelle Bouie said last night, an old white man arguing with an imaginary Barack Obama was an apt metaphor for how the Romney campaign runs against a Democratic record they've made up out of whole cloth.

Watching Eastwood reduce the President to an invented entity in a chair, I couldn't help but wonder what Ralph Ellison would say about all this. The author of the literary classic Invisible Man articulated the metaphor of black invisibility better than anyone ever did previously or since. My best attempt at describing it came in a collegiate column I wrote over 15 years ago:

Invisibility is hard to battle because it's not a construction of your mind, but of those who look upon you. As Ellison's title character states in the Prologue, it lies in a person's inner eyes, which they use to look upon and evaluate their physical reality. Invisibility is something a person can be the victim of and not even realize it.

That biweekly column was titled "Invisible Man" because of the experiences I'd had growing up, experiencing a social -- and at times, physical -- invisibility amongst my white peers. I say physical not because I possessed Harry Potter's cloak, but because I'd have people literally looking me dead in the face and walking into me as if they considered me an apparition and planned to pass through me. (Ellison's title character describes a similar incident on the novel's first page.) I've had the "n-word" sent in my direction a number of times, but at least that hatred necessitates a minimum level of recognition. Invisibility can be an even greater insult, unless the invisible use that to their advantage.

I have no doubt we'll see the President and his party attempt to do exactly that, at their convention next week and throughout the rest of the campaign. I say through the rest of the campaign because while Romney wasn't so clownish as to address an empty chair, but he has been running against an imaginary Barack Obama who doesn't exist, a neo-Jimmy Carter one who went on an "apology tour" in foreign countries, exploded the deficit all on his own, and more specifically, closed GM plants before he was even President and changed the welfare-to-work laws to give those lazy "welfare queens" a break. All that stuff is lies, invented to give Republicans the latest version of the Obama Bogeyman. That guy Romney and running mate Paul Ryan are running against sounds fairly awful in some respects -- but as Ellison might say, that Obama is like a ghost that haunted Edgar Allan Poe, or a Hollywood-movie ectoplasm, sharing more in common with fantasy than reality.

If this economy is so bad, and the absence of presidential leadership so stark, why is there a need to invent someone worse to run against?

Eastwood's speech will be ridiculed by many for its incoherence and crude jokes, and probed by pundits for telling statements like "We own this country." As such, the invisibility he conferred upon President Obama may go undetected outside of newborn Twitter parodies and hashtag trends. As in so many instances of ignorance, it now falls upon those targeted to explain the problem to those causing it. Whether Eastwood gets it seems irrelevant at this point. The Romney campaign feels compelled to make the actual President invisible, so it only matters whether they and their supporters succeed in that effort.

An additional read on Republican racial denial which I found useful was Tim Wise's new post. You can watch Eastwood's and Romney's remarks after the jump.

UPDATE: I've added the video of our own Chris Hayes referencing Ellison and invisibility today in a discussion on "NOW with Alex Wagner" this afternoon, adding an important point about Eastwood literally talking down to the President. Check it out, if not only for Chris' remarks, but also "Inside the Actors Studio" host James Lipton's surgical breakdown of Eastwood's performance (art).