The Empty Chair Election

How a bizarre Clint Eastwood incident foretold the future of American politics

The first national political convention I ever covered was excellent preparation for reporting on politics in the Trump era. I just didn’t know it at the time. The year was 2012 and Tablet had the crazy idea to send a kid fresh out of college to cover the nation’s biggest political events—the Republican and Democratic Conventions. So instead of sitting in the office and correcting the typos of veteran reporters filing from the scene like most fledgling journalists my age, I was thrown into the fire and tasked with churning out daily dispatches as Mitt Romney and President Obama accepted their respective nominations.

What you quickly learn when witnessing one of these conventions on the ground, instead of just watching the highlights on TV, is that most of the proceedings on stage are actually incredibly boring. Before the coronavirus forced parties to crunch their content into a few hours, convention speeches by B-list politicians and functionaries would begin in the morning and drone into the evening, at which point the big acts would finally take the podium. The boredom was intentional: each convention was heavily scripted, with speech after speech carefully crafted to echo the same themes for any voter who might tune in at any moment. Taglines like “you didn’t build that” would repeat again and again, ensuring that whenever someone turned on C-SPAN, they’d get the message.

Which is why it was so incredibly shocking when Clint Eastwood got up on stage at the RNC and just started talking to a chair. For those unfamiliar, the fabled film director was given a prominent slot in primetime to speak in support of Romney. But unbeknownst even to convention organizers, he didn’t intend to deliver a traditional speech. Instead, after some brief opening remarks, Eastwood began a quasi-coherent dialogue with an empty chair meant to represent President Obama.

I was there, and I remember the distinct feeling of oxygen being sucked out of the room as people realized what was going on. At first, they thought it was a joke and laughed somewhat incredulously; then they realized that Eastwood was serious, and was going to continue talking to an inanimate object for some time. After hours and hours of vetted and scripted content, the convention had officially gone rogue. For the first time, no one knew what was going to happen next. This was funny, exhilarating, and also terrifying. Some seven minutes later, Eastwood concluded his rambling exchange, and gravity reasserted itself. The speeches went back on script, the focus-grouped formulations returned, and the professionals retook the stage.

At the time, everyone laughed off the Eastwood incident as an amusing aberration. But as it turned out, it was a harbinger. Because just four years later, a politician whose entire career and appeal was built on refusing to stick to any semblance of a script was elected president of the United States. And Donald Trump’s tenure has been one long empty chair moment that refuses to end. “He can’t say that!” “Oh, he did.” “And now he’s doing it again.” Rinse and repeat for four years. Like Eastwood’s antics, it has been impossible to look away from Trump’s performance, even as the consequences have been dire—improv comedy turned to tragedy.

In many ways, Joe Biden is betting his campaign on the idea that while the occasional empty chair moment can provide some comic relief, nobody actually wants to live inside of one. People want politicians who stick to their scripts, do not demand our constant attention, and have professionals running their Twitter accounts to put out fires, rather than start them. Biden has been almost studiously boring, something that did not endear him to internet partisans in his own party, but has served him quite well with the electorate. He even used a script while filming the call with Kamala Harris in which he picked her as his running mate. The Trump campaign gleefully pointed this out, not understanding that it reflected a feature of Biden’s appeal, rather than a bug.

What Trump’s team fails to grasp is that what might have seemed entertaining or even exciting to some voters during a time of relative prosperity in 2016 feels quite different in an era of pandemic and economic implosion. In 2020, “off script” is just another way of saying “out of control.” From the outset, Biden read the electorate’s exhaustion, and promised it instead the comforting cadences of professionalized politics.

After four seasons of the 24-7 Trump reality show, with the protagonist ranting at empty chair after empty chair, Biden is betting that the American people are ready to change the channel. Come November 3, we’ll find out if he’s right.

(This post also appeared as part of Tablet’s rolling Republican National Convention coverage, which you can check out here.)

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