President Trump used Twitter to support John Wayne, an actor whose real name was Marion Morrison and who died 41 years ago, and in the never-ending chaos and scandal that is this president's tenure it probably isn't that big of a deal.
Yet when I read the tweet shortly after Trump posted it Monday, and responded to it with a snarky posting of my own, something about the president's defense of Wayne struck me as particularly poignant in this nation's moment, as we are struggling to decide who we are and who we aspire to be.
In the United States that Trump and his supporters see and want mightily to hold onto, Wayne represented the swaggering American cowboy who fought Indians and rescued damsels in distress. He was the rugged individualist in the white hat, the tough-talking man's man.
He was, particularly for white males in the 1950s and '60s, the epitome of America. The Duke. It seems older men don't want to let that image of America go.
For much of the rest of America, Wayne represents a myth of something that never existed in the first place. We know now that the Old West as represented by cowboy-and-Indian movies was a phony, romanticized version of history and that things were rarely as simple "good guy vs. bad guy."
We know, too — and have for a long time — that Wayne was a bigot who believed in white supremacy. In a 1970s interview, Wayne said, "I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to the point of responsibility. I don't believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people."
Many more examples of Wayne's racism exist. His views are not in question.
And that's why Trump was tweeting about John Wayne. The airport in Orange County, Calif., has been named after Wayne since 1979, and Democrats in southern California are calling for the name and a statue honoring the actor to be removed.
"Incredible stupidity," Trump tweeted in response.
Can anyone believe that Princeton just dropped the name of Woodrow Wilson from their highly respected policy center. Now the Do Nothing Democrats want to take off the name John Wayne from an airport. Incredible stupidity!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 29, 2020
There are many ways to look at Trump's reaction, not the least of which is the inanity of worrying about an obscure airport named after a Hollywood figure who died in 1979. Then again, this is a president who has gone to the mat to defend Confederate statues.
But the overwhelming angle for me is that for people of a certain age, particularly men, John Wayne represents how they view America and how they so badly want that America to continue to exist, even though it never really did. Wayne is a "real American" to them, the same way that the old "Donna Reed Show" and "Leave it to Beaver" black-and-white television shows exemplified their "real America" — white, straight, innocent, simple, sanitized, unfailingly happy.
For much of the rest of America, and certainly for anybody under 55 years old, Wayne is a long-forgotten or never-known answer to a trivia question. He doesn't register. He just doesn't matter. Wayne and western movies are irrelevant.
And, more important, the America they allege to represent are a completely foreign concept. It's unlikely anybody under 50 knows an America that is completely white, straight, innocent, simple and unfailingly happy. That myth doesn't exist among younger generations. Nor, it seems, do they desire it.
Maybe Trump's tweet is just that — a few words trying to rally his supporters. Probably so.
But it somehow feels like it crystallizes a battle in America this election year.
On one hand, older Americans who support Trump are trying desperately to hang on to John Wayne's America — a manufactured, idealized, caricaturized, romanticized memory. Wayne admitted the swaggering character he played was a creation and that he changed his name because "Marion" sounded effeminate.
On the other hand, many younger Americans are trying to move forward. Skin color, sexuality, gender, nationality and other characteristics that defined people in this country for decades don't mean as much to young people. It's a much different world than the one in which their grandparents grew up, a much more complex one, and the youngsters see it for that.
In short, a vote for Trump is a vote for John Wayne's America.
Other than 74-year-old white men, who wants that?