How camp explains Trump

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Matthew Walther
·9 min read
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Less than two months before Joe Biden's inauguration as our 46th president, it is time to begin seriously taking stock of our current one. A great deal has already been written about Donald Trump's legacy by his detractors, nearly all of it hysterical and unfocused. The immediate assessments by his supporters have been barely more interesting.

One thing that surprises me is how little has been said by either side about the actual nature of Trump's appeal. I do not mean the matter — his views on China and free trade and immigration — which has been discussed endlessly, but the manner, which I think is almost certainly more important.

Trump is essentially a camp figure. I mean "camp" in more or less the sense in which the word was used by Susan Sontag in her famous essay: a sensibility that is as difficult to define as it is easy to identify (or should be: for reasons I shall discuss in Trump's case there is a widespread reluctance to acknowledge what we all see and recognize).

The most obvious sense in which Trump is camp is his voice and appearance. The accent, which has become more strident than it was two decades ago, is a parody of a New York accent, a stereotypical cab driver in an old episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (Compare his pronunciation of "China" in this clip with any recent footage). Meanwhile, everything about Trump as a physical specimen, from the skin (which is, in fact, orange) and the improbable hair and the pouting, curiously androgynous lips to the almost formless body, obese without seeming to possess actual flesh save for in the massive flanks (especially in golf or tennis shorts), is camp. He is a one-of-a-kind grotesque, an actor in an early John Waters feature.

(Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

"The essence of camp," Sontag tells us, is "love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration." Trumpian aesthetics is a catch-all of the great artificial modes in Western art: rococo, Art Deco, vaporwave. It is above all anti-pastoral. (Like the denizens of Versailles, Trump can only encounter the natural world third or fourth-hand, in a tweet about the imminent signing of the 2018 farm bill embedded with a clip of him singing the Green Acres theme song at the Emmys.) Visually it depends upon absurd juxtapositions, and being in taste so bad that a knowing few are implicitly invited to recognize it as good.

The best, indeed perhaps the canonical, example of this is the dinner Trump gave at the White House for the 2018-19 Clemson Tigers football team: candles burning in golden sconces on either side of the white mantel, above which Lincoln's portrait hangs; tables covered in quasi-Renaissance drapery; gleaming candelabras flanking massive heaps of sandwiches from recognizable fast-food brands, and in the center, his own slightly pudgy face fixed in a smile that would be embarrassing in any other context, his hands spread out in a gesture that could almost be described as liturgical.

Trumpian camp is a playlist that features "La donna è mobile," "You Can't Always Get What You Want," "Tiny Dancer," and various stadium anthems. It is a man touring the Mexican border in a Brooks Brothers blazer, golf shoes, and a trucker hat emblazoned with the slogan "Make America Great Again" in Times New Roman. It is Donald Trump's USA Freedom Kids from Pensacola, Florida, performing "The Official Donald Trump Jam," with its over-the-top "patriotism" and its unmistakable (but also totally deniable) hints of violence: "Come on, boys, take 'em down." It is the president of the United States dancing robotically to "Y.M.C.A." in the middle of a federally declared public health emergency, amid the cheers of thousands. It is everything hinted at in the phrase "We will activate Bill Barr and activate him strongly": the attorney general as a sort of Robocop figure in a cheesy cyberpunk dystopia, one in which the audience is meant to identify him with the dictator. (There are shades of Kenneth McMillan in David Lynch's Dune in Trump, and of Ian McNeice in the same role in the Sci-Fi channel miniseries adaptation of the novel). It is putting "science" in scare quotes and even spelling them out alongside the punctuation marks when referring to Barack Obama as the "quote 'president.'"

Camp, according to Sontag, "sees everything in quotation marks." It also depends upon "flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders." This is what the fact-checking crowd never understood: Trump's off-the-cuff superlatives, both positive and negative, were part of a performance. The hysterical reaction of journalists, especially those who assume that such statements are capable of being judged in some coldly objective, quantitative manner, to his assertion that he has done more for African Americans than any president with the possible exception of Lincoln is the point, and so is the breathless defense from figures like Candace Owens.

A good illustration of the participatory nature of Trumpian camp is the infamous taco bowl tweet:

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The text and the caption depend for their power upon — indeed they would be totally unintelligible without — Trump's built-in assumption that millions of people would find themselves almost inexpressibly outraged by his naive identification of Cinco de Mayo with all Hispanics, whom he claims to love in some absurd blanket sense — how when he is such an obvious gutter racist?! — and his uncouth assumption that "taco bowls" are a real food to which superlatives might be applied at all and that the pseudo-salads are a part of Mexican cuisine. (This is probably not an exhaustive list of the number of micro-aggressions or dog whistles implied in this masterpiece of rhetoric.) The atmosphere of knowingly perverse cultural insensitivity — probably the closest thing we have nowadays to the teashop Orientalism of The Mikado — is heightened by the contrast between the high-school cafeteria quality food and the white napkin and silverware, to say nothing of the golf trophies and the view of the Manhattan skyline from the window behind him and his ludicrous grin. This, played with a thousand variations over the half decade or so in which he has been at the center of American public life, is the essential Trumpian conceit: playing a poor person's idea of what being rich is (having real linen!), a woke person's idea of racism (liking déclassé foods), a worker's idea of what a boss is (someone who fires people), and doing so without ever acknowledging the performance to any of the not-always overlapping segments of his audience, who in turn refuse to acknowledge it to one another.


(The White House/Twitter)

Performance is the key. Long before he began his political career Trump was not really a businessman but an over-the-top parody of one, the sort of person who appears with a suitcase full of cash in The Fresh Prince. (His television cameos from the 1990s and early 2000s are in fact crucial to understanding why Trumpian camp is effective.) This is why Trump as president is always at his best in events like the annual White House Turkey Pardon, which are themselves a kind of meta-performance of the powers and function of the presidency belonging to a vanished and now impossibly corny-sounding era of good feelings between the quality liberal press and the inhabitant of the Oval Office. (It is also why he unfailingly falls flat in what in any other administration we would consider the larger moments, such as his Rose Garden address in March.)

One thing Sontag does not mention in her essay is that politically speaking camp belongs decidedly, if not with any especial degree of conviction, to the right. Mussolini with his pouting lips and burlesques of classical architecture was a camp figure in a way that no left-wing dictator could be. Margaret Thatcher was camp, and so was Silvio Berlusconi. Camp is incompatible with progressive politics because its assumption of a hierarchy of understanding between those who do and do not "get it" is inherently anti-egalitarian, and with modish liberalism because it rejects moralism. (The polar opposite of right-wing camp is Aaron Sorkin.)


(OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

Is Trump our first camp president then? There were camp aspects to Reagan, but the eulogist of the Challenger victims was playing it straight more often than not. Barbara Bush was very much a camp figure, but not her husband. However tawdry it appears now, the outpouring of patriotic sentiment in the days immediately following the attacks of September 11, 2001, was genuine, which is why looking back, camp artifacts like this one from the Bush administration are surprisingly rare. But Trump was still the culmination of a long process on the American right, the rejection of tedious dogma in favor of a general aestheticized disdain.

For obvious reasons Trump's camp appeal is unlikely to be discussed openly either by his enemies or his ardent supporters, both of whom have, doubtless to his chagrin, committed themselves to the bit. To readers of The New York Times, Trump really is a fascist dictator of the 1930s, albeit one reconstructed from the same half-understood pop culture artifacts by which they and he alike conceive of anything but the most recent past; his followers take him seriously in his winking role as uxorious husband, beloved patriarch, defender of the Constitution and our ancient liberties, champion of the victims of post-industrial capitalism, and so on. As far as I am aware only a small subset of coolly detached reactionaries have even attempted to appreciate him on his own terms.

It is still too early to say what historians (who only the day before yesterday were dismissing the now-beloved George W. Bush as a crypto-fascist) will ultimately make of the Trump presidency. I am inclined to think that his four years in office were far less transformative than partisans on either side are likely to insist for the foreseeable future. But I hope that situating him in what I think is his proper aesthetic context might go some small way toward helping readers to see this president clearly, if not fondly.

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