Monday, April 11, 2016

Trump and Camp

I have just reread Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp," an essay which explains a lot to me about Donald Trump's puzzling appeal. He is camp. As camp as a lava lamp, as camp as Grand Guignol, as camp as WWE wrestling (a great favorite of Donald's). I should note, as a prelude to discussing Donald's specific campiness, that Sontag makes a distinction between "pure" camp--defined as naïve, unintentional awfulness (e.g. art nouveau light fixtures, which earnestly but preposterously attempt to portray snakes climbing the stems of oriental flowers) and "deliberate" camp--which is conscious, ingenious outrageousness (e.g., Mae West's self-parodying in certain movies).

For Sontag, this self-aware camp is "usually less satisfying" than the naïve, sincere variety, though I find it difficult to follow her reasoning here. Nonetheless, I do agree with Sontag's overall definition of camp as extravagant artfulness which, sincerely or deliberately, spectacularly fails and thereby produces an impression of undeniable awfulness. It is just so bad, so artificial that it becomes enjoyable--it becomes "good" badness.

Sontag notes, by the way, and I must concur, that "camp sees everything in quotation marks." Furthermore, she concludes, "camp is the victory of style over content."

In other words, the appeal of camp lies primarily in a) its extravagant, outré ambition and b) the very artfulness of its awfulness--the impressive amount of work that goes into failing to realize a grandiose--albeit perhaps insincere--goal. The Donald, as he himself tells us (yes, his campiness is mostly of the self-conscious variety), deliberately adopts "flamboyant" positions which defy convention ("political correctness" he calls it) and, with a playful wink to the audience (there is always an audience), suggests that this is all a show--an elaborate edifice of style, entirely divorced from sincere content--which is meant to be appreciated for its very "fabulous" awfulness. His campaign thus resembles a marvelously yuuuge drag show with Trump, himself, as the show's headliner drag queen.

So obviously, we shouldn't be talking about a Trump candidacy as if it were a normal, uncampy and tedious political operation--à la Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz. Instead, we should be talking about a Trump "candidacy." The quotations marks make all the difference.

Why? Because in a regular candidacy, despite some theatrical moments, objective reality does count, and citizens are expected to make judgments based on the content of the regular candidate's character. But in a camp "candidacy"--conducted by a political drag queen--the only thing that counts is how skillfully he/she has contrived to distort, deform or defy reality. Voters are necessarily limited to judgments based on the "candidate's" style, and his style alone. For as we have seen, a camp "artiste's" actual character has no bearing whatsoever on the appeal of the performance--it is the artful awfulness that counts, certainly not the raw material which the artifice has deliberately obscured.

So what, then, is drag-queen Donald's "candidacy" really about? Walls on the Mexican border? Deportation of eleven million immigrants? Nuclear bombs for Japan and South Korea? Surveillance and incarceration of Muslims? Trade wars with China? Waterboarding political prisoners? Limiting press freedoms? Punishing women who have abortions? Growing longer penises (schlongs)?

No, of course not, silly people. These "positions" must be understood as mere accoutrements (subject to alteration or abandonment at any time), nothing but adornments used by a skilled political "artiste" to enhance his "show" and to induce applause in observers who cannot help being seduced by the improbable excessiveness of this swag. I suspect that most Trumpistas do not really--no, not really deep down--believe that these flamboyant costumes constitute Donald's real-world attire. But, you know what?--they don't care because, well, WOW, this drag is just so fabulously tawdry! Good show, Donald; good show! An A+ for campiness!

On the other hand, what then is DJT's real-world attire? Silly question. Obviously, no one besides The Donald has any idea about his true values or his genuine "moi." And perhaps Trump himself couldn't say, having been "camping it up" for so long that even he has forgotten what, if anything, lies beneath the layers of disguise. Maybe, in short, there is no longer any"there""there."

P.S.: My apologies for all the quotation marks. But I'm sure you see why they were unavoidable.

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