Have we lost camp forever to the Trump administration and the Republicans? I know what you’re thinking, surely that can’t be! Camp is ours– the outsiders, the marginalized, the queers, the weirdoes, the outcasts! That’s our aesthetic and they can’t have it!
Well, I’ve got some bad news. There was no way to witness the outrageous, outsized, over-the-top sideshow grift of last week’s Republican National Convention without concluding with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that conservatives have both perfected and weaponized camp.
I mean, can you watch former Fox News anchor, Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, President Trump’s advisor, and “first generation American” whose mother is from….checks notes….Puerto Rico…Kimberly Guilfoyle raise her arms to the sky, shouting to the clouds in a coke-fueled fury like a telenovela diva unleashed, and holler, “Ladies and gentleman, leaders and fighters for our freedom and liberty and the American dream, THE BEST IS YET TO COME!” and not recognize that camp may be coopted for good? Can you see Number 1 Boy Donald Trump Jr. call Joe Biden “the Loch Ness Monster of the swamp,” while twitching, shaking, rabidly adjusting his suit jacket, and blinking through red, watery dazed eyes as if gakked-out on Cousin Greg’s park coke and not mourn for our beloved camp strategies of old (while also fantasizing about partying with him and Kimberly)? Can you observe nun, Sister Dede Byrne, describe her rosary as “our weapon of choice” and her stance as “not just pro-life, I’m pro-eternal life” and not hope that somehow somewhere a drag queen is taking notes?
Let’s face it, dearest denizens of camp, the Republicans won this convention camp battle and I’m fearful that we may have lost the war. This wasn’t the faux camp of the Met’s decidedly un-camp exhibition Camp: Notes on Fashion, but the apex of that intersection of artifice, exaggeration, and excess. Of course, the conservatives have been working on their camp for years, as pointed out by Bruce LaBruce in his essay “Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp.” Labeling this phenomena as “conservative camp,” which we’ve explored several times before on Filthy Dreams, LaBruce explains, “Conservative camp has always been around–William F. Buckley Jr. is a prime example–but it has now become an entire genre, thoroughly entrenched and consumed by the American public.” In “Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp,” La Bruce cites examples such as Trump, the late COVID victim and zombie Twitter user Herman Cain, and gun totin’, bikini wearin’ folksy Sarah Palin.
But conservative camp has risen to new heights during the Trump administration. Palin’s Russia-watching from her porch in Alaska pales in comparison to Trump’s Sharpie-scrawled fan letters to Putin. However, this year’s Republican National Convention brought conservative camp to a potentially electorally dangerous level. “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross,” the often quoted phrase goes. But it’s missing a piece–it will be camp!
I know, I know, some of you will be mad that I’m covering this or that I even watched the RNC at all. First off, why would you deny yourself the pleasure of bearing witness to the end of our democracy? It’s not as if ignoring it will make it go away! And secondly, well, someone’s got to do it!
I’ll admit, I was thrilled by the prospect of the RNC as soon as I heard that the filthiest couple alive–the Connie and Raymond Marble of the Trump era–Mark and Patricia McCloskey would be making their horrible debut on the national stage. What would they do? What would they say? Would they have mustard stains on their shirts? Would they be armed to the gills? Would they emerge in a hail of gunfire? Would they recite Connie and Raymond Marble’s devotional vows: “I am yours, Connie, eternally united through an invisible core of finely woven filth, that even God himself could never break”? Or would they revive Dawn Davenport’s “crime is beauty” performance in Female Trouble and ask their audience of MAGA hat-wearing cult members: “Now, who wants to die for ART?” The possibilities seemed endless.
And they didn’t disappoint. While this Costco Bonnie and Clyde didn’t appear armed, they did, however, seem very drunk, slurring their words in their mahogany-paneled study (So classy! So relatable!) and heralding the apocalyptic end of the suburbs. Beyond the nauseating specter of booze breath radiating from my screen, they both looked like completely different people! Did Patty go on a crash juice cleanse to cut down on the gin bloat? And what happened with Mark’s hair? Did he dye it circus peanut orange in honor of his Dear Leader Donnie?
Beyond these two automatic weapon chuckleheads, the convention, overall, was a lesson in camp’s absurdity, the excessiveness of the trash aesthetic (in particular trash religiosity), and the lizard brain-tingling tendencies of cults. The spectacle began early on Monday afternoon during the roll call as a delegate provided this vivid and vampiric description: “Joe Biden is hiding in the dark waiting to take the lives of our unborn babies.” Joe needs fetus blood!! This afternoon Charlotte super-spreader sojourn also concluded with Trump and Pence (sans Mother) hand-shaking, waving, and breathing in supporters’ faces, all to the driving disco beat of “YMCA.” Now, Trump’s odd loyalty to The Village People, a multiethnic group of largely queer men, is a subject of a future Filthy Dreams investigation, but I’ll just say now that the vision of a gaggle of phobes jiggling their bingo wings to the heralding call to cruise at the YMCA is camp at its absolute finest. Bravo.
And that was just Monday afternoon. From Cardinal Dolan’s introductory prayer on night one, with his eyes trained skyward to the heavens, to Trump’s Jonestown-esque White Night on the White House lawn, the RNC convention was a four-night mind-bender with a surreal mix of bizarre speeches, tacky action movie-esque trailers for Trump with copious shots of his slo-mo clap and point move, trash talk show surprise pardons and naturalization ceremonies (live on air!!), and a grand finale to end all grand finales (shouldn’t America’s grand finale be memorable?). Unlike the Democratic National Convention, which seemed to have the aesthetic of a PBS telethon (where was my tote bag?), the RNC existed somewhere between the garishly patriotic pageant performances in Drop Dead Gorgeous, the bad taste theater of Waiting for Guffman, the tough talk of Wrestlemania promos, and the testimonials of My Pillow infomercials, all with the subtlety of Trump’s gilded toilet.
Much of the reality show spectacle came naturally with the help of The Apprentice veterans Sadoux Kim and Chuck Labella acting like Happy Meal Joseph Goebbels, whose goal as Politico notes, was to “make a gripping TV show.” And it truly was a show as evidenced by Larry Kudlow introducing himself with a nasal jolt: “Hello folks! You know me from TV and radio!” The aesthetic influence of The Apprentice was hard to miss with many cinematic flourishes peppered throughout the evenings, from the slow pullback of the camera after each speech, contributing to some hilariously awkward pauses, to long melodramatic entrances. My favorite entrance had to be Melania Trump’s as she stalked the Rose Garden colonnade as if on a runway, pausing intermittently to smile as if remembering someone’s advice, only to frown again while wearing her best Eva Braun cosplay. And there was even a Real Housewives of the White House diva feud if you looked hard enough:
Even without the razzle dazzle showbiz pizazz of the Trump thriller trailers, the true standouts of the four evenings were the speeches. Rather than chatting over Zoom in their living rooms like the Democrats, the Republicans presented a range of speakers–both unstable private citizens and corrupt public servants–to make their case for, as Ivanka called him, “the People’s President.”
Boy, did they ever! From “veteran California public school teacher” Rebecca Friedrich who said the Democrats’ “comrades labeled us spawns of Satan” to a parade of Black Trumpers convincing white racists with a nagging conscience that voting for Trump doesn’t mean they’re, in fact, racist, including Vernon Jones who asserted, “The Democratic Party does not want Black people to leave their mental plantation,” the speeches often rivaled the mad tenor of a Joan Crawford monologue. This isn’t to say some Republican clowns weren’t woefully missed. I mean, where was Lady G? I wanted to see her regional theater interpretation of Suddenly, Last Summer. And where was Jerry Falwell Jr.?! Or better yet, the Pool Boy?!
Beyond their psychotic recitations, some of the speakers nailed camp in their physicality such as Congressman Matt Gaetz who, apparently without the help of his…ahem…”son” Nestor, plastered so much funeral parlor-esque pancake makeup on his face that his lips disappeared. Similarly, baby Kellyanne Conway in her last stand as a member of the administration stood stoic, clutching and clenching her arms straight down to her sides through her entire speech like a Barbie doll that spent too much time near a radiator. And of course, former New York City mayor and current sleazeball lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s Bloody Mary-soaked, saliva-spouting, wide-eyed hysteria was only rivaled by his later sweat-drenched, fluid-sharing on the White House lawn:
But, if we’re going to play favorites, while naturally the Trump children excelled at producing their best Succession impressions as they all tried to impress Big Daddy, including Eric’s pathetic attempt to get Papa’s attention by talking to him through the TV (“In closing, I’d like to speak directly to my father. I miss working alongside you every single day, but I’m damn proud to be on the front lines of this fight…. I love you very much”), the true breakout star of the four nights had to be Abby Johnson. Yes, Abby Johnson, the former Planned Parenthood worker turned anti-abortion activist who also believes households should only have one vote and suggested that her mixed race child would be more likely to commit crimes than her white children. As soon as she appeared on screen wrapped in about twenty strands of pearls, I could sense the screwball energy radiating from her crazed eyes.
She didn’t let me down with extended graphic descriptions of unborn babies battling the suction of abortions, rooms full of fetus bits ready to be put together like Frankenstein’s monsters, a spine twirling in the womb, and perhaps the most memorably sickening, the smell of abortion (“I know what it sounds like. I know what abortion smells like. Did you know abortion even had a smell?”). Tell me more, Abby! Perhaps the greatest line of her speech, though, and possibly of the convention entirely was this: “And I’ll never forget what the doctor said next, ‘Beam me up Scotty.’”
Naturally, the convention was packed with lies. And more than a few cons, including swindling some New York public housing tenants into appearing as if they were praising Trump. But, what is a grifter without a grif?! What did you expect? Some of these blatant fabrications were disproven during the RNC itself. Take, for example, the Mark Burnett-esque video montages, which with their propaganda charm, cut together bits and pieces of Trump’s nonsensical rambles to make it seem as if he was coherent, articulate even. This illusion was broken immediately once Trump appeared in the flesh to talk to real live human beings. For instance, this exchange with one woman participant in a gaggle of essential workers:
Worker: “I’m a custodian at the post office as well.”
Trump: “What do you do exactly?”
Worker: “Clean up everybody’s mess and everybody’s germs. All of that.”
Trump: “Can I tell you? That profession will never be out of business, you know that right?”
Worker: “Yeah, for sure.”
This bizarre dialogue gets to the biggest RNC falsehood of them all–the constant refrain, repeated by Trump staffers and bereaved family members of fallen cops, school shooting victims and ISIS hostages, that Trump is a very caring and empathetic man. Him? How could anyone deliver that particular sentiment without laughing until they cried? But, speakers like Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany did it, recalling Trump’s sweet phone call to her after her double mastectomy: “As I recovered, my phone rang again. It was President Trump, calling to check on me. I was blown away. Here was the leader of the free world caring about my circumstance.” There’s no way he didn’t ask her deeply uncomfortable questions about her “new tits,” right?
But, does it even matter anymore in 2020? Of course, he lies! They all lie! I know it. You know it. We all know it. Trump cult members know it, but they just don’t care. And part of this is due to the camp optics and aesthetics wielded by the Trump campaign and the Republican Party. Phillip Core said it best: “camp is the lie that tells the truth.” But if we want to go in more detail, in Campe-toi! On the Origins and Definitions of Camp, Mark Booth explains, “Camp self-parody presents the self as being willfully irresponsible and immature, the artificial nature of the self-presentation making it a sort of off-stage theatricality, the shameless insincerity of which may be provocative, but also forestalls criticism by its ambivalence.” In other words, yes, the RNC was shamelessly insincere, but who cares?! It’s all an elaborate performance anyway, and one that their audience of marks understands.
On the topic of elaborate performances, no essay on the Republicans’ use of camp would be complete without a mention of the culmination of the convention–one of the most surreal sights I’ve ever laid eyes on. After Trump “profoundly” accepted his nomination with an exhaustive recitation from the teleprompter, the sky above the Washington Monument exploded with fireworks. And not just any fireworks! Fireworks spelling out TRUMP 2020! OOOOOOWWWWWWOOOOOOWW! Talk about white trash aesthetics–yeeehaw! USA! USA! USA! If that wasn’t over-the-top enough, opera singer Christopher Macchio materialized suddenly on the White House balcony to belt out “Nessun Dorma,” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” “God Bless America,” and my personal favorite in terms of synapse-firing camp visions, “Ave Maria.” Is there anything more camp than “Ave Maria” caterwauled over a Hatch Act violation as Republicans gather together and risk death to listen to their cult leader? It was incredible, horrifying, and thoroughly amusing.
But, even more, I’m afraid that it was ingenious and quite possibly completely effective. Why? Because Republicans have finally figured out how to wield camp as a strategic weapon against the Democrats. And they’ve done it masterfully.
As I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, camp crusaders, camp is the aesthetic of the marginalized, binding societal deviants and rejects together. As Scott Long writes in The Loneliness of Camp, “It can serve as a code, a rudimentary language uniting a small company of the alienated or excluded or alone. For those who appreciate it, it can signal something shared.” Naturally, camp is most often associated with queers, though there is still debate about whether it is thoroughly a queer aesthetic or not. Phillip Core writes in Camp: The Lie That Tells The Truth, “While camp is now often joke or post among gays, it is not without serious value because it originated as a Masonic gesture by which homosexuals could make themselves known to each other during periods when homosexuality was not avowable. Besides being a signal, camp was and remains the way in which homosexuals and other groups of people with double lives can find a lingua franca.” Similarly, Bruce LaBruce affirms, “It was developed as a secret language in order to identify oneself to like-minded or similarly closeted homosexuals, a shorthand of arcane and coded, almost kabbalistic references and practices developed in order to operate safely apart and without fear of detection from a conservative and conventional world that could be aggressively hostile towards homosexuals, particularly effeminate males and masculine females.”
In the last few years, though, camp has gone mainstream–a phenomenon documented in LaBruce’s “Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp,” in which he observes, “Camp is now for the masses. It’s a sensibility that has been appropriated by the mainstream, fetishized, commoditized, turned into a commodity fetish, and exploited by a hypercapitalist system, as Adorno warned.” And he’s right. I mean, what camp do queers have anymore other than Fire Island’s COVID-positive Typhoid Mary screeching on the beach about how he hopes everyone gets the coronavirus. This isn’t to imply that too isn’t peak camp.
As camp moved away from its coded roots with the queers, though, and into the mainstream, it became a secret language for another dreaded group: conservatives. I know what you’re thinking: the Republicans certainly are NOT a marginalized group. How can they possibly wield camp as their white supremacist, fascist weapon? With xenophobic fear of being replaced by the “Other,” in the variety of ways Other can look against a white straight cis backdrop, conservatives have banded together in their delusion that they are the minority. Yes, it’s a tough sell when they’ve got the Executive branch, the Senate, and packed the judicial system full of nutter judges. But, hey–there’s nothing like playing the victim! Snowflakes!
Of course, this started happening well before this year, reaching its prior pinnacle in the Kavanaugh hearings in which white cis men acted as if they were being assaulted by…being accused of sexual assault. Now, at the RNC, it’s the whole damn Republican Party acting as if they’re stigmatized. And taking camp on as their own form of communication to do it.
Don’t believe me? Witness all the whining, complaining, railing, hand wringing, garment rending, ranting, raving about cancel culture at the RNC. Now, I should note that I’m not one of those “there’s no such thing as cancel culture” deniers. Come on–what do you spend your entire day doing online then? However, cancel culture is certainly also not the Spanish Inquisition-style witch hunt prosecution that the Republicans describe blinking back tears.
Of course, the most notable and least sympathetic speaker on cancel culture was Nicholas Sandmann, that MAGA hat-wearing Covington Catholic little shit. Staring innocently into the camera, contrasting with his World Famous shit-eating grin, Sandmann implored: “I learned what was happening to me had a name. It was called being canceled, as in annulled, as in revoked, as in made void. Canceled is what’s happening to people around this country who refuse to be silenced by the far left. Many are being fired, humiliated, or even threatened. And often the media is a willing participant, but I would not be canceled. I fought back hard to expose the media for what they did to me, and I won a personal victory.”
Boo hoo! It’s hard to say you’re canceled when speaking at the Jefferson Memorial.
But, he wasn’t alone. On Monday night, five speakers–Matt Gaetz, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Don Jr., Tim Scott, and Nikki Haley–mentioned cancel culture. And that was just the first night as these complaints turned into Marsha Blackburn’s defiant screams: “I hope you will stand with me, as we send him back for four more years, with the clear message to the Democrats, you will never cancel our heroes.”
Who are these heroes? Confederate monuments? Cheeto-dusted fingered Twitter bots?
This equating conservative viewpoints as marginalized is what’s allowed conservative camp to flourish and finally land with a savvy and insidious political strategy. Before this, in “Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp,” LaBruce asserts, “The new tendency of conservative camp runs in diametrical opposition to the impulses of classic gay camp, which sought to celebrate, elevate, and even worship the qualities of deviance, difference and eccentricity that characterized the highly aestheticized homosexual experience of past eras.” But now, in 2020, conservatives have evolved to worship these qualities of deviance, difference, and eccentricity, as they define it (i.e. anything that they would perceive would get them canceled). And sure, from my perspective and likely yours, this is all absurd. As my favorite Manson Family member Susan Atkins writes in her memoir Child of Satan, Child of God, “For non-conformists, we conformed a lot.” And while the understandable impulse is to roll your eyes, the truth is this construction of a self-described stigmatized group may just work for the right (read: batshit) group of voters.
Why is this dangerous for Democrats? Because this has, in turn, transformed the Democratic Party and the left as a whole into the pearl-clutching, morally righteous normies! We’re the neuters! NO! Not us! And this morally righteous bent and even worse, respectability politics (ick!) has never worked to attract voters. Just ask Hillary. Look around–do you think of the American psyche right now as respectable?
What’s worse is that the Republicans shouldn’t be able to pull this off. Over 180,000 are dead from COVID-19-related causes. Six million people are infected with COVID. The conservatives are trying to drum up some Helter Skelter-esque race war while police murder Black people for simply existing with little to no justice. An economic crisis has left millions unemployed and with rampant food insecurity. And personally, I was watching the RNC while struggling with the crippling aches, fatigue, and brain fog of long haul COVID symptoms that I’ve had for over 5 months now. And even I knew the Republicans had secured an awe-inspiring achievement in camp weaponry!
This isn’t to say that the Democrats are completely hopeless–at least not yet. Soon, though, it’ll be too late. Hire us as your sleaze consultants! The DNC could have used a camp upgrade. What a bore! And it wouldn’t have taken too much. Rather than resurrecting the careers of actresses like Eva Longoria to host the DNC, how about instead broadcasting the horrid spectacle of seeing how much hair a post-COVID Alyssa Milano could lose in one two-hour evening?
For the performances, who wants to see Billie Eilish whisper through a song? I know the kids like her, but that doesn’t exactly compete with an ethic-violating opera singer. The Democrats needed Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion to perform a rousing rendition of “WAP.” Aren’t the Democrats pro-Wet Ass Pussy?! I know the Republicans aren’t. Just ask Ben Shapiro:
If touching that little dangly thing at the back of your throat isn’t your cup of tea, why not ask Kamala fanatic Azealia Banks to howl her way through her mixtape Yung Rapunxel II, threatening to set the billionaire technocrats on fire? Talk about wealth redistribution! Plus, she’s the most talented insult artist of our times. Wouldn’t AB be a perfect person to insult the entirety of the Republican party?
Also why are we letting Trump singlehandedly claim The Village People as his own? I want to watch Biden and Harris wave to constituents to the tune of “I’m a Cruiser” or better yet, “Sex Over the Phone.”
What a way to inspire phone-banking!
As for the speeches themselves, come on, we know they can do better. If the Republicans could feature the McCloskey’s and their arsenal, Democrats should have invited the Black Panthers in Georgia that marched with rifles in protection of the Black Lives Matter protesters to speak for the Second Amendment.
Think beyond the tired Zoom call aesthetics. Film Michelle Obama replacing all the toilets in Trump Tower after Melania used them with her gold digger bottom–two can play at that game! Do a live reenactment of the golden showers scene in Michael Cohen’s forthcoming tell-all! Pull a Hunter S. Thompson and spread rumors about what drug each Republican speaker is on!
For the potential First Family, Fightin’ Joe Biden needs to return to his uncomfortable 1920s “malarkey” schtick and challenge Trump to a push-up competition. It’s on, Jack! Use the standout moment of the DNC to your advantage: have Jill Biden throw dead snakes out of a bag at a Trump lookalike! Or better yet, go to one of his rallies and throw roadkill at Trump himself!
And above all, stop relying on the Republican and former Republican Never Trumpers to save you.
You made me order two books. And forward the essay on to my moms.