How camp explains Trump

“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…

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.