Donald Trump’s Reelection Campaign Is Total Camp
As the president shimmies to The Village People, he crystallizes the way that even sincerity and irony have become politically polarized.
If Donald Trump loses this election, maybe he’ll join The Village People. The 1970s band famous for leather chaps and questionable headdresses has become a wacky touchstone of this dour campaign season, and it’s thanks to the president. At his rallies, crowds have been warming up to “Macho Man,” The Village People’s 1976 single about having pride in a “big, thick mustache.” Trump himself, at the end of his speeches, has been dancing to “YMCA” with hand gestures that make it look like he’s mushing in an underwater Iditarod. The emergence of Disco Donald has led to a pro-Trump “MAGA” song, a Trump-mocking TikTok meme, and a clip of Anderson Cooper trying not to cackle as a crowd of Republicans grooves to music that grew out of San Francisco bathhouses and New York drag clubs.
As if it needs to be said: The Village People are, canonically, very queer. Around 1977, the openly gay producers Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo canvassed bars for singer-actors and placed ads that read, “Macho Types Wanted: Must Dance and Have a Moustache.” The crew they hired costumed themselves as sexualized, masculine archetypes: the sailor, the fireman, the biker, the Native American chief, the construction worker, the cop. They sang songs that celebrated the guy-on-guy camaraderie of gyms, military regiments, and Fire Island. The band’s pert rhythms and hammy slogans soon boomed in sports arenas and grocery-store aisles—but only after they first found an audience in gay venues.
The Trump administration has banned transgender people from the military, opposed attempts to stop sexuality-based employment discrimination, and denied visas to same-sex partners of diplomats. So it is haunting to see this particular president pick this particular band, and all it stands for, to amp his crowds. But there’s something oddly predictable about it, too. That’s not only because the Trump campaign has made awkward overtures to the queer community (Tiffany Trump’s flailing Pride speech, to give one example). It’s not only because Trump made similar use of Queen’s music in 2016. (Back then, a music-history professor told me that winkingly gay jock jams excel at summoning the “carnivalesque.”) It’s also because the Trump era has helped re-scramble American culture’s relationship to the aesthetic tradition known as “camp.”
The sight of Trump shoulder-swiveling to “YMCA” while entombed in his typical boxy suit sent me searching for Susan Sontag’s definitive 1964 treatise, “Notes on ‘Camp.’” The essay—really a bulleted list—tried to describe a “sensibility” that Sontag said united the writer Oscar Wilde, the ballet Swan Lake, and all “stag movies seen without lust.” Camp is very hard to nail down—it’s a know it when you see it sort of thing that’s more related to the viewer’s reaction than to any object’s intrinsic nature. But, Sontag ventured, camp’s attributes include the “spirit of extravagance,” “glorification of ‘character,’” and “sensibility of failed seriousness.” It leads people to say, “It’s good because it’s awful,” though not all good-because-they’re-awful things count. Crucially, if someone sets out to trigger a camp response, Sontag said, they were not actually camp. They were merely camping. “The pure examples of Camp are unintentional,” Sontag wrote. “They are dead serious.” This distinction means that many things thought of as camp are really pretending to be camp—giving rise to a cheeky, mischievous aesthetic that is everywhere today.
Camp has often been associated with queerness, and Sontag made the case that this was because gay people sought to ingratiate themselves with a society that saw them as dangerous. (“Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.”) Reflecting on the way the über-campsters of The Village People have roused NFL fans and prom-goers over the years, you can see what she meant. But Sontag didn’t discuss the fact that campiness can be usefully ambiguous to people trying to disguise their true feelings and nature, as queer folks often have needed to do. Superficial spectacles that trigger the question “Is this serious?” can entertain broadly but signify different things to different viewers. And by lavishing attention on puzzling and preposterous objects, a community can develop a set of references that amount to in-group code.
Ever since (and even before) he introduced his presidential campaign with a gilded escalator ride in 2015, Trump has been widely acknowledged as camp. It’s obvious that he’s ridiculous; it’s not always obvious whether he knows he’s ridiculous. Swaths of the electorate look at him and see failed seriousness, pointless extravagance, and an elevation of style over substance—and can’t help but laugh. This includes not only his detractors but also many of his extremely online supporters, who lovingly aestheticize his hair and meme him as an action hero. By this point, Trump—or at least his advisers—know to play this up, and in doing so have turned camp into a trolling tool. Dancing to The Village People works as a pep-rally maneuver, hyping the faithful. It also works at generating fascination, distraction, and maybe even some fleeting affection from a broader audience.
Camp suits Trump’s larger rhetorical style, which uses jokes and doublespeak to advance an agenda that many Americans find objectionable when stated in plain language. Does he condemn white supremacy, or does he want racist militias to “stand by”? Does he really want to lock up Joe Biden, or is he just idly musing about doing so from the stump? Insist on clear answers to these questions, and his defenders might call you a scold. “The conservative brand of ambiguous irony looks to create asymmetries in how insiders and outsiders interpret what is being said, so that any statement that gets too much blowback can become someone else’s failure to take a joke,” wrote Dan Brooks in a recent New York Times Magazine piece, which further argued:
This miasma of ill-defined but ever-present irony makes Trump virtually impossible to mock, because that job is taken. The real Donald Trump acts as if he’s doing an impression of some normal-looking, occasionally self-aggrandizing president we don’t know about. His supporters know this impression is fake. They don’t think Trump is the guy he pretends to be; they know he is the guy who pretends to be that guy, which is a hilarious thing for the president to do. Trump has effectively neutralized political comedy by shifting the place where jokes happen from the soundstage to the White House. The unsettling thing about this approach is that it works—not just as a way to defang satirists but also as a way to wield power.
Brooks also notes how Trumpland’s aesthetic arose at a time when the cultural left acts more earnest than ever. His examples include TV series like The Daily Show, on which sarcasm, silliness, and nuance have been supplanted by righteous, overt skewering of the administration. Similar realignments have happened in other arenas too. Camp does still thrive across modern society—including in memes, rap songs, everything Ina Garten does. Yet it’s glaring that as the right wing gorges on camp and campiness, much of the queer-friendly popular culture of the late 2010s has taken a more sober approach. Even The Village People themselves seem to have taken note.
Wearing his signature cop helmet and white cravat in a recent video, Victor Willis, the last living founder of The Village People, explains that he asked the president’s campaign not to use his music. But Trump did so anyway, and Willis hasn’t taken any legal action, because it would be expensive and he’s likely to lose in court.
The video, however, is more devoted to clearing up misconceptions about his band’s music. “Macho Man” and “YMCA,” Willis says, aren’t about gay life, despite what many people think. Willis is straight, and he simply wrote these two songs as an expression of his own “street attitude” and his affection for the community center that took in young Black men like him. This assertion doesn’t fully square with the opinions of other Village People members. But by implying a mismatch between the creators’ intention and the public’s perception, it definitely heightens the camp appeal of The Village People. It also fits the way that a lot of entertainment once widely considered winking and frivolous has—whether explicitly responding to Trump or not—lately tried to project a deeper sense of purpose.
You can find a telling example of this shift if you go to the Spotify page for The Village People. The newest release you see there is by a buzzy 28-year-old gender-fluid musician named Dorian Electra. Electra recruited The Village People to sing on the title track for their second album, My Agenda, which came out this month. The song does not sound at all like “YMCA.” It pairs grunting guitars and hip-hop drums like Limp Bizkit did. Electra sings in a digitally manipulated warble with slight Vincent Price affectations. The concept of the song is that it airs the fever dream of a homophobe who fears the so-called gay agenda. “My agenda might offend ya / Out here flexing in my rainbow suspenders,” goes part of the chorus, which The Village People sing. At one point, Electra malevolently repeats Alex Jones’s conspiracy theory that government chemicals are turning frogs “into homo-sex-oo-alls.”
By enlisting The Village People for this one song, Electra highlights some commonalities between eras of queer pop. Electra’s new album is about macho, macho men—but it’s the macho, macho men of the politically regressive internet: alt-right video gamers spamming chat rooms with Pepe the Frog memes, incels in fedoras fantasizing about perfectly docile girlfriends. Like The Village People did, Electra lavishes attention on the aesthetic excesses and self-seriousness of expressions of masculinity in their era. But the difference—or one difference—is that Electra’s music is brutal satire. Sontag wrote of the camp eye as pleasure-minded and “disengaged, depoliticized—or at least apolitical.” Electra is disgusted, knowing, and super engaged. They are an outright protest artist with a message to deliver.
In this way, Electra is right on trend. In the 2010s, popular queer culture spent a lot of energy rendering as text what once had been subtext. The juggernaut phenomenon of RuPaul’s Drag Race has thoroughly demystified the art of drag, turning a set of inside jokes and inscrutable surfaces into fodder for broad morality plays. Contestants are encouraged to use costumes to express their authentic selves; the viewer is lectured about the problems of heteronormativity. Similarly, the ballroom vogue scene—in which queer people of color study the straight world’s affectations to create brilliant, deadpan dances—has had all of its implications dissected and narrativized in TV shows and documentaries. There’s camp in FX’s Pose, for instance, but the aesthetic mostly serves as set decoration for televised fables about identity and oppression.
Pose is the work of Ryan Murphy, the famous Glee creator who, with a reportedly $300 million development deal with Netflix, now seems to churn out a new TV series or movie at a monthly pace. Though the subject matter of American Horror Story, American Crime Story, Feud, Hollywood, Ratched, The Boys in the Band, and other Murphy works varies widely, each one mashes up old camp touchstones for didactic ends. Sometimes the results are so ponderous that one might argue they amount to their own camp. But the primary pleasure of his shows aren’t that you laugh at them, and Murphy himself rejects the term camp and prefers the term baroque: an apt label for the way he gilds piety with melodrama, comedy, and spectacle.
Each of the examples I’ve listed includes moments of deliciously campy entertainment; each of them builds productively on the struggles of queer people in past decades to simply exist in public without apology; each of them often succeeds as social commentary. The fact that “camp” was the theme for the 2019 Met Gala speaks to the extent to which once-snobbish disdain for excess and play has all but vanished. But if camp’s mission was to “dethrone the serious,” as Sontag wrote, the opposite is happening with much of popular culture. Meanwhile, the occupant of the Oval Office routinely trivializes the consequential—and amid the dire conditions of 2020, it’s clear why.
Trump has been campy for the entirety of his public life, but his reelection campaign feels like an aesthetic culmination. He is an incumbent posing as an insurgent, and with coronavirus deaths continuing to mount and his poll numbers looking grim, his sense of embattlement is palpable. One result of that comes in the form of bitter confrontations with the press and dark warnings about the election’s integrity. But his embattlement also colors the regular work of electioneering, which always involves upbeat rallies and hopeful promises. It is here that Trump’s campaign takes on the delusional cheer of a drag queen. See: the “YMCA” dances, the parades of boats festooned like Pride floats, the strangely punctuated promises to colonize the moon, the comedy roasts of face-mask wearers, and the boudoir-style video of Trump returning from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after being treated for COVID-19.
The Biden-Harris campaign, by contrast, has scrubbed itself of all but the mildest silliness: Biden’s exasperated mantra, “Malarkey”; Kamala Harris’s displays of joy; Cher’s surprisingly sweet update of Judy Garland’s “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe.” The campaign’s ad aesthetic is folksy, stoic, and vanilla-scented; the 2020 Democrats’ slogan might as well be “Keep calm and vote.” Just listen to the official Biden-Harris song, “The Change,” which the pop singer JoJo and the writer Diane Warren created for the campaign. Over echoey, building piano, JoJo simply vows repeatedly to do something and be “the light.” The song is solemn, but its music and sentiment aren’t even intense enough to inspire obsession or revulsion. The feral commitment of a Trump rally—or the messianic bombast of the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns—has clearly been judged too risky.
The Biden sensibility, wanly sincere and hard to mock, speaks to how difficult it is to communicate honestly and broadly right now. When a plague is raging, democracy is under threat, and disinformation chokes out truth, one way to react is with misdirection, jokes, and hollow hauteur: the Trump path. Another might be in the high-handed satires and sermons of a Ryan Murphy product. Yet another is the careful triangulation of Biden’s crew. What would happen if someone engaged our era’s challenges without the armor of humor, indignation, or circumspection? Again, The Village People offer an example.
In March, the band released a new music video entitled “If You Believe.” It was meant to comfort a world panicked by the pandemic. The visuals were a pastiche of home-computer word art (“event canceled” says one slide), stock videos (doctors smiling, businesspeople fist-pumping), and archival news footage (Martin Luther King Jr. giving a speech, an astronaut walking on the moon, and, for some reason, the Twin Towers burning). As I watched, I put my hands over my mouth and tried to stifle every honest reaction I felt. It seemed heartless to think of this deeply felt attempt at processing catastrophe as camp. But then I remembered: “Camp,” Sontag wrote, “is a tender feeling.” That remains true even if, lately, it has been hijacked for callous ends.