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.