“Camp” is almost by definition hard to define. As Susan Sontag put it in her seminal 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” When everyday reality becomes decidedly surreal and lies are boldly presented as truth, who is to say what’s over-the-top or ersatz?
So when the organizers of the annual Met Gala announced camp as the theme of their 2019 to-do, the required dress code of “studied triviality” sent celebrities scrambling. Missing the assignment is the gala’s cardinal sin, and the risk of erring was even higher in a year when people weren’t precisely sure what the assignment was.
They needn’t have bothered. None of the attendees were ever going to outdo the singular example of the aesthetic plastered across our feeds and televisions all day, every day: Donald Trump is America’s first camp president.
The president would have seemed right at home on the pink carpet of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, joking that candelabra-clad Katy Perry couldn’t out-glitter his hotels, posing with Kacey Musgraves as Barbie and being careful (or not) to avoid stepping on Lady Gaga’s 225 square feet or so of fuchsia fabric. The overlong ruby tie, cotton-candy hair and tangerine skin could have been heightened only by head-to-toe gold lamé, which, for a man who considers gilt the ultimate opulence, would not be entirely out of the question.
Everything about Trump is style without substance. Ever since he rode down the escalators of Trump Tower to announce his candidacy — about the campiest presidential debut one could conceive of — he’s been light on conviction. The majority of his actual priorities are unmoored from political necessity and defined by an obsession with spectacle, whether the subject is his dream of massive military parades or complaints about collusion at the Kentucky Derby. Campest of all, they’re all delivered in his idiosyncratic style of speaking: “Space Force all the way!” For his glitz-deficient party, Trump’s pyrite glamour passed for the 14-karat real thing, and his matte advisers have been happy to use him as a shiny vehicle.
Camp is best with company, and in that regard, Trump truly does surround himself with the “best people.” Melania Trump’s outlandish travel outfits and oddly empty “Be Best” campaign are camp, as are (duh) Roger Stone’s top hats and pinstripes. Ivana Trump’s banged beehive was camp. Tiffany Trump’s pop single: camp. Sebastian Gorka’s … everything: not camp, but close.
For all the exaggeration and spectacle, though, camp in its most undiluted form is something simpler. “The pure examples of Camp are unintentional,” Sontag wrote. “They are dead serious.” So is President Trump.
That’s where things get perilous. In Trump’s mind, he earnestly projects authority. He wants little more than gravitas. Few things corner the market on his rage as much as parodies of him on “Saturday Night Live,” and political observers have gone so far as to suggest that his dive into politics was a ploy for stature triggered by the humiliation he faced at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, where he was featured as the evening’s laughingstock.
The people in deliberate camp at the Met Gala on Monday night dressed up for fun. And they can afford to look ridiculous for a night, because they know their fans will be celebrating their whimsy come morning. But for Trump, camp isn’t a game, and his aesthetics are an unwinking expression of his worldview. As president, Trump may not have changed his style, but he now has the power to command respect a different way. It may be camp to dream of a military parade, but it’s deadly serious to separate families at the border or to threaten a nuclear-armed dictator.
Camp in the White House is a dangerous thing. The president of the United States, however camp he may be, has a great deal more power than a plastic pink flamingo. Perhaps next time, it would be best to keep both off the White House lawn.