Camille Paglia and the Trump Era

By Doug Wade

Paglia was not surprised by the election results. “I felt the Trump victory coming for a long time,” she told me. Writing last spring, she’d called Trump “raw, crude and uninformed” but also “smart, intuitive and a quick study”; she praised his “bumptious exuberance and slashing humor” (and took some pleasure in watching him fluster the GOP). Speaking two weeks into his administration, she sounded altogether less troubled by the president than any other self-declared feminist I’d encountered since Inauguration Day: “He is supported by half the country, hello! And also, this ethically indefensible excuse that all Trump voters are racist, sexist, misogynistic, and all that — American democracy cannot proceed like this, with this reviling half the country.”

In fact, she has had to restrain herself from agreeing with the president, at least on certain matters. “I have been on an anti–Meryl Streep campaign for about 30 years,” she said. When Trump called the actress “overrated” in a January tweet, “I wanted to leap into print and take that line but I couldn’t, because Trump said it.”

It’s true that there is not infrequently something Trumpian in Paglia’s cadence (lots of ingenuous exclamation points — “This tyrannical infantilizing of young Americans must stop!”), as well as her irresistible compulsion to revisit enemies, slights, and idées fixes (substitute “Gloria Steinem” and “Lacan” for “the failing New York Times”). And then, perhaps most important: She, like Trump, gives her audience the vicarious thrill of watching someone who appears to be saying whatever the hell they want. Reading Paglia is a bit like how it must have felt to be an enthusiastic attendee at a Trump campaign rally: She can’t possibly REALLY mean that, you think, and laugh, bewildered — but can you imagine how annoyed it must make people?

She doesn’t seem especially troubled by the rise of a certain kind of outlandish vitriol on the right. When I asked her about Yiannopoulos, she wrote back: “Too many gay men have lost the scathingly cruel wit for which they were famous in the pre-Stonewall era. None of his satirical jibes seem any worse than the campy insults that the great female impersonator Charles Pierce had Bette Davis fling at Joan Crawford. However, true reformers need to build as well as attack. When I burst into notoriety, I had a 700-page book behind me and campaigned on a detailed agenda critiquing both the Left and the Right.”I was horrified, horrified by the pink pussy hats.

Paglia’s displeasure over the election was largely reserved for the liberal Establishment, and for Hillary Clinton, whom she’s criticized lavishly for the last 20 years. “I like Hillary because she’s kind of a bitch,” Paglia said in a 1993 interview, but her assessment has since evolved. She now calls Clinton “a walking neurosis.” During the primaries, Paglia preferred Bernie Sanders — “an authentic leftist,” who brought her back to the 1960s. “That is what real leftists were like,” she told me. “They’re not post-structuralists with their snide, cool, elitist jargon.” In the general election, as a resident of Pennsylvania, she voted for Jill Stein.

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By Molly Fischer

Photograph by Ryan Pfluger

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