Democrats like to envision their Republican colleagues as perpetually ensconced in some make-believe version of the 1950s, when everyone was white and no one was gay and hey, let’s not really talk about the top marginal tax rate under Eisenhower. Yet the Left’s own ideal of the Golden Age—in this case, the 1960s—can be equally compromised and ahistorical.
Then there is Camille Paglia, who claims that the populist legacy of the '60s lives on ... in the figure of Donald Trump.
This claim would be surprising, if it weren't also the case that Camille Paglia is basically the Donald Trump of feminism. The famously contrarian feminist scholar and provocatrix is gracing her longtime employer, Salon, with a three-part interview this week. Besides Paglia’s usual shots at the American university system (like Trump, she enjoys being an “outsider”), the professor and author calls Matt Drudge an “auteur” while bemoaning the rise of snark as cultural currency; complains at length about orthodox atheism (Paglia herself identifies as an atheist-pagan); and criticizes our “steady” move “away from the heritage of Western civilization” while at the same time expressing concern that American bohemians have lost touch with their 1960s pop-spirituality roots:
Hinduism was in the air from every direction—you had the Beatles and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Ravi Shankar at Monterey, and there were sitars everywhere in rock music. So I really thought we were entering this great period of religious syncretism, where the religions of the world were going to merge. But all of a sudden, it disappeared!
You’ll notice some sharp cognitive dissonance among Paglia's complaints—why have we squandered our Western inheritance, and why aren’t kids reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead? The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was a snake-oil salesman of the first order; why don’t the kids find a guru like him? Matt Drudge is an artist, but why is Jon Stewart so mean?
But the strangest moment in Paglia’s rambling interview—and the most illuminating—is her discussion of 1960s radical comedy and its place in American political life. “Comedy, to me, is one of the major modern genres,” Paglia says, “and the big influences on my generation were Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl.” She continues:
Then Joan Rivers had an enormous impact on me–she’s one of my major role models. It’s the old caustic, confrontational style of Jewish comedy. It was Jewish comedians who turned stand-up from the old gag-meister shtick of vaudeville into a biting analysis of current social issues, and they really pushed the envelope. Lenny Bruce used stand-up to produce gasps and silence from the audience. And that’s my standard—a comedy of personal risk. And by that standard, I’m sorry, but Jon Stewart is not a major figure.
Who qualifies as a “major” figure in the “biting analysis of current social issues”? Paglia recommends we look not to Jon Stewart but rather to Donald Trump, whom Paglia posits as heir to Lenny Bruce’s tradition of radical, oppositional commentary:
So far this year, I’m happy with what Trump has done, because he’s totally blown up the media! [...] He’s simply an American citizen who is creating his own bully pulpit. He speaks in the great populist way, in the slangy vernacular. He takes hits like a comedian—and to me he’s more of a comedian than Jon Stewart is! Like claiming John McCain isn’t a war hero, because his kind of war hero doesn’t get captured—that’s hilarious! That’s like something crass that Lenny Bruce might have said! It’s so startling and entertaining.... What I’m saying is that the authentic 1960s were about street theater—chaos, spontaneity, caustic humor. And Trump actually has it! He does better comedy than most professional comedians right now, because we’re in this terrible period where the comedians do their tours with canned jokes.... That’s why Donald Trump has suddenly leapt in the polls. He’s a great stand-up comedian. He’s anti-PC–he’s not afraid to say things that are rude and mean. I think he’s doing a great service for comedy as well as for politics!
Note the absurd conclusion at which Paglia’s logic has delivered her: Trump is the “great populist” because he a.) talks like a blowhard b.) is “simply an American citizen” c.) “takes hits like a comedian” (I think this means people don’t always like what he says?) and, above all, because d.) Trump’s denigrating remarks about John McCain constitute Brucean satire—a countercultural body-blow against the establishment! It hardly matters any more whether Paglia believes what she is saying (lots of people have made that complaint about her for a long time), but I'm not cynical enough to believe completely that she doesn't—which is why her conflation of Lenny Bruce and Donald Trump feels so wrong and stupid and nauseous.
Contrarianism is sometimes useful and often fun, but, taken as logic, “what if Trump the capitalist oligarch is actually the new version of 1960s guerrilla theater” simply doesn’t compute. Trump is not some average “American citizen”; he is certainly not a comedian, and his provocations are only performance art if you willfully ignore the simple fact that Trump cares about attention, not about disruption. (Disruption is merely the means to attention.) Comparing Trump to Lenny Bruce is the kindest thing anyone has done for Trump this campaign cycle, and the meanest thing anyone has done to Bruce since his final arrest for obscenity.
Like Trump, Paglia knows how to hold a grudge, and her most confusing remarks usually make a bit more sense when you consider her cherished resentments toward other feminists and toward the academy at large. “Real ’60s radicals,” Paglia confides to Salon, “rarely went to grad school and never became big-wheel humanities professors, with their fat salaries and perks.” Coming from a big-wheel humanities professor, that’s very convenient rhetoric for having it both ways. You’d be right to wonder why Trump’s own “fat” salary and remarks about Occupy Wall Street don't disqualify him from Paglia's regard. The simplest answer is that none of this, for either of them, is about ideas or even ideology—it's about antics. Paglia is still lobbing water balloons into the feminist drum-circle, and Trump emerges as the anti-feminist's anti-feminist, a billionaire “outsider,” just as Paglia's academic appointments and book deals do not diminish her status as a truth-telling contrarian martyr. Profaning the grand tradition of oppositional politics by suggesting that Trump is some kind of anointed heir? Hot take.
Perhaps Paglia actually believes some of this stuff. Maybe she'll even vote for Trump, if only out of spite. Jack Kerouac grew so outraged with the hippies who came to worship him that he voted for Nixon in 1968. It was his way of discounting a contemporary intellectual movement and asserting the primacy of a previous generation’s. Kerouac had every right to get crotchety and vote for Nixon, and Paglia likewise can boost Trump all she likes. But she shouldn’t fool herself into thinking this makes her an intellectual rebel. Really, it just makes her old.
Lead Photo: Camille Paglia (Photo: Wikimedia Commons); Donald Trump (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)