I was wrong about Donald Trump: Camille Paglia on the GOP front-runner's refreshing candor (and his impetuousness, too)

Yes, he remains thin-skinned and easily riled. But his fearlessness and brash energy also seem necessary and rare

Published March 10, 2016 10:40PM (EST)

Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump   (Reuters/Carlo Allegri/AP/Carlos Osorio/Photo montage by Salon)
Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump (Reuters/Carlo Allegri/AP/Carlos Osorio/Photo montage by Salon)

I'm dying for an update from you on Donald Trump.  Last summer you called him "not a president" and a "carnival barker." Do you still feel the same? If you loved Trump, would Salon even let you proclaim it? I mean, they're kind of as liberal as they come, no?

Why can't there be a party that is basically Republican, but minus the religion, minus the legislating of morality, and that cares about climate change/overpopulation? Could Trump be that guy?

Christie Cooley Randolph
Santa Rosa, CA

Well, Trump may still be a carnival barker, but he’s looking more and more like a president!  Along with most media pundits in the Northeast, I found it improbable if not impossible that Trump could survive his klutz-o-rama cascade of foot-in-mouth flubs, from carelessly categorizing Mexican immigrants as rapists to hallucinating about “thousands’ of Muslims cheering the fall of the twin towers from the mean streets of New Jersey.  Surely he would soon implode and pouf into fairy dust!

But only a few weeks after that interview of mine in Salon, I suddenly realized that Trump’s candidacy had a broad support that few had expected or discerned.  The agent of my revelation was a hilariously scathing, viral Web blog video posted by Diamond and Silk--Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, two African-American sisters and former Democrats in Fayetteville, North Carolina.  They were reacting with indignant outrage to the first GOP debate, broadcast by Fox News from Cleveland on August 6 and hosted by Megyn Kelly, whose loaded questions had impugned Trump as a sexist.

If Trump wins the White House, that no-holds-barred video will go down in history as “the shot heard round the world," Ralph Waldo Emerson’s phrase for the first salvo of the American Revolution by rural insurgents at Concord.  The video signaled a popular uprising and furious pushback against the major media and political elites, who had controlled the national agenda and messaging for far too long.  Diamond and Silk threw zinger after zinger in defending Trump:  “Here’s the damn deal, Megyn Kelly—or Kelly Megyn, whatever your name is!.... Go back and report news on Sesame Street!...You hit below the belt, Kelly!...He was the only one up there on that stage with any common sense!... He’s going to be the next president, whether you like it or not.  Get used to it, girl!  Get used to it!"

This fiery endorsement blew me away because it demonstrated how Trump was directly engaging with a diverse coalition in ways that the mainstream media had completely missed.  I felt, and still do, that Trump is far too impetuous and thin-skinned in his amusingly rambling, improvisational style.  The American president, who can spook markets or spark a war with a rash phrase, must be more coolly circumspect.  And aspirants to the presidency shouldn’t care what small fry like bobble-head TV hosts say or do.  A leader must have the long view and show an instinctive capacity to focus and prioritize.

Nevertheless, Trump’s fearless candor and brash energy feel like a great gust of fresh air, sweeping the tedious clichés and constant guilt-tripping of political correctness out to sea.  Unlike Hillary Clinton, whose every word and policy statement on the campaign trail are spoon-fed to her by a giant paid staff and army of shadowy advisors, Trump is his own man, with a steely “damn the torpedoes” attitude.  He has a swaggering retro machismo that will give hives to the Steinem cabal.  He lives large, with the urban flash and bling of a Frank Sinatra.  But Trump is a workaholic who doesn’t drink and who has an interesting penchant for sophisticated, strong-willed European women.  As for a debasement of the presidency by Trump’s slanging matches about penis size, that sorry process was initiated by a Democrat, Bill Clinton, who chatted about his underwear on TV, let Hollywood pals jump up and down on the bed in the Lincoln Bedroom, and played lewd cigar games with an intern in the White House offices.

Primary voters nationwide are clearly responding to Trump’s brand of classic can-do American moxie.  There has been a sense of weary paralysis in our increasingly Byzantine and monstrously wasteful government bureaucracies.  Putting a bottom-line businessman with executive experience into the White House has probably been long overdue.  If Mitt Romney had boldly talked business more (and chosen a woman VP), he would have won the last election.  Although the rampant Hitler and Mussolini analogies to Trump are wildly exaggerated--he has no organized fascist brigades at his beck and call—there is reason for worry about his impatient authoritarian tendencies.  We have had more than enough of Obama’s constitutionally questionable executive orders.  It remains to be seen whether Trump’s mastery of a hyper-personalized art of the deal will work in the sluggish, murky, incestuously intertwined power realms of Washington.

From my perspective as a fervent supporter of the ruggedly honest and principled Bernie Sanders, Trump with his pragmatic real-life record is a far more palatable national figure than Ted Cruz, whose unctuous, vainglorious professions of Christian piety don’t pass the smell test.  Trump is a blunt, no-crap mensch, while Cruz is a ham actor, doling out fake compassion like chopped liver.  Cruz’s lugubrious, weirdly womanish face, with its prim, tight smile and mawkishly appealing puppy-dog eyebrows, is like a waxen mask, always on the verge of melting.  This guy doesn’t know who the hell he is—and the White House is no place for him and us to find out.

I was especially interested in your discussion around schooling.  We recently moved to Australia from Seattle. A BIG part of the reason was our four children and the cost to send them all to college. Our first child was a wake-up call, and while we had been able to pay and work our way through college many years ago, it really wasn’t an option for her. While my wife and I were able to get subsidized loans back in our day, there were none available for her because of our income level. To be honest, if it was just her, we could have invested in her and made it work. But with four children all likely college bound, it was going to be an impossibility. We investigated our options and moved back to my home country Australia so the kids could go to school.

I have been so impressed with how it works over here. School fees are regulated at all public universities, and the kids are able to get interest-free loans to cover all their tuition costs. Those loans don’t have to be paid back until the child graduates, gets a job, and then starts making more than $55,000 a year. Then the money is deducted from their paycheck along with their taxes, and it can never be more than a certain percentage of their paycheck. It is a way that makes the kids pay for college, but makes it reasonable and affordable.

Even high school I have been impressed with. We have two kids in high school right now, and the schools very clearly value students who are taking a vocational track as much as those students who are college bound. They actually spend a lot of time highlighting kids on the vocational track, and in everything we have seen, it is clear that they are just as valued as students on a college track. In addition, kids can work towards their trade certificates while in school, get apprenticeships that help them prepare, and by the time they graduate most of them have jobs lined up. It also helps that in Australia the trades are well paid and respected, unlike in the U.S.

Anyway, just thought you might be interested in another model that we have felt works so much better than the U.S. model. It is crazy how it works over there now. 

Scott Martin

Thank you so much for this fascinating information about the educational system in Australia—especially the admirable respect and support given to vocational training there.  This is exactly what we need in the U.S.!  Too many of our students are suffering under a motley college-prep tyranny that denies them meaningful options in life.  We desperately need a new valorization of the trades.

I am delighted to share your revealing letter with Salon readers, who sent me hundreds of substantive, detailed emails about education and its financing, past, present, and future.  I will be publishing selections as space permits.  Right now I would like to thank Mike Bergman for this powerful observation: 

You mentioned in your article that your father benefitted from the GI Bill, and you drew a parallel to the need for free public education for today’s millennials. I remind you that the GI Bill was in a sense a reward for military service faithfully rendered in a time of war. These people placed their lives on hold to fight the nation’s wars.

And thanks to Carl Hattermann for his similar point:

Finally to free college for all.  I believe that your analogy to the GI Bill does not apply as currently envisioned.  My father went to school on the GI Bill as did many of my friends’ fathers.  But my dad fought in the Pacific, Maury's dad was a P51 pilot, and Skip's dad commanded a tank under Patton.  Their "free" college was earned, not given for free.  I have no problem with the government paying for college for vets, but it can't be free for just breathing.

And Ross Connelly has the last word:

As a Harry Truman Democrat, I could not agree with you more.  However, as a disabled combat Vietnam veteran who took full advantage of the GI Bill (A.B., Washington University, '72), like your father and mine, we served our country as payment for the education. There should be no free college education without some service to the betterment of the country. And this service should be mandatory for all--including women.

Profound thanks, Mr. Connelly, for your sacrifice and service to our country.

I think you've done a superb job of analyzing major contemporary figures. One that I find conspicuously missing from your insights is Lena Dunham. Seems to me that she's been outspoken on many issues that you care about. She's written a book seemingly laying bare her psyche, and she's elevated herself twice, now, to spokesperson for elite political figures. I would think that she's invited the scrutiny. What are your thoughts on this young woman who fancies herself The Voice of her generation? Seems to me she's at least the icon of the New Victorians.

Michael Mathis   
Chicago, IL

Oh dear, you’ve put me in rather of a bind.  On the one hand, I believe that each generation has the unchallengeable right to create its own aesthetic and to carve its own idols.  On the other hand, as Gwendolen Fairfax darkly remarks to Cecily Cardew in the great tea-table confrontation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, “On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one’s mind.  It becomes a pleasure.”

Lena Dunham belongs to the exhibitionistic Andrea Dworkin school of banner-waving neurotic masochism.  The body is the enemy, a tainted lump whose limitations and afflictions the public must be forced to contemplate in grisly detail.  We must also witness, like hapless medieval bystanders at a procession of flagellants, just how unappetizingly pallid Caucasian flesh can be made to be without cracking the camera lens.  The torpid banality of Dunham’s utterances (reverently accorded scriptural status by the New York Times) is yet another matter.  I am woman--hear me kvetch!

I feel so blessed to have grown up in a vastly more stimulating cultural climate.  The icons of my adolescence were Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, and Audrey Hepburn.  In college and graduate school, I was enraptured by Julie Christie, Jean Seberg, Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, and Monica Vitti.  What vitality, electricity, personality, and genuine eroticism!

But perhaps the best example of how far we have fallen was the fabulously whip-smart and stylish Suzanne Pleshette, who grew up in the same affluent, privileged Manhattan art and theater world that Lena Dunham did but who left a legacy, both on-screen and off, of verve, originality, and emotional depth.  Please descend, ye Muses, and save us from our plague of self-pitying bores!

By Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at askcamille@salon.com.

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