It's not about sexism: Camille Paglia on Trump, Hillary's "restless bitterness" and the end of the elites

We don't know if Trump can morph into a statesman. We do know the media/political class fears his threat to Hillary

Published May 5, 2016 10:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump speaks at the California Republican Party 2016 Convention in Burlingame, Calif. (AP)
Donald Trump speaks at the California Republican Party 2016 Convention in Burlingame, Calif. (AP)

Is it 1968 all over again?

Violent clashes between antiwar protestors and Chicago police during the 1968 Democratic Convention boomeranged against the New Left and sabotaged the presidential hopes of the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, a genial, compassionate populist. The American electorate, repelled by street chaos, veered to the Right and made Richard M. Nixon president. The new crossover Nixon Democrats laid the groundwork for the two conservative presidencies of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

In our current campaign, the obvious strategy by Democratic operatives to disrupt Donald Trump’s rallies and link him to brewing fascism (via lurid media images of wild-eyed brawlers) has backfired with a bang. The seething demonstrators who blocked Trump’s motorcade at last week’s state GOP convention in Burlingame, California, forcing him and his retinue to ditch their vehicles and sprint to a rear entrance on foot, managed to alienate mainstream voters, boost Trump’s national momentum, and guarantee his sweeping victory in this week’s Indiana primary. With the withdrawal of Ted Cruz, Trump is now the presumptive GOP nominee. Great job, Dem wizards!

The helicopter TV footage of Trump and his Secret Service detail on the move was certainly surreal. All those beefy men in shiny, dark suits rapidly filing through narrow concrete barriers (like cattle chutes at a rodeo) and then scrambling up a grassy knoll! It reminded me of the flight through the woods by scores of elegantly dressed Mafiosi after police raided the 1957 gangland convention in Apalachin, New York. (True, I have a special interest in that colorful event: Bartolo Guccia, who told the cops he was just delivering fish, ran his store out of the ground floor of my paternal grandparents’ house next to the Sons of Italy in nearby Endicott, my home town.) The optics of the aerial photos made Trump look like a late Roman emperor being hustled to safety by the Praetorian Guard, which over time had become a kingmaker, supplanting the authority of the Senate and the old patrician class.

Trump has knocked the stilts out from the GOP establishment and crushed the pretensions of a battalion of political commentators on both the Left and Right. Portraying him as a vile racist, illiterate boob, or the end of civilization as we know it hasn’t worked because his growing supporters are genuinely motivated by rational concerns about border security and bad trade deals. Whether Trump, with his erratic impulses and gratuitous crudities, can morph toward statesmanship remains to be seen. We don’t need another bumbling rube like George W. Bush, who bizarrely ambushed German chancellor Angela Merkel by grabbing and massaging her shoulders from behind as she was seated at a G8 Summit meeting in St. Petersburg in 2006.

The aerial view of Trump at Burlingame gave me a moment of gender vertigo. His odd, brassy blonde hairdo, which I normally think of as a retro Bobby Rydell quiff, looked from behind like a smoothly backcombed 1960’s era woman’s bouffant. Shelley Winters flashed into my mind, and then it hit me: “It’s all about his mother!” I had never seen photos of Mary MacLeod Trump (who died at 88 in 2000) and immediately looked for them. Of course, there it was—the puffy blonde bouffant to which Trump pays daily homage in his impudent straw thatch.

In their focus on Trump’s real-estate tycoon father, the media seem to have missed that the teetotaling Trump’s deepest connection was probably to his strong-willed, religious mother. Born in the stark, wind-swept Hebrides Islands off the western coast of Scotland (the next North Atlantic stop is Iceland), she was one tough cookie. She and her parents were Gaelic speakers, products of a history extending back to the medieval Viking raids. I suddenly realized that that is Trump’s style. He’s not a tribal Highlander, celebrated in Scotland’s long battle for independence from England, but a Viking, slashing, burning, and laughing at the carnage in his wake. (Think Kirk Douglas flashing his steely smile in the 1958 Hollywood epic, The Vikings.) Trump takes savage pleasure in winning for its own sake—an attribute that speaks directly to the moment, when a large part of the electorate feels that the U.S. has become timid and uncertain and made far too many humiliating concessions to authoritarian foreign powers like China, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Despite their show of bravado, most savvy Democratic strategists have surely known for months that Trump was by far the most formidable of Hillary Clinton’s potential opponents—which is why they’ve been playing the race and riot cards against him to the max. Hillary has skimmed along in her bouncing gender bubble, virtually untouched by her too chivalrous Democratic rivals. Far from Hillary (in this election cycle or the last) having a harder time as a woman candidate, she has been habitually shielded by her gender. At the early debates, for example, Martin O’Malley was paralyzed by his deference to her sacred womanhood and hardly dared raise his voice to contest her brazen untruths from three feet away. Meanwhile, in debate after debate, unconstrained by the sycophantic media moderators, Hillary rudely interrupted, talked over both O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, and hogged airtime like it was going out of style. Not until CNN’s April 14 debate in Brooklyn on the eve of the New York primary did moderators forcibly put a lid on Hillary’s obnoxious filibustering.

The most pernicious aspect of this Democratic campaign is the way the field was cleared long in advance for Hillary, a flawed candidate from the get-go, while an entire generation of able Democratic politicians in their 40s was muscled aside, on pain of implied severance from future party support. It is glaringly obvious, given how well Bernie Sanders (my candidate) has done despite a near total media blackout for the past year, that Hillary would never have survived to the nomination had she had younger, more well-known, and centrist challengers. Hillary’s front-runner status has been achieved by DNC machinations and an army of undemocratic super-delegate insiders, whose pet projects will be blessed by the Clinton golden hoard. Hillary has also profited from Sanders’ too-gentlemanly early tactics, when he civilly refrained from pushing back at key moments, such as the questionable Iowa and Nevada caucuses, which he probably would have won had there not been last-minute monkey business by party operatives.

As for the tired excuse of evil sexism in American presidential politics, it wasn’t sexism that stopped two far more qualified, accomplished, and skillful Democratic politicians, Senator Dianne Feinstein and former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, from running for president. No, it was the sheer, stupid, life-cannibalizing drudgery of our excruciatingly prolonged and geographically vast campaign process that daunted and discouraged them. Feinstein and Pelosi, to all reports, enjoy a rewarding private life that they do not want violated and blown to hell. But Hillary, consumed by her own restless bitterness, has no such tranquility. The wheels must grind! The future must be conquered! Past slights must be avenged! So it’s all planning and scheming and piling up loot, the material emblem of existential worth. It’s all talk and more talk about ideals and values without actually achieving anything concrete--except, of course, for Hillary’s one notable legacy, the destabilization of North Africa.

And is there anything creepier than that current Hillary meme, the campaign slogan “I’m with her”? The blurred borderlines of those pronouns (“I” numbly dissolving into “her”) and that ambiguous preposition (“with” her like a child, a lover, or a nurse’s aide with a geriatric patient?) are close to pathological. The Hillary acolytes are joined at the hip to “her”, the Great Leader Who Needs No Name, the Maternal Tit daubed in wormwood, the bitter toxin left by men--those spoilers of the universe who created the master structures of modern civilization that provide us put-upon gals with jobs, transportation, abundant food, clean water, housing, electricity, and a magical disease-spurning municipal sewage system that only men seem required to clean and repair.

Hillary’s anti-male subtext, to which so many women voters are plainly drawn, flared into view last week when she crowed to CNN’s Jake Tapper about her proven skills in sex war: “I have a lot of experience dealing with men who sometimes get off the reservation in the way they behave and how they speak….I’m not going to deal with their temper tantrums or their bullying or their efforts to try to provoke me.” The prestige media tried to suppress Hillary’s gaffes here (which breezily insulted both men and Native Americans) by simply not reporting them. Her campaign deflected initial criticism, but she made no personal response until the issue kept escalating. Five days later, she sat down with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell and incredibly claimed that she had been referring to Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Rep. Rick Lazio and Vladimir Putin—none of whom have had perceptible “temper tantrums” about her.

Conservative radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, analyzing Hillary’s remarks as most mainstream journalists refused to do, interpreted them as a cloaked reference to her embattled life with her philandering husband. However, I assumed from the start that “temper tantrums” (a term applied to small children) was another of Hillary’s odd childhood flashbacks and that it described her ranting father’s abusive behavior toward his wife and family (detailed in Carl Bernstein’s 2007 biography, A Woman in Charge). It was her stoical mother who trained Hillary in the art of contemptuous endurance of men’s squalling infantilism. Women are noble, superior creatures; men are yapping dogs.

And as for “off the reservation”, wow—I guess Hillary should take a gander at John Ford’s classic Western, Fort Apache (1948), where John Wayne tangles with Henry Fonda as a U.S. Cavalry martinet vengefully pursuing the Native American “savages,” led by the famous Chiricahua Apache chief Cochise, who refuse to stay on the reservation decreed for them by the government during Westward expansion. The bloody Apache wars in Arizona were one of the darkest chapters in American history. But there you have Hillary’s gender theory in a nutshell: men are bums and bullies who belong in internment camps under female lock and key.

A side note in the Andrea Mitchell interview was the inadvertent revelation about Hillary’s health. She was wearing a conveniently high mandarin collar, but check out the moment when she mentions Vladimir Putin: one can clearly see an unmistakable lump bulging from the left side of her neck. Whether it is a goiter or some other growth should surely be of legitimate public concern in a presidential candidate. But as a friend tartly wrote to me this week, “Of course not one reporter out of the thousand working reporters in America will dare to ask.”


Hello, Camille,

I'm hoping you will write your thoughts about the life of Prince, his work, style, "coolness", and of course his music. I am also interested in where artists choose to live and create. Prince's Paisley Park worked for him but was out of the normal NYC/ LA neighborhoods. How do you think being out of N.Y./L.A. benefited Prince or any artist or intellectual?

Anthony from California

I would certainly classify Prince as a major artist of the late twentieth century, but I must admit some disappointment with how his brilliant career developed or failed to develop over time. His great period was his early one, from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, when he created a brand-new sonic landscape and used the emergent genre of music videos as a flamboyant medium of performance art. Musically, he downscaled Rick James’ massive macho funk chords into a bewitching web work of intricate rhythms, intimate and sensual. As a sexual persona, he borrowed transgender motifs from Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix and refashioned himself first as a half-naked S&M rent boy and then as an aristocratic dandy, dripping silk and lace.

There is both a Mardi Gras and voodoo element in Prince: all four of his grandparents were born in Louisiana (and photos of his parents suggest they were at least partly Creole). He was one of the most photogenic people on the planet: his personal magnetism and artistic intensity verged on the eerie and mystical. But it’s clear that, like Michael Jackson, Prince became a prisoner of his own fame. I was horrified by the aerial views of Paisley Park published after his death: I had no idea Prince was living like that--in a lavish windowless bunker as characterless as an office park. Paisley Park is of course mainly a recording studio, but as a residence, it looks like a set for Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.”

No music fan who lived through Prince’s sensational Purple Rain period in 1984 will ever forget it. We were all drenched in the florid extravagance of his swashbuckling self-presentation and the searing confession of his half-crippling melancholy. The long, climactic title song of that movie still has a tremendous, near-religious charge. But then what? By the late 1980s, Prince remained highly productive, but there was a lapse in originality, and very few of his songs ever reached the top of the charts again. Changing his name to a love symbol seemed like a silly stunt to me, and I wasn’t impressed by a multi-millionaire writing “slave” on his face as a gesture against his record company.

The news about Prince’s death two weeks ago was announced while my Art of Song Lyric course was meeting. We were in fact doing the period from James Brown through soul, disco, and funk. I was incredulous when I got back to my office and saw the shocking headline on the Drudge Report. At our next class, I immediately showed Prince’s “Kiss” video (1986) to demonstrate what pure talent looks like. What a low-budget masterpiece that beautifully edited video is—nothing but dance, gesture, seductive rhythm, and witty warmth.

And then I showed a new discovery, a Patti LaBelle song from 1989 that I hadn’t heard in decades and had completely forgotten—“Yo Mister.”  I had no idea that Prince had written, produced, and played on that powerful song about a young girl dying of a drug overdose until I read it in the Daily Mail after his death. In the video, Patti is shown (like a deus ex machina on a Philadelphia balcony) condemning the girl’s hard-hearted father as he stonily walks away from her grave in the Louisiana countryside, where a New Orleans funeral march is performed. This song, with its complex church bell reverberation, suggests the serious, avant-garde direction that Prince’s later career could have taken but unfortunately did not.

As for Prince remaining in Minnesota instead of moving to New York or Los Angeles, I think that was a terrific decision on his part. His creative imagination was rich enough—and he had the resources to explore every aspect of the arts on his own. Because of stratospherically rising property costs, New York was no longer the mecca for daring and impoverished young artists that it had been up to the early 1970s. And as for Los Angeles, it has always been about show and status, a cosmos of perpetual anxiety. It was hardly the place for a sensitive soul like the reticent Prince, who preferred enigmatic silence to conversation with strangers. If Prince’s idea stream began to run thin toward the end, it was not due to Minnesota, with its exhilaratingly clear Canadian air, but to a waning in his own confidence and ambition.

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

MORE FROM Camille Paglia

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Camille Paglia Donald Trump Editor's Picks Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton Media Criticism Prince