Zap! If momentum were a surge of electromagnetic energy, Donald Trump against all odds has it now. The appalled GOP voters he is losing seem overwhelmed in number by independents and crossover Democrats increasingly attracted by his bumptious, raucous, smash-the-cucumber-frames style. While it’s both riveting and exhilarating to watch a fossilized American political party being blown up and remade, it’s also highly worrisome that a man with no prior political experience and little perceptible patience for serious study seems on a fast track to the White House. In a powder-keg world, erratic impulsiveness is far down the list of optimal presidential traits.
But the Democratic strategists who prophesy a Hillary landslide over Trump are blowing smoke. Hillary is a stodgily predictable product of the voluminous briefing books handed to her by a vast palace staff of researchers and pollsters—a staggeringly expensive luxury not enjoyed by her frugal, unmaterialistic opponent, Bernie Sanders (my candidate). Trump, in contrast, is his own publicist, a quick-draw scrapper and go-for-the-jugular brawler. He is a master of the unexpected (as the Egyptian commander Achillas calls Julius Caesar in the Liz Taylor Cleopatra). The massive size of Hillary’s imperialist operation makes her seem slow and heavy. Trump is like a raffish buccaneer, leaping about the rigging like the breezy Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn, while Hillary is the stiff, sequestered admiral of a bullion-laden armada of Spanish galleons, a low-in-the-water easy mark as they creak and sway amid the rolling swells.
The drums had been beating for weeks about a major New York Times expose in the works that would demolish Trump once and for all by revealing his sordid lifetime of misogyny. When it finally appeared as a splashy front-page story this past Sunday (originally titled “Crossing the Line: Trump’s Private Conduct with Women”), I was off in the woods pursuing my Native American research. On Monday, after seeing countless exultant references to this virtuoso takedown, I finally read the article—and laughed out loud throughout. Can there be any finer demonstration of the insularity and mediocrity of today’s Manhattan prestige media? Wow, millionaire workaholic Donald Trump chased young, beautiful, willing women and liked to boast about it. Jail him now! Meanwhile, the New York Times remains mute about Bill Clinton’s long record of crude groping and grosser assaults—not one example of which could be found to taint Trump.
Blame for this fiasco falls squarely upon the New York Times editors who delegated to two far too young journalists, Michael Barbaro and Megan Twohey, the complex task of probing the glitzy, exhibitionistic world of late-twentieth-century beauty pageants, gambling casinos, strip clubs, and luxury resorts. Neither Barbaro, a 2002 graduate of Yale, nor Twohey, a 1998 graduate of Georgetown University, had any frame of reference for sexual analysis aside from the rote political correctness that has saturated elite American campuses for nearly 40 years. Their prim, priggish formulations in this awkwardly disconnected article demonstrate the embarrassing lack of sophistication that passes for theoretical expertise among their over-paid and under-educated professors.
When I saw the reporters’ defensive interview on Monday with CNN anchors Kate Bolduan and John Berman, I felt sorry for the earnest, owlish Barbaro, who seems like a nice fellow who has simply wandered out of his depth. But Twohey, with her snippy, bright and shiny careerism, took a page from the slippery Hillary playbook in the way she blatheringly evaded any direct answer to a pointed question about how Rowanne Brewer Lane’s pleasantly flirtatious first meeting with Trump at a crowded 1990 pool party at Mar-a-Lago ended up being called “a debasing face-to-face encounter” in the Times. The hidden agenda of advocacy journalism has rarely been caught so red-handed.
The supreme irony of the Times’ vacuous coverage is that the early 1990s banquet-hall photograph of the unmarried Rowanne Brewer and Donald Trump illustrating it is the sexiest picture published in the mainstream media in years. Not since Melissa Forde’s brilliant 2012 Instagram portraits of a pensive Rihanna smoking a cigarillo as she lounged half-nude in a fur-trimmed parka next to a fireplace have I seen anything so charismatically sensual.
Small and blurry in the print edition, the Brewer-Trump photo in online digital format positively pops with you-are-there luminosity. Her midnight-blue evening dress opulently cradling her bare shoulders, Rowanne is all flowing, glossy hair, ample, cascading bosom, and radiant, lushly crimson Rita Hayworth smile. The hovering Trump, bedecked with the phallic tongue of a violet Celtic floral tie, is in Viking mode, looking like a triumphant dragon on the thrusting prow of a long boat. “To the victor belong the spoils!” I said to myself in admiration, as seductive images from Babylon to Paris flashed through my mind. Yes, here is all the sizzling glory of hormonal sex differentiation, which the grim commissars of campus gender studies will never wipe out!
Hey, none of this should make Trump president. But I applaud this accidental contribution by the blundering New York Times to the visual archive of modern sex. We’ve been in a long, dry-gulch period of dully politicized sex, which is now sputtering out into round-the-clock crusades for transgender bathrooms—knuckle-rapping morality repackaged as hygiene. An entire generation has been born and raised since the last big epiphany of molten on-screen sexuality—Sharon Stone’s epochal and ravishingly enigmatic performance in Basic Instinct (1992). Maybe we need Trump the movie mogul most of all. Forget all that Capitol Hill and Foggy Bottom tsuris—let’s steer Trump to Hollywood!
This was a minor point in your essay on “Free Speech and the Modern Campus,” but your comments on the National Museum of the American Indian really struck a chord with me, and I wanted to thank you, since I never saw any appropriately awful reviews.
I visited not long after it opened, in anticipation of seeing an organized, well-structured tour through the cultures, languages, and religions that we have lost (the Smithsonian does a good job in other places!). Obviously, there was nothing but happy talk about how man and nature used to live in harmony, not a word wasted on the linguistic diversity that was lost in North America since 1600, and absolutely no thematic organization across the museum. I had the distinct impression that the curators thought that putting together a coherent program would have been one final, intolerable act of cultural imperialism!
How could you take such amazing ingredients and produce something so tasteless? It was like going to a nice restaurant in anticipation of a wonderful steak dinner and being served a picture of parsley. What a waste!
Assistant Professor, School of Computer Science
Carnegie Mellon University
I totally agree with you! As I said last month in the free speech lecture at Drexel University that you refer to, the beautifully designed National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. has been shockingly furnished like a tacky gift shop, devoid of scholarly substance and clarity of presentation. This is a major scandal that demonstrates the failure of parochial identity politics, which has so distorted American education and directly led to today’s plague of campus political correctness.
In the 1970s, when women’s studies, African-American studies, and Native American studies were hastily added to the curriculum by administrators under public relations pressure, those new programs were not coherently planned or structured in scholarly terms, so they became instantly vulnerable to highly politicized ideology that has limited their wider cultural impact over time. The tragic emptiness of the National Museum of the American Indian (whose major draw seems to be its multi-ethnic cafeteria) is one result of the ghettoization of Native American studies, which should have been incorporated into the broader, well-established fields of world anthropology and archaeology.
For the past eight years, I have been pursuing my own independent research into Native American history and culture. My focus is on the religious vision of Native Americans in the Northeastern U.S. at the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago. (I spoke a little about this project during my conversation with Tyler Cowen last month at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.) It was while I was writing my art book, Glittering Images (released in 2012), that I suddenly started noticing eroded modifications of the landscape in the Philadelphia area that were clearly the ancient legacy of Native Americans. I am particularly interested in stone sculpture, large and small, although I am also intrigued by the stone tools (awls, scrapers, choppers, and still razor-sharp knives) deftly shaped to fit the hand.
Once I began investigating (both in the library and in the field), I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what Native Americans have left here in plain sight. It is certainly my background as a lifelong student of world art that has enabled me to detect what so many others have missed. I make constant discoveries in forests and farm fields, on river banks, at construction sites, and even at the edges of shopping malls, where bulldozers disturbed the soil. I consider this work probably the most important thing I have ever done—rescuing, identifying, and preserving the fragments of a vanished culture that was once everywhere around us.
I have everything you have ever published and listen to your interviews endlessly. Not many can educate and entertain at the same time. I believe you were writing for my generation. I am a 33- year-old Irishman, living in Japan. I am in a position where I can look at Western culture from a distance and can see that your prophetic visions have come to pass, namely on campuses in the ridiculous "safe spaces" movement as a result of the poison of post-structuralism that has ruined an entire younger generation.
But I want to talk about Madonna.
You have commented in the past that 'late-phase' Madonna is in the dumps and has tarnished her own legacy. While I can see what you mean, I would like to ask if you could take another look and see if anything she has done in her later period has had any merit.
Her crucifixion on a mirrored cross, while wearing a Jean-Paul Gaultier crown of thorns in 2006, for example, is a highlight for me. How about you?
Thank you so much for your kind words! About Madonna—alas, given my generational perspective, I’m afraid there is little way I can view her career except in terms of decline and fall. The electrifying impact of her gorgeous early videos like “Burnin’ Up” (1983) and “Open Your Heart” (1987) would be a hard act to follow for any performer. Madonna’s great period was 1984-92, culminating in “Vogue” (1990) a dazzlingly dynamic video that remains a major work of art. Painful signs of imaginative slackness start with the silly, messy video for “Deeper and Deeper” (1992), a magnificent song that deserved better.
Except for her collaboration with British electronica producer William Orbit in the late 1990s, there is little evidence that Madonna has broadened or deepened herself artistically over the intervening decades. Part of this was surely due to the stultifying isolation that inevitably comes with great fame and wealth. As a dancer, Madonna needed to mingle on a regular basis in small clubs, where she could absorb new rhythms and production techniques and stay at the cutting edge. But that adventurous, serendipitous life style is impossible for superstars of her magnitude. Her presence inevitably changes any social context she enters.
The cultural explosiveness of Madonna’s early period came from her instinctive violation of taboos, which she intimately understood from her strict Italian Roman Catholic upbringing. But by the 1990s, the world had become Madonnified through the victory of insurgent pro-sex feminism, which she had inspired and emboldened. Madonna’s cardinal error was her failure to recognize that change and to adjust her persona and goals accordingly, the way her great role model, the ultra-sophisticated Marlene Dietrich, had done. But Madonna went blindly, doggedly on, still marketing herself as a taboo-breaker when there were no more taboos to break.
By the time she got to the mirrored crucifix on her 2006 Confessions Tour, I’m afraid the reaction of most people outside her fervent fan base was a big yawn. I assumed at the time that the crucifix (which I have seen only in photos and video clips) was inspired by Salvador Dali’s 1954 oil painting, “Corpus Hypercubus,” later called “Crucifixion.” But its geometric pattern of little squares reminded me of bathroom tiles, so I couldn’t get over my impression that Madonna seemed to be taking a shower at a chic Caribbean resort.
Jean Paul Gaultier had of course been one of Madonna’s greatest designers, responsible for the notorious bullet bra of her 1990 Blond Ambition Tour. But I was completely mystified by the outfit Gaultier supplied for Madonna-on-the-Cross. “Biblical chic,” he called it—velvet cropped pants with an off-the-shoulder blouse. How dopey was that? Madonna looked underwhelming, and her appropriation of the crucifix and crown of thorns came off as a labored stunt with no poetic evocation of higher meaning.
The mirrored crucifix belonged in an expansive surreal video, not onstage with Madonna busily piping her shrill voice into an obtrusive mini-boom mic. There was no true inspiration in that tableau—only a groaningly over-calculated high concept. Madonna has always had the resources to continue her master genre of art videos, but she has poured her energy instead into the far more lucrative area of world tours. In terms of her artistic reputation and legacy, that has been a fatal mistake.
And of course we cannot avoid Madonna’s descent into bad soap opera over the past several years, as she has competed with her far more sensible daughter by over-sharing on Instagram and then over-exposing her son by broadcasting his pubescent travails to the world. Which brings us to what appears to be a total collapse of Madonna’s artistic eye, as she resists advancing age by inserting grotesque cheek cushions over her naturally superb bone structure and shoring up her sagging buttocks with cringe-making swirls of strapping.
Surely true blue Madonna fans had to weep at the terrible spectacle she made of herself on the red carpet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Gala in New York two weeks ago. Among the many hits and misses that night, there were some outstanding ensembles—I would point to Ciara, Willow Smith, Gigi Hadid, and even Katy Perry. Sarah Jessica Parker showed a daring ingenuity in her winsome Monse design, which was inspired by Hamilton and made her look like Cherubino in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. But Madonna, ostensibly dressed by Givenchy (Audrey Hepburn must have rolled in her grave), looked like Norma Desmond staggering out of a flea market. The horrors were too extensive to list, but one must cite the mummy-of-death acid-blonde fright wig and the off-kilter black duct tape slapped on those tired old nipples.
I suppose we can all pray for Madonna’s artistic salvation and resurrection. Yes, let’s do it! We’ll have an imaginary blast hosted by Auntie Mame and blessed by Gillian Holroyd (the mesmerizing Greenwich Village witch played by Kim Novak in Bell, Book, and Candle). As the old strip-club proprietor calls out to her at the end of the “Open Your Heart” video, “Ritorna, ritorna, Madonna! Abbiamo ancora bisogno di te”: “Come back, come back, Madonna! We still need you!”