Last month, Mitchell Sunderland*, former writer and editor for Vice’s feminist vertical Broadly, was exposed as a collaborator of the widely reviled alt-right blogger Milo Yiannopoulos. A massive BuzzFeed post on the behind-the-scenes practices of Breitbart revealed the two had jokingly conspired to troll feminist writer Lindy West. Vice would go on to quickly fire Sunderland and distance themselves from his behavior. Yiannopoulos and (perhaps less so) Sunderland (who had openly shared their friendship on social media for years prior to BuzzFeed’s expose) make the repeated mistake of conflating conservatism with camp, showing a complete misunderstanding of the sensibility of the latter. They might view themselves as edgy or at the vanguard of subversion, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Sunderland had written fawning praise of right-wing shock artists like Camille Paglia and Ann Coulter, going as far as calling the latter a gay icon and a camp symbol akin to Tara Reid. Yiannopoulos’ misinterpretation of camp is far more dangerous: He regularly appears at colleges in kitten heels and pearl necklaces, ready to out trans and undocumented students in the not-so-subtle hope of exposing them to potential, literal violence. The two seem to relish a kind of pseudo-transgression which positions them outside the realm of respectability; they seem to see their positions as a kind of in-your-face over-the-topness that they believe fits a certain trajectory of (white) homosexual intellectuality a la Oscar Wilde.
“The alt-right is so camp!” Yiannopoulos jokingly proclaimed on Facebook, noting the movement’s fondness for Taylor Swift. In his post on the subject, Yiannopoulos clearly wants to have it both ways: “Considering the alt-right’s fondness for your present correspondent, a less well-informed observer might be led to conclude that the movement is awash with sublimated camp and repressed homosexual urges. Alas—I guess?—not so,” writes Yiannopoulos. He goes on to explain the logic behind the neo-fascist obsession with Swift, tracing the faction’s fascination with her back to her Aryan looks and conservative aesthetic. But Yiannopoulos’ gesture toward gay sensibilities is winking, and it’s not hard to see the doublespeak inherent in his rhetoric. The ideology behind these kinds of political stylings are deeply insidious and deserves to be condemned with vehemence, especially as the most extreme factions of Republicanism continue to grab at national domination.
Let’s be clear here: Conservatism isn’t, never has been, and can never be considered camp. When Susan Sontag attempted to define the word, which had a colloquial usage in a variety of homosexual subcultures long before she came to it, she purposefully outlined a handful of delineations. Camp, she states, is a form of ironic appreciation—but without the venom of critique: “Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature,” writes Sontag, continuing:
It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.” . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling... Camp taste nourishes itself on the love that has gone into certain objects and personal styles.
The emphasis here is on love for a reason: love of art, ideas, people, and objects that are so bad they, somehow, are also kind of good.
Conservatism, by this definition, is outside the realm of camp. Especially now, conservatism is devoid of the joy, softness, kindness, and compassion necessary for something to be camp; every day, conservatives show their absolute lack of empathy and decency. Conservatism—especially in the forms posited by Yiannopoulos—poses a literal existential threat to many minorities, but even more so for the most vulnerable LGBTQ people, who are often (but not always) the arbiters of camp itself. How could a person show a tender love for individuals that would, quite literally, rather they be hanged than continue to exist?
It’s easy to see the similarities between the comical and occasionally melancholic glamour of old Hollywood starlets (the “vacancy behind the perfect beauty of Greta Garbo,” as Sontag describes) and the opulent superficiality of people like Melania or Ivanka Trump—whose garish tastes (hello, creepy clam Thanksgiving decoration) fly in the face of conventional decorum in ways that would be humorous if they weren’t actively working toward the demise of disenfranchised populations. There’s an obvious silliness inherent in Donald Trump’s obsession with gold-plated toilets. And, of course, the melodramatic self-righteousness of Tomi Lahren is a consistent source of comedy. But let’s just always make sure we’re laughing at and not with these villains: If we subsume these people into the same category as our beloved gay icons, we forget their actual destructive potential. We can’t let this happen.
Yiannopoulos and Mitchell’s years-long profiteering of conservatism-as-camp proves the slippage between the concepts can be financially rewarding and that there’s an appeal to this intellectual dishonesty, especially for a certain kind of white, cis gay man who may be immune to many of the violences this ideology perpetuates. The unfortunate thing about camp is that some people really just can’t tell the difference between what’s so-bad-it’s-good and what’s just plain bad.
*Full disclosure: I wrote one piece for Vice with Sunderland as editor in 2015.