Camille Paglia is a national treasure and a very mixed bag. She’s almost comically bad on politics, but as an analyst of aesthetics she is one of our best, and at one time maybe the best pop writer on the subject. In her essay today at that dopey web site with which she has long been associated, she remarks on the “fearless candor” of Donald Trump, which is of course exactly wrong: Far from being candid, Trump lies about practically everything; far from fearless, he is so insecure that he feels the need to overstate his wealth, his real-estate holdings, his payroll, the size of his hands.
But she is correct about the power of his theatrical performance.
She is also, unhappily, exactly right about Ted Cruz’s stage presence:
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.
I mean that she is correct about the impression Cruz sometimes gives, not about the substance. The substance of Ted Cruz is his constitutional scholarship, his quick mind, and his deep patriotism. The substance of Donald Trump is some sort of howling psychosis playing itself out in public for ends that Sigmund Freud himself would hesitate to consider.
The problem is that voters are not reliably all that good at distinguishing impressions from substance. Camille Paglia is a scholar of surfaces. Let us hope that the electorate is not entirely out of its depth.