February 5, 2024
Attacks on the popular singer help highlight the sheer weirdness of Trump’s GOP.
Never underestimate the ability of the American right to promote outlandish lies. This is a lesson we’ve learned time and again in the 21st century, a pattern that includes the Bush administration’s fabulation of weapons of mass destruction that was deployed to sell the Iraq war, as well as the right-wing’s mainstreaming of climate change denial, QAnon conspiracy theories, and anti-vaxxing pseudo-science.
Taylor Swift, far and away the most popular musician in the world at this moment—who just won a record-breaking fourth Album of the Year Grammy last night—is the latest victim of the right’s propensity for passing off bizarre fictions as fact. This is not completely unexpected, since anti-Swift ire has for many months been on the rise on the right, particularly among former president Donald Trump’s supporters. Last October, when the anti-Swifties were merely frothing but not yet completely deranged, I wrote a column looking at the antipathy MAGA-heads had for the singer. I highlighted the fact that Swift is an avatar of female independence, prompting an allergic reaction among ideological misogynists.
But even as I took note of the coalescing anti-Swift Weltanschauung, I hadn’t realized how truly unhinged it would become. Over the last few weeks, the conspiracy theory has taken hold on the right that the current romance between Swift and Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (already unpopular on the right for his endorsement of vaccines) is a conspiracy to help steal the election from Donald Trump. This alleged plot against America is supposedly organized by some combination of the deep state and George Soros. The theory holds that the Super Bowl will be rigged so the Kansas City Chiefs win. Swift and Kelce will then reign as America’s most beloved couple, possibly on the path to marriage. They will then use their cultural clout to give Joe Biden a much-needed boost.
This idea has become pervasive in the right-wing media, including Fox News. Donald Trump and his staff are said to be privately fuming at Swift and planning retribution. Former presidential candidate and current Trump booster Vivek Ramaswamy gave a just-asking-questions endorsement of the theory last Monday tweeting:
I wonder who’s going to win the Super Bowl next month. And I wonder if there’s a major presidential endorsement coming from an artificially culturally propped-up couple this fall. Just some wild speculation over here, let’s see how it ages over the next 8 months.
This conspiracy theory is partly an example of how partisanship can poison the mind. Although largely apolitical for most of her career, in recent years Swift has become more vocal on a few issues: endorsing a Democrat in the 2018 Tennessee Senate race and Joe Biden in the 2020 election, encouraging her fans to register to vote, and speaking out on behalf of reproductive freedom as well as LGBTQ+ rights. Writing in Slate, Ben Mathis-Lilley notes, “The conspiratorial speculation does have a distant connection to political reality. The New York Times has reported that Biden’s campaign is hoping Swift will endorse him, as she did in 2020, and Rolling Stone reports that Trump advisers are discussing how to attack Swift.”
But all the positions that Swift takes mark her not as a radical but as a perfectly typical woman in her 30s (the singer is 34). It’s the typicality of Swift, rather than any putative radicalism, that makes her a target for the right. She is truly a generational voice, and that generation was in fact crucial for Biden’s victory in 2020.
As my Nation colleague Chris Lehmann rightly noted, the attacks on Swift echo the long history of reactionary scolds demonizing independent women, ranging from the flappers of the 1920s to the unmarried mothers of the 1990s (personified by the sitcom character Murphy Brown, subject of the bizarre fulminations of then–Vice President Dan Quayle).
Because Swift is the symbol of a generation, the hatred she now faces is more valuable to Joe Biden than any endorsement would be. Right-wingers’ fixation on Swift makes them look weird and creepy, like stalkers who have decided to obsess over a woman who doesn’t want their attention and barely knows they exist.
The stalker quality of anti-Swiftism is more apparent when we remember that before they started hating the singer many on the right were infatuated with her. As NPR reported in 2016, “Some white supremacists have anointed Taylor Swift an ‘Aryan goddess,’ claiming that she secretly espouses far-right beliefs and is waiting for Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency to make her true views known.”
Even more than the recent “Swift as deep-state agent” theory, the “Swift as Aryan goddess” theory had a remarkably thin factual basis: Swift is white and at that point was largely apolitical. This led many in the far right to imagine she was their secret girlfriend, a woman who would happily join them in a round of voicing ethnic slurs if they ever had the chance to meet her. Given this past, it’s hard not to see the recent turn against Swift as having an element of disappointment. Hell hath no fury like a Nazi spurned.
Writing in The New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat lamented that the Swift/Kelce conspiracy theories illustrate “the right’s abnormality problem.” Douthat acknowledges that while liberals may occasionally be odd, conservatism is vexed by the “inability to just be normal itself, even for a minute.” Douthat blames this problem on Trump, whose political success owes much to his eagerness in catering to wild and woolly conspiracy theories, writing, “An Echelon Insights poll from last summer found that what it called ‘Trump-first Republicans’ were more likely to be hostile to Swift, whereas more ‘party-first Republicans’ gave her the same broadly favorable ratings as the country as a whole.” This poll suggests that anti-Swift sentiment could be a useful wedge issue since it divides the hard-core Trump supporters from those who have a partisan identity as Republicans.
David French, Douthat’s colleague at The New York Times and also a Trump-skeptical conservative, makes a similar point about anti-Swift sentiment showing MAGA to be “dumb and strange.” French suggests:
If there’s any silver lining in this dark cloud, it’s that perhaps MAGA has finally revealed itself too fully. One can dream, but perhaps targeting the world’s most popular pop star can at last help expose what the nation’s political observers have long known: MAGA isn’t just deeply angry, it’s become deeply weird.
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As conservatives, neither Douthat nor French give salience to the gender dimensions of anti-Swift sentiment. But there’s no reason Democrats shouldn’t emphasize the misogyny behind the anti-Swift attack as a way of rallying female voters. Joe Biden is currently struggling in the polls but does better when the gender gap grows and women coalesce around his reelection bid. A recent NBC poll shows that while Biden lags behind Trump on many issues (including crime, the economy, and immigration) the Democratic contender has a clear advantage on abortion. On that issue, Biden leads 44 percent to 32 percent—a 12-point advantage.
It’s in Biden’s interest to expand the gender gap and make abortion the litmus test for this election. One way to do that is to elevate the crackpot conspiracy theories that show the Trump movement has an unwholesome obsession with a much-loved young woman who is the emblem of female independence and a strong supporter of reproductive freedom. If the GOP insists on acting like freaks, then Democrats should embrace the gift they have been given.
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