A Swiftian take on America’s cultural right

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If there is one global celebrity who reflects small-c conservative values better than Taylor Swift, I struggle to think who that may be. I am not that way inclined, though I fit the punchline of the joke on the definition of a cultural conservative: “A liberal with their daughter in high school.”

Like most adolescents, my daughter is a big Taylor Swift fan. Her only misgivings are related to the fact that I also enjoy her music. The fact that I like Swift — and can at will trigger paroxysms of embarrassment by breaking out into Swiftian caterwauling — implies there must be some flaw in her music. I earned reasonable parental credit, however, by taking my daughter to a Swift concert a few years ago. She is as commanding on stage as she is in the recording studio. One rare quality Swift has is that she does not teach girls to obsess about their sexuality. She is the ultimate non-twerking, non-profane, intelligently lyrical role model for girls in a culture that has long since incorporated the semiotics of the porn industry. Swift is the UnKardashian. I cannot think of a better compliment than that. This explains why she has a fan base in every demographic — regardless of age, race, gender or political affiliation. Which makes the conservative right’s decision to target her as a tool of the “deep state” drastically miscued, even by its standards.

I doubt there is a Swamp Notes reader who is not at least vaguely aware of what has inevitably been dubbed “Swiftgate”, which has dominated social media for the past few days. It is long past time to replace that suffix with “X-a-Lago”. Watergate happened nearly 20 years before Swift was born. Mar-a-Lago remains the scene of an ongoing investigation into alleged presidential crimes. Anyway, Swift-a-Lago offers a window into a tortured psychology — the mental space of the cultural right. This is a world in which a deep state cabal is socially engineering Americans to become Europeans. As we all know, people living across the Atlantic are an androgynous, snobby, promiscuous, state-employed branch of the species — fully paid for by the US. Swift is a dangerous tool of Europeanisation. The same goes for her boyfriend, Travis Kelce, the hulking American football star who plays for the Kansas City Chiefs, who also happens to be a proselytiser for Covid-19 vaccines. The deep state’s plan is to rig the 2024 Super Bowl so that Kelce plays a heroic role in the Chiefs’s victory over the San Francisco 49ers. Amid Kelce’s glory, the cameras will cut to an adoring Swift jumping up and down like an all-American cheerleader. Following the celebrations, Swift and Kelce will jointly endorse Joe Biden for president. The game will take place on February 11. Once again, Donald Trump will be the victim.

This fevered hallucination has been indulged on every conservative outlet, from Fox News to Breitbart. Aside from the fact that it is batshit crazy, it suffers from two flaws. First, as Swift might say, it is a blank space. The latest iteration of Swift conspiratorialism was last week’s Chiefs game against the Baltimore Ravens in which she was filmed giving a lingering, congratulatory kiss to her man. It was obvious to anyone with eyes in their head that this was the first act of a minutely choreographed manoeuvre that would culminate in Trump being cheated out of another presidential victory. That’s it. The other flaw is the Trekkie-like nerdishness of the cultural right. They outdo the most earnest postgraduate Marxist monologist in their belief that anything and everything can be politicised. Their obliviousness to the mindset of the median, relatively apolitical, low-information American voter is almost charming.

A peak example was a talk on Tuesday by Jack Posobiec, an alt-right pioneer, who popularised the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory in which the deep state was harvesting children’s blood in the basement of Washington DC’s Comet pizza joint. Posobiec is an open antisemite. He frequently used the so-called Fourteen Words code of “1488”. The two 8s correspond to two Hs in the alphabet for “Heil Hitler”. The 14 words are: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” The only thing that outdoes the scariness of Posobiec’s views are their unwitting funniness. He has the answer to Swift. “We have Kid Rock. We have Ted Nugent. We have influencers. We have all these people — Jon Voight,” Posobiec says. To Swampians born after Watergate, Rock and Nugent are ageing rock stars. Voight is an 85-year-old actor who thinks Trump was “the greatest president since Abraham Lincoln”. I concede that Voight was good in Midnight Cowboy, which came out in 1969 — the year after my birth. I can’t picture my daughter being swayed by his preferences.

The backdrop to Swift-a-Lago is the right’s worry about losing even more of the female vote. The gender gap between Trump and Biden in 2020 was acute and has only grown since. Biden won 57 per cent of women voters in the last election and two-thirds of women between the ages of 18 and 29, according to data from Edison Research. Swift-a-Lago strikes me as a highly eccentric way of fixing that. In the cultural right’s wildest dreams ordinary Americans will resist the corporate mind control and burn Swift’s merchandise. In practice, I think the right will come to regret this latest viral confection. Lauren, you are much younger than me and have your ear closer to the ground. Am I wrong in thinking that Swift-a-Lago is epically deranged? Or is the one of the funniest moments since Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator?

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  • My column this week warns that a Biden victory would be no miracle cure for Trumpism. “Each setback deepens the sense of betrayal that fuels the cult. Trumpism is not a programme for government. It is an anger against the world. Defeat merely confirms that dark forces are rigging the game.”

  • I strongly agree with my colleague, Martin Wolf, on Ukraine fatigue being unpardonable. As he points out, no western soldier is at risk, and the cost of supporting Ukraine amounts to just 0.25 per cent of the combined GDP of the UK, the US and the EU. “The argument that this is unaffordable is ridiculous,” he says.

  • Do also read CIA director Bill Burns’s essay in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs on how the US’s premier spy agency is trying to keep up with technology. It includes this super-troll of Vladimir Putin: “Disaffection with the war is continuing to gnaw away at the Russian leadership and the Russian people, beneath the thick surface of state propaganda and repression. That undercurrent of disaffection is creating a once-in-a-generation recruiting opportunity for the CIA. We’re not letting it go to waste.”

Lauren Fedor responds

Ed, I am not sure it is fair to say I am much younger than you, but I am about the same age as Taylor Swift, and have followed her career from the very beginning, back when my friends and I would belt out her wholesome country songs about teenage romance. Nearly two decades later, I share your admiration of Swift as an artist, and bewilderment at Swiftgate — and the apparent belief in some corners of the right that it is a good idea to pick a fight with the world’s most popular pop star while she gears up for another leg of the highest grossing concert tour of all time.

In September Trump was asked by a Daily Caller reporter about what he thought of the budding Swift-Kelce romance, and he replied rather graciously, saying: “I wish the best for both of them. I hope they enjoy their life, maybe together, maybe not . . . most likely not.” Now, according to Rolling Stone, Trump bristles at the idea that Swift may endorse Biden in this year’s presidential election, and has claimed he is “more popular” than the pop star, and his fans are “more committed”. Having been to my share of both Trump rallies and Swift concerts, I am not persuaded. 

One thing Trump might be right about, though, is that celebrity endorsements from Swift or anyone else cannot rescue the Biden campaign, which is grappling with the president’s especially dismal approval ratings among young voters. According to The New York Times, the Biden team is actively courting Swift, and even mulling the possibility of him joining her on stage when the Eras tour returns to the US this autumn.

Swift’s star power may be unparalleled — in the past, her Instagram posts alone have promoted surges in voter registrations — but other Democrats have learned the hard way that celebrity support will only take them so far. In the final stretch of the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton was joined on the stump by Jennifer Lopez, Jay-Z, Stevie Wonder and Katy Perry, among others — and we all remember how that election turned out.

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