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On the Taylor Swift “psy op.”

Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce celebrates with Taylor Swift after defeating the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game on January 28, 2024, in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

The difference between The Dispatch and every other publication in America is that our editors beg us not to find excuses to write about Taylor Swift.

We’re a sober source of political news and commentary, they reminded me this morning. We don’t chase shiny objects or seek to optimize our search engine results. We’re above such things.

That’s true. We are. But I am not.

Not yet, at least. When you spend 16 years, day and night, blogging every breaking news story that might conceivably be mentioned around an office watercooler, you develop a certain Pavlovian response to buzz. That response is slowly being conditioned out of me since joining the staff here, but an old dog takes time to learn new tricks.

Besides, Taylor Swift has become bona fide political news. Over the last 48 hours, she’s inspired new mental breakdowns among many right-wing influencers, and tracking the ongoing mental breakdown of the populist right is what this newsletter is all about.

For the blissfully ignorant: Swift’s new(ish) love interest, Travis Kelce, plays tight end for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. Led by star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs have become a dynasty over the last five years, winning the Super Bowl in 2020 and 2023 and making it there in 2021 before losing to the Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This latest campaign, however, was a down season by their own lofty standards: They won “only” 11 games and entered the playoffs having to win multiple times on the road to make it back to the Super Bowl. Some blamed Kelce’s mega-hyped romance with Swift as a distraction that had finally derailed the juggernaut.

But on Sunday, against the odds, the Chiefs beat the Baltimore Ravens in Baltimore to win another conference championship and return to the Super Bowl. Swift was there to watch, as she’s been for many of the team’s games this season, and congratulated her man with a hug and kiss on the field amid a media scrum following the game.

You might reasonably read all of that and think, “That’s cute” or, more likely, “Who cares?” My guess is you did not detect a complex, multi-industry conspiracy to reelect Joe Biden involving professional football, the media, the White House, and possibly the pharmaceutical industry.

But this is what separates credulous chumps like you and me from Republican presidential candidates.

We shouldn’t assume too much about broad right-wing sentiment from the most febrile musings of Vivek Ramaswamy, a man whose brand is built on being willing to go where lesser populists fear to tread. But Vivek isn’t the only influencer to smell something fishy about the Swift-Kelce relationship.

Fox News wondered recently whether Swift is a Pentagon asset and has offered guests a platform to beg viewers not to be swayed by her political opinions. An OAN host called the spectacle of her romance with Kelce “bread and circuses on steroids” and wondered if sports are a plot to prevent Americans from being more devoted to Jesus. Benny Johnson, affecting his best Tucker Carlson impersonation, did 41 minutes of commentary on his YouTube channel accusing Swift of being part of a “FED OP to RIG 2024 election for Biden.” Numerous figures with large audiences on social media, some with direct access to Donald Trump, also theorized darkly about an “op” involving her and her beau unfolding before our eyes.

One predicted that a Chiefs victory in the Super Bowl would lead to a second term for Biden, World War III, and ultimately millions of deaths. That person has 1.3 million Twitter followers.

The modern American right is a movement whose leader records songs with convicts who helped him try to stage a coup and in which QAnon devotees are encouraged by party chieftains to pursue leadership roles. And even by those standards, this latest nonsense is weird.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: If you want to understand modern politics, you’re better off consulting a psychologist than a pundit. But let’s do our best.

Wariness of Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce among Republicans isn’t weird. Independently of each other, they’ve positioned themselves against various elements of the right’s agenda.

Years ago, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began protesting police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem before NFL games, Kelce showed solidarity by doing so himself. Last year he helped Bud Light perform damage control by appearing in an ad for the brand after its promotion of trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney caused a backlash among conservatives. A few months after that, Kelce executed the equivalent of a nuclear culture-war strike when he appeared in a spot for (gasp) Pfizer inviting fans to get (gasp) the COVID vaccine.

Swift’s heresies are more straightforward. Since Trump came to power within the GOP, she’s been more outspoken about her preference for Democrats and endorsed Joe Biden in 2020. Having since become the biggest entertainment sensation on the planet, she’s now being courted by the White House for a second Biden endorsement with all the grassroots donor money and free media coverage that would entail, especially among younger adults. According to one poll, nearly 20 percent of Americans say they’d be more likely to back a candidate she supports.

She’s a figure of singular cultural influence, capable of staving off recessions by tapping the bottomless well of disposable cash Swifties are willing to pour into her endeavors. “That will be a tsunami that will be very difficult to thwart,” Charlie Kirk said this week of the possibility that Swift will endorse Biden. “We better be prepared.” It’s understandable that right-wingers would view her with fear and loathing with an election approaching.

What’s less understandable is the harebrained insistence on framing the Swift-Kelce relationship, and even the Chiefs’ return to the Super Bowl, as an “op.” Kansas City overperforming in the playoffs wasn’t unlikely; just the opposite, given the franchise’s track record. The media devoting saturation coverage to Swift’s every move isn’t surprising either. All they’re doing is trying to access the bottomless well I just mentioned. So why stoop to bizarre paranoia to explain what’s happening?

I think there are straightforward and somewhat less straightforward answers to that.

“The current yowls online about Swift and Kelce ‘infecting’ the NFL and the musing about it being a conspiracy to help Democrats in the fall are, in reality, thinly veiled bleats of fear about Trump’s standing with women,” Jeff Blehar theorized on Monday in a piece for National Review, noting Friday’s blockbuster judgment in the E. Jean Carroll defamation case. “The hatred that Trump’s most vocal ‘outside’ supporters have for the Swift phenomenon is a ghost of their own unsettled consciences, a twinge reaction to the realization that Trump is going to bleed these voters out. Perhaps it will comfort them to blame Taylor, rather than their own man’s behavior.”

He’s more charitable to hardcore Trump supporters than I would be in assuming that their consciences remain unsettled to a meaningful degree by what they’ve spent eight years condoning, but his theory that Swift is a scapegoat for MAGA anxiety about women’s leftward political drift since 2016 is shrewd. To borrow a point from yesterday’s newsletter, the first commandment of modern right-wing politics is that Trump is never to blame for his own problems. When he fails, it can only be because a cluster of corrupt interests aligned against him was too formidable and ruthless for even a man as great as him to overcome.

That’s why the Kelce-Swift relationship has to be an “op,” not just a cute dalliance between two pro-Biden liberals. If Taylor Swift’s endorsement is truly enough to swing an election against Trump, then he’s a feeble, pitiful candidate. But if that endorsement is part of a vast conspiracy involving the White House, the media, and the NFL, well, which mortal among us would stand a chance against such forces arrayed? Surely Trump can’t be blamed for defeat in that circumstance.

A more bottom-line explanation is that the lines between earnest paranoia, grifting for profit, and tribalist in-group signaling long ago blurred for Trumpy influencers into a broad seamless impulse toward maximalist conspiracy theorizing. The Swift-Kelce hype is a conspiracy because, if you work in Republican politics or media, everything that glorifies liberals is a conspiracy. That’s what the audience, safe inside its propaganda bubble, is constantly telling you so that’s what you’re obliged to affirm. All incentives, psychological, electoral, or financial, point toward that conclusion.

Many times in this newsletter we’ve puzzled over whether figures like Trump, Ramaswamy, and Mike Lee sincerely believe the nonsense they push or whether they do so cynically out of political self-interest. After eight years of constant feedback-loop reinforcement among the right’s influencers, I question how clear the distinction between cynicism and credulity remains. Trump may have begun the 2020 post-election period privately skeptical that the vote had been rigged but by the end he seemed to be in earnest. Ditto for Ramaswamy, whose interest in more outlandish conspiracy theories grew as his desperation to win over populists during this year’s presidential primary did.

Why should it surprise us that performers who relentlessly promote extreme paranoia as the proper frame for all political engagement might ultimately be poisoned by it themselves, like a drug dealer who got careless in handling fentanyl?

If you’re Benny Johnson or a writer at Gateway Pundit, you don’t need to care whether the Swift-Kelce romance truly is an “op.” All you need to know is that it’s in your interest to say so. Populist media reflects Trump’s own Orwellian approach to information: The “truth” isn’t what’s factual, it’s whatever serves one’s personal or political needs. And it serves the political needs of the MAGA base and those who make a living off of it to believe they’re forever being victimized by a coordinated “op” among sinister elites. 

That’s something you can mobilize against, and monetize. Headlines like “Popular singer and jock boyfriend support Biden” aren’t.

But I think this bizarre kerfuffle over Swift and Kelce is being propelled by other, less obvious factors, too. One is based on cultural insecurity, and the other has to do with the nature of Trump’s cult of personality.

Although the MAGA movement claims to be a tribune of The People, it’s countercultural in spirit. It’s a movement of rebels who nonetheless claim to speak for the majority. That’s not a strict contradiction in terms, as all strains of populism imagine that the levers of establishment power have been seized by an unrepresentative cabal bent on prioritizing its own interests over the people’s. But things can get confusing and tense when the “real America” of the right finds itself pitted against … real America.

That’s what’s happening in the Swift-Kelce episode. She’s the biggest celebrity on Earth; he’s a major star in the most popular sport in the U.S. “Real America” doesn’t like Taylor Swift or Travis Kelce but real America (including normie Republicans) does. That raises the very uncomfortable possibility for “real Americans” that they don’t represent real America after all.

That anxiety cuts to the heart of Trumpy politics. It’s the engine in the “rigged election” nonsense from 2020: It cannot be that a populist revolution backed by The People didn’t actually win the support of The People on Election Day. “Real America” wanted Trump, and “real America” is real America. All revanchist impulses within a movement that seeks to make America great “again” can be traced back to the insecurity of a political bloc that’s won the national popular vote exactly one time since 1988. The further real America drifts from what the GOP’s aging base pictures when it imagines “real America,” the more elaborate the coping mechanism accounting for that drift must become.

There’s nothing more all-American than the football hero and the most popular girl in school getting together. In “Real America,” though, that story isn’t supposed to end with joint support for a left-wing president. If it does, there must be an ulterior explanation.

The other factor behind the “op” inanity is best introduced by this clip, in which a network dedicated to exalting Donald Trump complains of, er, idolatry.

Trump isn’t the first modern president to enjoy messianic hype from supporters. Readers of a certain age will remember what Obama 2008 was like.

But the hard core of Trump’s right-wing base reliably approaches politics and cultural disputes unlike any faction I’ve ever seen. Calling them a “cult” is no throwaway insult: If a fundamentalist is someone who filters all information through the prism of a totalizing creed, many Trump devotees can fairly be called fundamentalists.

Their attitude toward him and his brand of populism resembles a right-wing mirror image of progressive identity politics, a colleague pointed out to me this morning. On the left, news developments are analyzed by asking the reductionist question, “What are the immutable characteristics of the respective parties?” With Trump fundamentalists, news developments are analyzed through the question, “Which of the respective parties knows ‘what time it is’?”

And so the Swift-Kelce hype, which has nothing to do with politics, becomes a dark fantasy about a conspiracy to defeat their favored candidate due to the mere possibility that Swift will eventually endorse the president. The word “idolatry” is well-chosen in context: For Trump fundamentalists (and perhaps for Trump himself), the fact that some other American—a liberal, even—may have eclipsed him in fame and political influence feels like collective worship of a false God

You can’t be a fundamentalist without shedding some of your humanity: By definition, a totalizing ideology makes it impossible to relate to other people as people. And so in hindsight it seems inevitable that a fundamentalist movement driven by resentment and envy of cultural elites would shed its humanity enough to bristle at the simple pleasure of a celebrity romance between two likable left-leaning American idols at the pinnacle of fame and success. 

And it’s not over yet. The Super Bowl is in two weeks. This will get worse before it gets better.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.