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Look What You Made Me Do

On being compelled to write about Taylor Swift, Travis Kelce, and ‘psy ops.’

Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs celebrates with Taylor Swift after a 17-10 victory against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

I wanted to write about the Taylor Swift Panic. First of all, when am I going to find a plausible excuse to write about a pop star and football player again? Not exactly my “beat.” Second, as Nick Catoggio—who already dove in—hinted, it might annoy Steve Hayes. But the “story” has already advanced so far, pretty much everything that can be said about the basic, baseline idiocy of it all has already been said. 

But just to set the stage, let’s recap. Taylor Swift, if you haven’t heard, is very successful. It’s very weird to have to tell this to people, because this is known by even people like me who would be hard-pressed to name more than a handful of her songs. This is from Wikipedia:

A highly successful artist on multiple Billboard charts, Swift has been credited with pushing the boundaries of commercial success.[125][151] She ranks eighth on Greatest of All Time Artists—a Billboard list ranking music acts based on chart success—as the only 21st-century act in the top 15.[152] She is the longest-reigning act of the Billboard Artist 100 (90 weeks);[153] the soloist with the most cumulative weeks atop the Billboard 200 (68);[154] the woman with the most Billboard 200 number-ones (12),[155] Hot 100 entries (212),[156] Hot 100 top-10 entries (42),[157] and weeks atop the Top Country Albums chart (99);[158] and the act with the most Digital Songs number-ones (26),[159] the most number-one Pop Airplay songs (12),[160] and the longest song to top the Hot 100 (“All Too Well (10 Minute Version)”).[161] Swift is the first and only act to monopolize the Hot 100’s top 10 and place as the Billboard Year-End number-one artist in three different decades (2009, 2015 and 2023).[162][163]

Critics describe Swift’s commercial power as unrivaled, as her success is evenly distributed across streaming, pure album sales, and track sales.[2]

If you don’t believe Wikipedia, click on the footnotes for sources. If you don’t believe the sources, you, too, are qualified to host a right-wing “influencer” channel on YouTube or Rumble. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

The reason it’s weird that I have to tell you that Swift is successful is that a large number of people seem to think her success and popularity isn’t “organic.” 

If you didn’t know, “this isn’t organic” is the new hot term of art for saying that something has been orchestrated, artificially manufactured by hidden—but apparently also obvious—bad actors like the Department of Defense, George Soros, the Illuminati, Jews, etc. 

By the way, one masochistically fun pastime is to take any pressing controversy and type “Jews” into the Twitter search engine to see what you find. Did you know that people like Taylor Swift because the Jews told them to? Or that conservatives are making a stink about Swift to distract from the Jeffrey Epstein and “Jew tunnels” story? It works on pretty much any issue. Searching for “Jews” and “COVID” is like opening a portal to a demonic realm hiding in plain sight. More on that in a bit.

Specifically, Swift’s omnipresence in the media cannot be explained by the fact that she is a very popular, very attractive performer who is currently on the highest-grossing concert tour of all time. It can’t be because she’s dating a very popular and successful football player, Travis Kelce, who I am told has the ability to catch the attention of the female gaze on favorable terms. Indeed, the fact that she’s dating this football player is all part of the “psy op.” He supports taking the COVID vaccine, sheeple! 

The fact that she is attending his games and that the television cameras linger on this extremely popular and attractive international superstar can only be explained as part of some sinister scheme to “build up” Swift to make her inevitable endorsement of Joe Biden all the more powerful. After all, never before has a television network pointed out celebrities in the stands, courtside seats, or skyboxes of a sporting event. Think people, think. There are no coincidences! 

By now it should be obvious that I think all of this is so incandescently idiotic, so profoundly moronic, that … well, words escape me. Everything about it is stupid. It’s stupid on the “merits”—the scare quotes are necessary because there are no merits. It’s stupid politically in every regard. I don’t think a Swift endorsement would matter very much. But all of this performative ass-clownery means her inevitable endorsement will matter more, and to Biden’s benefit. 

To the extent there’s any concrete political strategy behind any of this, it seems to be an effort to intimidate Swift out of endorsing Biden. Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade and Sean Hannity have both warned Swift to, in Hannity’s words, “think twice” about endorsing Biden. “It would be the single dumbest thing a mega superstar could ever do,” Kilmeade says. “Why would you tell half the country you don’t agree with them in this highly polarized time? You stay out of it!”

Now, I generally agree that it would be better if entertainers stayed out of politics. After all, we’re in this current mess in large part because a reality show star was treated like a political messiah by the likes of Kilmeade and Hannity for years. But getting your panties in a knot about her endorsement serves only to guarantee the endorsement will get vastly more coverage than it otherwise would. It’s an exercise in the Streisand Effect on a massive scale. I mean, do you remember where you were when you heard that Swift endorsed Biden in 2020? I doubt it. Will her endorsement in 2024 be more memorable? Obviously so, thanks to the tsunami of crazy washing across America. 

Indeed, now that so many of these people have invested in this sweeping and grandiosely insipid conspiracy theory they’ll be obliged to scream “The PSY OP IS HAPPENING!” at the top of their lungs which will be a pas-de-deux of idiocy because it will not only amplify her endorsement, it will also amplify the message that right-wingers are completely out of their gourds. 

So why is so much of the right unhinged about all of this? There are a number of theories. Ross Douthat has a good one. He basically argues that the right overlearned the lessons of 2016, internalizing the idea that you can throw aside all of the old rules and categories for political benefit. Secondly, that a posture of constant “destabilization” of the normal is a kind of new normal. I agree with that. 

But I also think Erick Erickson makes a good case that it’s all grifting. Read the whole thing, but here’s the gist:

It is not a coincidence that many of them are “social media influencers” or “social media experts.” They want to show donors and political campaigns how they can make things viral and generate buzz. They don’t care that you’re mocking them. They don’t show that. They show how they trended. They show how they made a topic go viral. Damn the consequences…. They care about money and the grift, the consequences be damned. Also, they are hyper-online. Their entire identities and personas are online. They haven’t touched grass in eons. They have confused the online for reality. They are also deeply unserious people who know they’d be nothing if they turned their computers off and entered the real world.

McCay Coppins has a related take:

An important thing to understand about this new generation of Trump-era conservative media personalities is that they are, by and large, enormous nerds. Their main hobbies are politics and making internet memes, and they only really engage with regular-people stuff—football, pop music—in search of ways to weaponize them in the culture war. (Conservatives used to make fun of scoldy, moralizing millennial liberals for doing this—now they’re just mirror images.)

In the Dispatch Slack chat, a colleague pushed back on the it’s-all-a-grift theory arguing that some conservatives “need to believe that the ‘psy op’ stuff is just a grift because the alternative, that a bloc of their party is now actually this crazy, makes it harder for them to keep voting GOP.”

Another theory, again related to many of these others, is that some folks in the Trump universe think that Trump is the linchpin of a new normal. In the grand tradition of fish not knowing they’re wet, they think that their support of Trump is wholly rational and, even, as David Limbaugh (and folks like Larry Kudlow and Hugh Hewitt) put it, simply policy-driven. In this worldview, intense opposition to Trump’s new normal— within the GOP or, when he is president—is irrational. Hence people like Newsmax anchor and Trump-worshiper Greg Kelly can, with a straight face, warn against the soul-corrupting effects of “idolatry” when it comes to Taylor Swift. “If you look it up in the Bible, it’s a sin!” (Kelly defended Trump’s call to terminate the Constitution, saying “he’s the victim here.”). If reports are true, Trump is upset that people don’t realize that he’s more popular than Swift. Whether you think this is true or not is irrelevant. People deep in the cult of Trump probably think it’s true, and they certainly want Trump to think they think it’s true. Which is why they’re game to launch a “holy war” against Swift, the false idol. 

So we have several overlapping theories: This is all a very stupid effort to help Trump. This is all a very creepy way to suck up to Trump. This is all cynical money-and-click grubbing that is only incidental to Trump. The very online right is crazy. The very online right isn’t necessarily crazy, but given the incentives of their absurd bubble-ecosystem, they don’t understand how idiotic they sound because their audiences are rewarding them for the stupid. 

If we were to do a Venn diagram of all these theories you might find at the center Benny Johnson:

So here’s my view: All of the theories are true. Some theories more fully explain individual actors better than others. But all of them are accurate to a significant degree. 

I’d just add one more big picture explanation: Big chunks of the right increasingly operate the way the new left radicals and various flavors of hippies—and yippies!—did in the 1960s. Drunk on radical opposition to the status quo, every institution that stood in their way was “in on it.” The deep state is for today’s New Right jabronies what COINTELPRO and MKULTRA were for the new left of the 1960s and ‘70s (though they could at least cite some evidence about COINTELPRO and MKULTRA to back up their paranoia). It was a diverse cultural phenomenon with different factions and facets. On the intellectual side thinkers like Noam Chomsky, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and later Michel Foucault, to name just a few, unspooled grand theories about the “system” being designed to keep the oppressed down (Adorno believed the way American-made windows and refrigerator doors closed was “Fascist” by design). The grandiosity of the theories was so capacious that everything you didn’t like could be lumped into an indictment of The Man, the System, or the Capitalist Ruling Class (or, duh, all three). 

At the lower, but not necessarily lowbrow, end of the spectrum were people like Mae Brussell, a newsletter publisher and radio show host known as the “Queen of Conspiracy.” The Alex Jones of her age, she’d spin out yarns about the fascists—imported from Nazi Germany—running America, how Jonestown was a CIA mind-control experiment gone awry. Charles Manson and Lee Harvey Oswald were both patsies, of course. Paul Krassner founded The Realist, a “social-political-religious criticism and satire” magazine. “The Realist’s great innovation,” writes Jesse Walker in his phenomenal book The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory, “was to refuse to label which articles were truthful and which were jokes, and sometimes to add just enough truth to a piece of fiction that readers would be left completely befuddled as to what, if anything, they should believe.” It was Krassner who introduced the (false!) claim that LBJ sexually penetrated the throat wound on JFK’s corpse. And all this leaves out all of the propaganda and “active measures” injected into the American left by the KGB, sometimes eagerly and knowlingly accepted, sometimes gulped up by useful idiots. 

This is just a small snapshot of the miasma of unreality and paranoia flung around sometimes for fun and profit, sometimes with deadly seriousness in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Yes, there were right-wing versions of this stuff too, the Birchers just being the most famous examples. But that’s evidence for my point. Back then, the most common conspiracy theories on the right involved a foreign power subverting America. (And, again, there was some evidence of that!) Since 2016, the left has been making Bircher-like arguments about Russian conspiracies, while the right has adopted the old left’s view that America itself is the conspiracy. Big tech (minus red-pilled Elon), corporations—Pfizer Panic!—the media, the deep state, the FBI, DOD, the universities, the Biden regime, the electoral system, and now… the NFL! They’re all in on it. The New Right sounds like Dr. Johnny Fever talking about the “phone cops.” Except that was funny. Nutters like Mike Cernovich are deadly serious: 

In one sense this should be reassuring. In The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory, Walker makes a powerful case that paranoia and conspiricism (I declare it a word), has always been a part of American culture, not just on the fringe but in the “center” too. But there are three reasons why it’s not reassuring. First, modern media makes easily accessible what used to get passed around as samizdat among the kooky and the quirky. Every kid in America is a couple clicks away from a video or tweet about the moon landing being fake and the COVID vaccine containing tracker chips or causing people to turn into Bluetooth devices

Second, even if you think it’s all a joke, some jokes corrupt the soul and the psyche. Just as I’ve argued (via Yuval Levin) that cynicism is very hard to maintain, so is fake paranoia. You can handle this stuff with rubber gloves for a while, but eventually the poison gets into your system. That’s what happened to Krassner. He peddled this stuff for so long he succumbed to a paranoia-induced breakdown. You may think it’s all a joke or a grift or a clever strategy for helping your team, for a while. But eventually if you make a living throwing garbage into the abyss, the abyss throws garbage back into you. That’s what I was getting at with the stuff about playing games with antisemitism—ultimately antisemitism games you. 

Last and relatedly, conservatism can survive when it’s concerned—even wildly overconcerned—about foreign threats and conspiracies. It cannot endure and still be called conservatism if it is openly, wildly, and insanely committed to the idea that our country is one vast conspiracy. A conservatism suffering from America derangement syndrome is no longer conservative. 

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.