Among The Swifties
Why the 'holy war' between Donald Trump and Taylor Swift is not as stupid as it seems
Did y’all hear that Donald Trump and his team have declared war on liberal Democrat lady Taylor Swift? True fack, Jack. I have zero interest in Swift, her music, or her politics, but I have enough sense to know that she is the most popular pop star on Planet Earth right now. Chances are the kind of people who would vote for Joe Biden because a pop star told them so are the kind of people who would vote Democratic anyway, but still … why do this? Why pick this fight, of all fights? I feel like the rest of this year is going to be a long series of We coulda had DeSantis moments.
It’s like that time when I was a kid, and we were yelling at Mama from the back seat to take us to McDonalds, and she said hush up, I can make just as good for y’all at home, and we got home, and she fried up a couple of beef patties, slapped them on slices of white bread with mayo and ketchup, and said, “See?”
(I think that’s from an Eddie Murphy routine from the 1980s, but I laughed so hard when I first heard it because this exact thing really had happened to us. I remember us passing that McDonalds on Airline Highway in Baton Rouge, and me in the backseat of her Ford LTD the color of lemon Swiss creme Maalox, and Mama up front just puffing away on that Marburra, and me being SO MAD because I knew it was a BIG FAT LIE that she could make the same at home, and anyway, what about the fries?!)
Anyway, Mary Harrington, nobody’s idea of a lib, explains why this might be a really stupid thing for the Right to do. She discussed the phenomenon of the “swarm,” defined as a “kind of high-intensity stampede” that Swifties, as the singers masses of fanatical female fans are called. Mass fandom has been a thing since the dawn of mass media (Rudolph Valentino used to draw fanatical female mobs), but the Internet has taken the phenomenon nuclear. Harrington explains that the Right has no idea what Swiftie swarms mean, or how to deal with them, which explains its frustration. Harrington:
But despite this ineptitude, they are going to have to learn. For while swarmism may be female-coded, not all swarms are female-dominated, and nor is the phenomenon likely to disappear any time soon. Arguably the American Right-winger who grasps this most instinctively is Donald Trump, who has sailed serenely through his party’s primaries without participating in a single debate — and who is nonetheless already being hailed as the likely next POTUS even by the Davos elite.
Wait, is she saying that Trump’s apparent stupid, embarrassing engagement of Swift actually might have some logic to it? Um, yeah, kind of:
Trump instinctively grasps internet demagoguery. But I can see how, for less adept conservative internet denizens, the femaleness of Swifties and Swift herself, plus women’s broader tilt away from Right-coded fandoms might make the emerging power of swarm politics look, in aggregate, like a sinister girly plot against the Right. So, when the stakes are this high, it’s probably too much to hope that anyone might see a successful young woman enjoying the third-stanza emotional gear-change in her own personal Love Story, wish her well, and leave it at that. For the swarm significance of Taylor Swift is simply too vast for her to be left in peace. No matter how resentfully the pre-internet Right may barrack her for it, the truth is that with or without her, the internet’s meme polities are not going back into their box.
This bodes ill for representative democracy on the pre-internet model. The emotional contagions of the networked world are transnational, near-instantaneous, and as emotionally changeable as adolescent girls, but with vastly greater power to affect policy or even take lives. But it also stands as a warning to the Right: future shots at power will stand or fall on conservatives’ willingness to make peace with the swarm.
Read it all — it’s a really smart piece, but oh so bleak, especially if you’ve read Elias Canetti’s great book Crowds And Power, or the (far more accessible) book that sent me to that one, Bill Buford’s brilliant Among The Thugs. Buford’s book is about his experience living in the UK in the 1980s, and wanting to understand the phenomenon of English soccer hooliganism. Though he was editor of a Cambridge literary magazine at the time, he began hanging out with working-class soccer hooligans, ingratiating himself with them, wanting to understand their world. He would go to matches with them, and allow himself to participate in their rioting, to get a sense of it from the inside. The book is terrific.
Buford focuses on the way being part of a crowd gives one a sense of liberation from the self, and of purpose, that can be narcotic. Here he quotes Canetti, a Jewish writer in the German language, recalling in the 1970s a riot in Vienna almost fifty years earlier. Workers there burned down the Palace of Justice to protest the acquittal of accused murderers of workers. Canetti participated in the action, and says that even half a century later,
the excitement of that day still lies in my bones. It was the closest thing to a revolution that I had physical experienced. A hundred pages would not suffice to describe what I saw. Since then, I have known very precisely that I need not read a single word about what happened during the storming of the Bastille. I became a part of the crowd, I dissolved into it fully, I did not feel the least resistance to what it did. I am surprised that I was nevertheless able to grasp all the concrete details occurring before my eyes.
Here is Buford himself, reflecting on what he learned about crowd dynamics by watching a thug leader he calls “Mutton Chops” at work:
A crowd can never be formed against its will, and it is the great fallacy about the crowd that it can be: this is the leadership fallacy, the rabble-ready-to-be-roused theory. A crowd needs leading and uses leaders, but comes into existence by a series of essential choices made by its members. Mutton Chops may have proffered himself as a leader, but it would be for the crowd to decide. Or put another way: a crowd creates the leaders who create the crowd.
This is interesting. It says that we cannot entirely blame Donald Trump, Taylor Swift, or any other “leader” who holds sway over a crowd; the crowd’s latent desire for someone to create them manifested in those individual figures being propelled to leadership. Don’t misread Buford here; he’s not absolving crowd leaders of their actions. But he’s trying to get us to understand that it’s not right to say, for example, that Hitler talked all the Germans into murdering European Jewry and making war on Europe. There was something inside the German body politic that called forth a Hitler from the masses.
I think we can easily see how there was something already present in the American body politic in 2016 that settled on the incredibly unlikely figure of Donald Trump as its embodiment. To mock this is to misunderstand, even dangerously, what’s going on. I’ve said before that it took this January 2016 Politico essay by Tucker Carlson for me (“Donald Trump Is Shocking, Vulgar, and Right”) to take Trump seriously as a political force. Trump would not have found a balcony if there weren’t a crowd already gathered below, waiting for someone to come out and speak to them.
I’ve never been to a Trump rally, but I recall a few years ago reading something by a journalist, can’t remember who, saying that the surprising thing about them is how widespread the sense of good feeling is. I had this idea, I suppose taken from media reporting, that they were occasions of menace. But this reporter, who went to there thinking the same thing, was surprised to find the opposite. Gosh, I wish I could remember where I read that. What I recall was her saying that people were actually pretty nice, and seemed to be enjoying each other, and even more or less in on the joke (meaning, when Trump said things that set the libs’ collective hair on fire, he was enjoying this teasing effect). That piece made me think about how the kind of people who go to Trump rallies are pretty much the kind of people looked down on by elite media and popular culture, and whose passions — including the way they loved the country — were routinely mocked as hokey, or worse. It made them feel good to be standing in front of a charismatic leader who told them, “I agree with you, I share your experiences, and I’m not ashamed of it.”
I watched the clip of the 2008 Swift song “Love Story” that Harrington mentions in her essay. This might have been the first Taylor Swift video I’ve ever seen. Harrington said of the song:
It’s hugely satisfying, emotionally powerful — and, in a way Swift has always instinctively grasped, it’s a story drawn straight from the collective female unconscious.
Boy, is this ever true. In it, Swift retells the story of Romeo and Juliet as a tale of high school true love. I wasn’t prepared for how powerful this pop song is. It made me understand in a way I don’t think I ever have why Shakespeare’s play has so much enduring resonance. Taylor Swift captures the intensity of a teenage girl’s longing for a Romeo with startling deftness and emotional punch. To put it in Buford’s terms: there was a huge crowd of young females who shared a common emotional experience (“the collective female unconscious”) that settled on Taylor Swift, a supremely gifted creator of pop songs, as their leader. Taylor Swift played her role, of course, but Buford would say that Swift was summoned by the latency within the crowd that would later become Swifties.
Here is Buford reflecting on the experience of violence:
Violence is one of the most intensely lived experiences and, for those capable of giving themselves over to it, is one of the most intense pleasures. There on the streets of Fulham, I felt, as the group passed over its metaphorical cliff, that I had literally become weightless. I had abandoned gravity, was greater than it, I felt myself to be hovering above myself, capable of perceiving everything in slow motion and overwhelming detail. I realized I realized later that I was on a druggy high, in a state of adrenaline euphoria. And for the first time I am able to understand the words they use to describe it. That crowd violence was their drug.
What was it like for me? An experience of absolute completeness.
Remember that Bill Buford is a man of culture and learning talking about being part of a group of rioting hooligans — and having an experience of absolute completeness. He’s talking about the liberating pleasure of ego death. Me, I’ve only ever experienced something at the far edge of that. I think about getting drunk in college so I could overcome my morbid self-consciousness and talk to girls. That wasn’t “an experience of absolute completeness,” but it was a chemically-induced liberation from the constant reminder of Self. (Interestingly, people who are learning a foreign language typically find that they can speak it better when they’re slightly drunk; the alcohol turns off their tension over the possible mistakes they’re making, and they just surrender to their instincts, which are better than they realize.)
The only time I’ve ever had that experience as part of a crowd was at the U2 concert in Baton Rouge on Thanksgiving Day 1987, on their Joshua Tree tour. I had never been to a U2 concert, and in fact never to a big concert of a band I liked as much as I liked U2. The whole thing felt like some kind of liturgy, and then at the end, when they finished with “40” — I had not known that this was standard — and the entire crowd sang along with Bono … man, I can’t say that like Canetti at the riot, “I dissolved fully” into the crowd, but it’s the closest I have ever come. And it felt so good that here I am today, almost forty years later, on the other side of the ocean, recalling that feeling.
And, in so doing, I can imagine more easily how someone who is able to give a crowd that kind of feeling can use it for political purposes. Bono eventually became a real progressive nag (decades later, being in the crowd at a U2 show in Philadelphia, I rolled by eyes when Bono insisted that we all sing “Happy Birthday” to Nelson Mandela, whom he called by the familiar name “Madiba”). But by then — this was 2010 or 2011 — I was well past the age when I would have looked to a pop star for political guidance. Had Bono been such a politico back in 1987, when I was twenty, I almost certainly would have been more susceptible.
One more quote from Buford’s book. Here, near the end, he talks about being in Italy when a group of English soccer hooligans went off. He’s observing them as they begin to chant England …. England … England … England. Buford writes:
It was such a simple but enormous thought: these fools, despised at home, ridiculed in the press, incapable of being contained by any act of impulsive legislation that the government had devised, wanted an England to defend. They didn’t want Europe; they didn’t understand Europe and didn’t want to. They wanted a war. They wanted a nation to belong to and fight for, even if the fight was this absurd piece of street theater with the local Italian police.
Reading that, do you understand MAGA, even just a little bit? The people who respond to MAGA are not soccer hooligans, but they share the experience of being despised by their social betters and ridiculed in the press. They remember what it was like when America was stronger, and we all felt like we belonged together, and to something higher than ourselves — and they want it back, even if experiencing that feeling requires submitting to an absurd piece of stadium theater with a loudmouth real estate developer from Queens.
You can laugh at that, but it’s the kind of thing that Mary Harrington is talking about: the way leaders (political and otherwise) can mobilize vast crowds in an age of mass media by articulating and embodying powerful feelings within them individually and collectively. Harrington is right to worry about what this means for democratic politics, but there is not a lot we can do about it, is there?
Think about it: if Joe Biden is re-elected, it won’t be because of anything Biden has done. It will be because Trump is unique in his ability to simultaneously mobilize and polarize. It will be mostly because more people fear and loathe Trump than love him (or at least don’t fear him as much as they fear a Biden second term). It has been deeply frustrating for conservatives like me to watch as the GOP masses rejected the relatively uncharismatic Ron DeSantis, a governor of proven effectiveness and one who has stood outside of the GOP Establishment ring now occupied by Nikki Haley, in favor of Trump. DeSantis as the Republican nominee would have occasioned a landslide, most likely. But GOP primary voters aren’t voting with their heads. They’re voting with their hearts. They’re voting for the experience Trump gives them of completeness. I know a lot of people who voted for Obama felt the same thing. I did not vote for Obama either time, for reasons of political principle, but I recall wishing I could participate in that surge of good feeling so many Americans who did had.
People who are in thrall to leaders like that — “in thrall,” as opposed to merely supporting them — cannot seem to grasp that anybody could in good conscience refuse to share their enthusiasm. They are sure that you must suffer from “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” or are “racist” (Obama) or “can’t tolerate a strong woman” (Hillary Clinton, whose fanatical fan base was infinitesimal compared to Trump and Obama’s, but who were disproportionately based in the media). In this sense, the experience of political partisanship is more like a religion. The leader cannot fail, he or she can only be failed by those of little faith.
I don’t think Taylor Swift asked for any of this. On politics, she seems to hold the views that normie unmarried white liberal women of her age do. And as far as I can tell, she’s not really a political person. Nevertheless, as Mary Harrington explains, she is a political figure whether she wants to be or not. She has power, because so many people identify with her, and are willing to act on that identification.
Taylor Swift and Donald Trump are both enchanters. In my forthcoming book, I explain how the experience we call “enchantment” is one in which we become conscious of feeling that we have a foot in two worlds: this one, and one that transcends this one. It can’t be enchanting if we can’t relate to a phenomenon. A middle-aged conservative dude like me is not a likely candidate for being enchanted by Taylor Swift. There has to be some real possibility of deep connection.
And it can’t be enchanting if we can control the phenomenon. If we bound the phenomenon with rationality, it loses its ability to enchant. I can give you the reasons why I will vote for this or that political figure, but that’s not the same thing as enchantment. The person, place, or thing we regard as enchanting has to serve as a kind of portal into transcendence.
This is what a symbol is: an object (which can be a creed; in Orthodoxy, we call the Nicene Creed the “Symbol of Faith”) that brings together what was scattered, and also serves as a bridge between this world and the unseen world. This does not have to be strictly religious! Taylor Swift embodies the female psychological and emotional experience, and gives her fans the feeling of being in it together, and in some way going through that experience to get to a place of completeness beyond that experience.
Why is it that Bill Buford felt “absolute completeness” as part of a rioting gang of soccer hooligans? What business did an educated liberal man like Buford have hanging out with these thugs, much less identifying with them? That Buford did so — and really, I cannot recommend his book strongly enough — tells us something important about the fragility and porosity of our boundaries. Think of Elias Canetti, a thoroughly cosmopolitan man who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in literature, being drawn as a young man to join a mob that burned down the Palace of Justice, and being so imprinted by the memory that it stayed fresh nearly half a century later.
You know, I can remember as a young teenager watching the Billy Graham Crusades on TV, during my brief phase when I was interested in Evangelicalism, and knowing that even though I considered myself a devout Christian, I would never have the lack of self-consciousness to go down to the front as they played “Just As I Am” and proclaim my religious allegiance — not even though it would have been done in a wholly sympathetic crowd. And here’s the thing: I longed for that ability to be so free.
It’s a longing to be dissolved into the infinite that drives so much human behavior. Father Dumitru Staniloae, the Orthodox theologian, writes that we humans are finite creatures who are made for communion with God, who is infinity, and thus inexhaustible. We spend our lives, and scatter our energies, directing our eros towards the finite, which can never satisfy. (This, by the way, is the great lesson of Dante’s Commedia.) The only true enchantment, in the sense of the kind of enchantment that can be valid, virtuous, and fruitful, is to be enchanted by the true God.
We don’t know that, not really, so we make these idols of politicians and pop stars, who give us a taste of true enchantment. We also can make idols within religion. Think of the loathsome Marcial Maciel, who enchanted the Legion of Christ, even though he was an evil man. In my own unhappy case, it took me being smashed to open my eyes to how I had made an idol of the institutional church. Rather than regarding the Church as the bridge to God, I construed it unconsciously as God itself. I did the same thing with my late father, in a way. This is how we are as humans. We had better hope our idols get destroyed, or the worship of them can take us to Hell, or cause us to create Hell on earth, for ourselves and for others.
How does on live in connection to the ultimate Truth, to Infinity, to God, without succumbing to idol worship? Best I reckon, it’s through constant reflection on our own sinfulness, and the need for humility. But it’s hard, isn’t it, to know the difference between humility and lack of courage. I know of a prominent Christian religious figure who, when he was put on the spot, refused to defend himself, and told himself and his followers that he was following Jesus’s example. The truth was, he was afraid, and cowardly, and betrayed people who had made sacrifices to defend him.
How can we know that in advance? We can’t. Enchantment always requires taking a risk. Falling in love is like that too. It is by the grace of God alone that I was not disenchanted by faith entirely from my experience in the mid-2000s. And if I emerge from the ruin of my marriage with the ability to trust enough to fall in love intact — an open question, for sure — then it will also have been by the grace of God powering the triumph of hope over experience.
Anyway, as usual, I’ve drifted off topic. Forgive me; y’all have subscribed to a personal journal, not a newspaper. You and me, we are probably the kind of people who roll our eyes at the Taylor Swift vs. Donald Trump war … but then, we are out of touch with the spirit and substance of our time.
In the comments, I’d love to hear from you about times you have experienced that sense of transcendence, of “absolute completeness” that Bill Buford talks about.