The parallel universes of American politics and celebrity collided in the most bizarre way possible this week after a fringe conspiracy theory questioning pop superstar Taylor Swift’s latest relationship was picked up by hot-headed conservative media pundits fretting over her potential to swing the outcome of November’s presidential election in Joe Biden’s favour.
Ms Swift, perhaps the most famous person in the world right now and a Biden booster in 2020, is currently dating Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and has been regularly spotted in the stands at his games, joining his family in cheering him on and dancing joyously with the crowd, notably during the Chiefs’ recent win over the Baltimore Ravens, which sent them to the Super Bowl.
The star, known for her autobiographical songwriting, appears happy in her personal life, at the peak of her powers professionally and is now as ubiquitous a presence in coverage of the NFL as she is on social media.
But with the Chiefs set to play the San Francisco 49ers in the biggest fixture in the American sports calendar on Sunday 11 February, some rights-wing pundits insist they smell a rat.
“The NFL is totally RIGGED for the Kansas City Chiefs, Taylor Swift, Mr. Pfizer (Travis Kelce). All to spread DEMOCRAT PROPAGANDA,” Rumble influencer Mike Crispi tweeted on Sunday before the Ravens game.
“Calling it now: KC wins, goes to Super Bowl, Swift comes out at the halftime show and ‘endorses’ Joe Biden with Kelce at midfield,” he raved. “It’s all been an op [operation] since day one.”
A day later, former Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy picked up the thread, taking to X to predict “a major presidential endorsement coming from an artificially culturally propped-up couple this fall”.
On Newsmax that same day, anchor Greg Kelly struck a note of evangelical disapproval when he denounced Ms Swift’s fans for “worshipping” her and declaring: “This is a little bit of what idolatry, I think, looks like. And you’re not supposed to do that. In fact, if you look it up in the Bible, it’s a sin!”
Fox News commentators including Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro and OutKick host Tomi Lahren soon joined in the fun as Rolling Stone quoted a Maga insider threatening a “holy war” against the star if she attempted to jeopardise Donald Trump’s chances of returning to the White House.
Although she may well end up doing so, Taylor Swift has not yet actually endorsed Mr Biden this time around.
The New York Times reported on Monday that aides to the president are hoping to sign her up as a campaign surrogate in view of her mighty cultural influence, believing that a good word from her would go a long way towards delivering millions of votes and sweeping President Biden back to the Oval Office on a tidal wave of enthusiasm, making a nonsense of his currently poor polling.
Her potential endorsement would certainly add some sorely-needed rocket fuel to the 81-year-old Democrat’s campaign for a second term, with three insiders saying that his camp is assuming she will ultimately come out for him, just as she did four years ago when she enthusiastically posed with a plate of pro-Joe cookies.
Taylor Swift with Biden cookies... pic.twitter.com/vKMWfCUPmK
— 🍺🥂🍸 𝓜𝓪𝔂𝓸𝓻 𝓸𝓯 𝓕𝓾𝓷𝓴𝔂𝓽𝓸𝔀𝓷 🍻🍷🍹 (@MayorFunkytown) January 29, 2024
Ms Swift has not been afraid to use her platform for political purposes in the past, urging her fans to get out and vote and endorsing two Democrats running in her home state of Tennessee in the 2018 midterms, a gesture that led Mr Trump to say he liked her music “about 25 per cent less now”.
During the 2020 election, she retaliated by accusing the then-president of attempting to “blatantly cheat and put millions of Americans’ lives at risk” after his administration worked to limit mail-in voting in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, forcing voters to congregate at polling stations and risk spreading the virus and getting sick.
Trump popularity contest
As you might imagine, the Republican’s response to the Swift furore has been largely petulant, although he has managed to resist attacking her on Truth Social, so far.
Mr Trump is said to have boasted in private that no amount of celebrity endorsements will improve his opponent’s wretched polling and insisted, according to Rolling Stone, that he is “more popular” than the star anyway and, moreover, that his fans are far more dedicated than hers.
The Swifties have already hit back on that last point, with the group Voters of Tomorrow warning the Republican front-runner in a statement: “Gen Z has a message for Trump: Go ahead and keep attacking Taylor Swift. We dare you. By picking a fight with Taylor, you are picking a fight with young voters. And the last thing you need is an even worse reputation with us come November.”
Equally predictably, the former president is said to be bitterly jealous that Ms Swift was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” for 2023 ahead of him, seething that it was “obviously” absurd that her face should grace the magazine’s December issue in place of his.
“Joe Biden might be counting on Taylor Swift to save him, but voters are looking at these sky-high inflation rates and saying, ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’,” Trump adviser Jason Miller told Rolling Stone in a statement, quoting the title of one of her songs from 2012.
Another person working on Mr Trump’s campaign told the music magazine that Ms Swift publically backing Mr Biden again “would be more fuel thrown onto the culture war fires”, characterising such a gesture as “another left-wing celebrity who is part of the Democrat elite telling you what to think” and predicting an adverse reaction from the voting public.
Conservative media in meltdown mode
The outlandish idea that Taylor Swift’s all-American fairytale romance with a top football star is really an ingenious Democrat “psyop” (psychological operation) intended to brainwash millions of people into backing Mr Biden actually appears to have been gaining traction for weeks prior to the present blow-up.
When the offending Time cover was unveiled on 6 December, the Republican’s former White House adviser Stephen Miller suggested that the star’s popularity was “not organic”, and hard-right agitator Jack Posobiec declared: “The Taylor Swift girlboss psyop has been fully activated. From her hand-selected vaccine shill boyfriend to her DINK lifestyle to her upcoming 2024 voter operation for Democrats on abortion rights. It’s all coming.”
The theory then gained further momentum on 9 January when Trump-affiliated lawyer Jeffrey Clark shared a video on X claiming to show “the Pentagon psychological operations unit float[ing] turning Taylor Swift into an asset during a NATO meeting”.
The clip in question is reportedly taken from the May 2019 International Conference on Cyber Conflict in Estonia, organised by the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence.
It shows speaker Alicia Marie Bargar, a researcher with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, discussing the theoretical power of influencers to shape public opinion and offering Ms Swift as an example of “a fairly influential online person” who might hold sufficient sway over others to “help encourage or promote behaviour change”.
The same excerpt was subsequently shown on Jesse Watters’ Fox show that same day, during which he declared in tongue-in-cheek fashion: “Yeah, that’s real: the Pentagon psyop unit pitched NATO on turning Taylor Swift into an asset for combating misinformation online.”
The host was careful to add that he “obviously has no evidence” that Ms Swift is “a front for a covert political agenda” but said: “If we did, we’d share it… We’re curious.”
When the prospect of her being able to drive voters away from Mr Trump was aired this week, among those commenting on the same network was Mr Hannity, who speculated about her motivations for (potentially) supporting President Biden on Tuesday by saying, in a hurt fashion: “Maybe she just bought into all the lies about conservatives and Republicans, that they are racist and sexist and homophobic and xenophobic and transphobic and Islamophobic.
“And Republicans and conservatives want dirty air and water, and a total ban on all abortion with no exceptions. If she believes all that, she is believing a lie. Because those talking points are simply untrue.”
Hannity: Maybe Taylor Swift just bought into all the lies about Republicans that they are racist and sexist and homophobic and xenophobic and transphobic and Islamophobic and they want a total ban on abortion… If she believes all that she is believing a lie. pic.twitter.com/rO4rLCtuaw
— Acyn (@Acyn) January 31, 2024
The absurdity of such talk has naturally enabled late-show hosts like Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert to have a field day at conservatives’ expense, with Mr Kimmel dismissing the affair as a “chorus of cuckoos” and warning his audience: “This nonsense is now everywhere your angry grandpa goes.”
He continued: “The same people who believe Joe Biden has dementia and needs Kamala Harris to feed him butterscotch tapioca every night also believe that he has somehow planned and executed a diabolically brilliant scheme to fix the NFL playoffs so the biggest pop star in the world can pop up on the Jumbotron during the Super Bowl in between a Kia and a Tostitos commercial to hypnotise her 11-year-old fans into voting for Joe Biden.
“I mean, it makes sense. It makes total sense. These people. These people think football is fake and wrestling is real.”
As for Donald Trump, the Taylor Swift furore has at least provided him with some respite from his never-ending legal problems, including the humiliating coverage of his defamation lawsuit loss to E Jean Carroll, requiring him to pay the writer $83.3m in damages.
With a verdict also imminent in his New York civil fraud trial that could end up costing him a further $370m in financial penalties, he should be glad of a distracting smokescreen like this whenever he can get one.