Hate makes people gullible and foolish.
That's a key lesson from the strange right turn MAGA (Make America Great Again) contra Taylor Swift and her boyfriend, the Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce.
Indeed, that is a key lesson of this entire sorry era in American political and cultural life.
Partisan anger against celebrities is nothing new.
And Swift has ventured into politics.
In 2018, he supported the Democratic Senate candidate in Tennessee, Phil Bredesenagainst Republican Marsha Blackburn, and in 2020, she supported Joe Biden for president.
Kelce, for his part, appeared in advertisements for the COVID vaccine Pfizer.
Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and Taylor Swift walk together after an NFL AFC Championship football game between the Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens, on Jan. 28, 2024, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)
By MAGA calculations, between the two of them, the couple expresses the most infernal combination of affiliations: Democrats and vaccines.
Furthermore, “shut up and sing” (or, in Kelce's case, shut up and grab it) has been such a constant theme in right-wing cancel culture that it was the title of both the host's 2003 book Fox News Laura Ingraham as from a 2006 documentary about the Dixie Chicks (now just the Chicks).
But Republican opposition to celebrity engagement has always been highly selective.
Even while condemning Swift, a prominent MAGA figure recently boasted that his “side” still had Kid Rock, Ted Nugent and Jon Voight.
After all, it was the Republican Party that elected both a movie star to the presidency (Ronald Reagan) like a reality TV celebrity (Donald Trump).
But while traditional partisan pettiness may explain the knee-jerk negative reaction to Swift, it can't come close to explaining the incredible weirdness of the recent theory emanating from people with some of the biggest platforms in MAGA America.
According to them, Swift's extraordinary popularity is not the organic result of a talented and attractive superstar's bond with her fans.
No, according to them, Swift's rise is a “operation” or a “psychological operation” designed by the deep state to benefit Joe Biden.
A central part of the plot, of course, is Swift's fake relationship with Kelce, invented by the Deep State.
Thus, when the Chiefs struggled early in the season, it was a source of right-wing schadenfreude.
But now that they have reached the Super Bowleverything has been revealed as part of the plan.
Again, it's all so silly and strange.
But silly and weird is par for the course with MAGA.
If we imagined conspiracy theories as movies, we would say that “Taylor Swift: Psyop” was brought to you by the same studio that produced cult classics like “Pizzagate” and “The Seth Rich Conspiracy,” not to mention the tentpole franchises “QAnon” and “Stop the Steal.”
All of these conspiracy theories are deeply strange.
Who can forget that the effort to steal the election included claims that bamboo on ballots suggested evidence of Chinese interference?
Or that Italian military satellites had somehow disrupted the count?
Or that a woman's strange dreams and visions had revealed misdeeds of Dominion Voting Systems?
The MAGA right's relentless villainization of Democrats (so-called “Demon-crats” in some parts of the religious right) has created a substantial population of people who believe that the left is miraculously powerful, operates without any moral restraint, and is dedicated to destroying their way of life.
And if you think your opponents are capable of anything -in every sense of the phrase- it's a short trip to believing almost anything about them.
The political pressure that MAGA conspiracy theories have placed on our democratic system has been widely documented.
Less documented is the cultural threat that MAGA poses to American pluralism.
On some days, it may seem like MAGA is engaged in a kind of cultural secessionism, turning against popular products and institutions—Bud Light, Target, the military—and trying to create alternatives. There has been MAGA coffee, MAGA banking, MAGA beer, and MAGA rap, for example.
By themselves, parallel economies can be an element of pluralism rather than a threat to it.
Creating a company that sells a product and at the same time promotes a certain set of political or religious values is nothing new, neither for the right nor the left.
But if you combine shadow economies with boycott culture, you get something completely different.
It is a cultural manifestation of an old legal temptation: freedom of speech for me, but not for you.
For Swift, it's shutting up and singing.
But for Jason Aldean and Aaron Rodgers, the calculus is completely different.
MAGA believers want them in that scenario.
They need you on that podcast.
And so we are trapped in a vicious circle.
Relentless hostility opens the mind and heart to the worst stories about your opponents, no matter how incredible they may be.
Once convinced, you redouble your hatred:
Can you believe what they are doing now?
And then the cycle repeats itself with another story, just as crazy, if not more.
Once conspiracy theories have taken hold, alienation is inevitable.
I strive to be very tolerant of opposing opinions, and I have always enjoyed sports and the arts, even when athletes and artists deeply disagree with me on religion or politics.
But I confess that my tolerance would be tested if I truly believed that I was not watching a football game at all, but rather an elaborate government manipulation designed to maintain its power.
This era of American politics will end, one way or another.
And when it does, historians are likely to debate whether its defining characteristic was stupidity or malice.
I've gone back and forth myself, but now I realize that both traits have almost completely merged.
Malice is creating stupidity, and stupidity is creating malice.
If there is any silver lining to this dark cloud, it is that perhaps MAGA has finally revealed itself too fully.
One can dream, but perhaps targeting the world's most popular pop star can finally help expose what the nation's political observers have long known: MAGA is not only deeply angry, it has become deeply queer.
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