The Race to the Swift
What On Earth Is Going On Now
I never thought I’d write the words “Taylor Swift” in a newsletter, but here we are. The fact is I’m not an expert in popular culture and I feel a little bashful even weighing in. My friend’s Substack is the better place for the smart Taylor takes. However, I do write about the American Right and now they’ve begun to flip out over Ms. Swift’s relationship with Kansas City Chiefs player Travis Kelce. Now, on the face of it, conservatives should be happy about this. Here is a good-looking white woman, of very conventional gender presentation, publicly cheering, cheering her boyfriend, a good-looking white guy, playing football; he is, to paraphrase Lou Reed, the straightest dude I ever saw. Isn’t this what they want? Shouldn’t they just be able to enjoy this?
No. Instead, it has resulted in an explosion of strange fantasies and fears among right wingers. They believe Taylor’s relationship with Kelce is some conspiracy against them and their champion, Donald Trump. Despite reports that Trump is jealous of Taylor’s popularity and wants to wage “holy war” against her, I’m not sure it will amount to much politically. I think it will likely fade quickly, just another one of the periodic psychotic episodes that we have to endure as a country in this benighted era. Some of it is just people dicking around: rolling out takes for takes’ sake or trying to sell something. Still, something about the psyche of the American right is on display here. And this is not just among the nuttiest of the nuts. Even the smartest and most respectable representatives of the right relate to this in rather peculiar ways. For instance, this is what Ross Douthat of the New York Times tweeted:
Granted, Douthat is playing around a bit here, but still it goes from the normal—”A sweet thing to watch”—sure, to the frankly creepy—“we need them to marry and procreate,” very rapidly. The smart, sensible conservative take on Kelce-Swift is that it’s not a psyop for the Pentagon—yes, that’s what a Fox News host really said—but rather that it could be helpful for their breeding programs. Is it not possible to just relate to any of this like a human being?
It would take an entire team of shrinks from Vienna to untangle all the threads of severe neurosis and borderline psychosis here, but “now vee may perhaps to begin,” to quote Portnoy’s Complaint. First things first, Taylor Swift is a woman. This alone is a problem for a lot of guys. The entrance of Swift, and therefore a very girl-coded feminity—even though she is a grown woman— into this very male space of football does irk some of the fellas. There are cheerleaders of course, but they are anonymous, they aren’t important, accomplished women like Swift. The guys wanna watch the damn game. They don’t want to think about this beautiful, unattainable woman with the guy they will also never be able to be like. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan pointed out that the phallus is a signifier, it’s the symbolic representation of authority and power: men want to possess the phallus, but women are the phallus; they represent the possession of extraordinary virility to other men. So probably it’s annoying as a normal guy to be constantly reminded of Kelce’s, uh, endowments. And the right-wingers are trying to tap into this inchoate sense of male dissatisfaction and envy. But the problem is that while a normal guy might roll their eyes at the camera fixating on Taylor so much, some right-wingers translate this mild frustration into full-blown psychosis. “Aren’t you annoyed by Taylor?” “Hell, yes.” “Isn’t this part of the whole CIA-State Department plot to castrate us?” “What, bro?” Lots of guys—even most—are casually sexist, somewhat fewer have turned fear and hatred of women into the center of an entire worldview.
This is part of the Underground-Manning of the Right. Conservatism once claimed to speak for red-blooded American manhood, but now many right-wingers are even turning against sports itself as some kind of mind-control technique by the government. It’s just resentments all the way down. It’s become not the ideology of manly men, who can ignore or at least pretend to ignore what bugs them, but of a very wounded and insecure form of masculinity that finds the presence of the feminine to cause intolerable anxiety. (Of course, it always sort of was, but now it’s just particularly explicit.) Even sexual and romantic contact with women is seen by some of these people as potentially unmanning. Marriage and fatherhood are now gay. Now, it wouldn’t be a Ganz newsletter without some reference to fascism, so yeah, some of this can be chalked up to what I called “Creep Fascism.” And some of this sounds an awful lot like Klaus Theweleit’s book Male Fantasies, where the author studied the memoirs of Freikorps members and discovered a thoroughgoing fear and loathing of women that wasn’t even really sexual at all: it wanted to run from the contamination of women, it was even fearful of the existence female desire itself.
Any appearance of a sexual relationship between two attractive people in public is gonna drive people a little Looney Tunes: It’s gonna give them all kinds of weird feelings of desire and jealousy they don’t understand and want to get rid of. Most normal people just go “Well, isn’t that cute,” and seethe or pine quietly or even unconsciously. Having gone through the Oedipal ordeal, normally socialized people can convert the frustratingly unattainable into more gentle ideations that don’t torment them as much, but will instead support their fantasy life, give them romantic notions, models to emulate, and so forth. You know, the normal ways of relating to movies and pop stars. But since Taylor Swift is the avatar of straight femininity in general, the whole thing touches on the burning core of the real a bit too closely. It’s a little like David Lynch’s universe: on the one hand, there are all these very straight, 1950s motifs, on the other, there’s a psychotic underworld of perverse, obscene enjoyment, relations of de-sublimated domination and power, that the conservatives are perhaps a little too sensitive to now.
Strangely, they are sort of onto something. If antisemitism is the socialism of fools, anti-Taylorism is the psychoanalysis or critical theory of fools. They are saying things like “This is a plot by the corporations and the military to keep us in our place and consume” or “I hope this makes people just want to reproduce.” Well, yeah. This is what ideology is: from a Marxian perspective, all our cultural productions are related somehow to the material reproduction of society. But it was once the left that pointed these things out and the right that said, essentially, “Shut the fuck up and just enjoy it, weirdo.” The right should be against the social norms becoming the object of self-conscious critique: this is how society falls apart on their account. “The norms must be defended, we should not look too hard at them, they represent the wisdom of centuries passed down to us.” And the left should not be put in the position of having to defend a football player and his blonde girlfriend. The traditional roles of right and left—something kind of like their gender roles maybe?—are scrambled. The right-wing used to complain about the implicit totalitarianism in the left’s insistence on seeing the political in everything, but now it’s the right doing that. And we all know what happens when the right starts to crossdress like the left. I sound like the right-winger now: Be a man. Stop whining so much. Cut your hair. Get a job. Just watch the damn game. And, for God’s sake, stop acting so damn weird all the time.