By: Ross Douthat – nytimes.com – january 31, 2024
There was a brief period in the later part of the Covid-19 pandemic, between the moment when Glenn Youngkin swept into the Virginia governorship and the full political return of Donald Trump, when I became convinced that American liberalism was headed for a truly epochal defeat in 2024.
It seemed then that — under the influence of progressive radicalism, institutional groupthink and coronavirus fears — the liberal establishment was untethering itself from American normalcy to a politically suicidal degree. Blue cities and regions were rerunning aspects of the left’s 1970s social program on fast-forward and generating spikes in crime and disorder. The Democratic Party’s economic agenda had yielded 1970s-style inflation. Joe Biden was elected as a moderate but was too aged and diminished to actually impose moderation on his party. And elite liberalism was increasingly associated with a mixture of Covid overreaction and ideological hysteria: Imagine a double-masked bureaucrat running a white-privilege workshop, forever.
Liberalism in 2024 is still in all kinds of trouble, but the truly epochal defeat seems less likely than it did back then. In part this is because of adaptations within the center-left. Blue-state Covid restrictions were unwound a bit faster than I expected — in part because of the political peril they created for Democratic politicians. Many of those same politicians have found ways to get some distance from their party’s activists, especially in swing states like Pennsylvania. And ideological fervor on the left seems to have passed its peak, yielding a more contested environment inside elite institutions and a modest left-wing retreat in the culture as a whole.
But the other reason that liberalism is surviving its disconnect from what remains of American normalcy is conservatism’s inability to just be normal itself, even for a minute.
Trump himself is a great abnormalizer. But so are the various fixations and follies that take shape in his wake — like the very-online right’s bizarre reaction to the romance between Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce, a love story that’s united the two remaining pillars of our common culture: the National Football League and, well, Swift herself.
Conservative hostility to Swift has been simmering ever since she dipped into partisan politics in 2018 and 2020, though it should be stressed that this antipathy is hardly universal: An Echelon Insights poll from last summer found that what it called “Trump-first Republicans” were more likely to be hostile to Swift, whereas more “party-first Republicans” gave her the same broadly favorable ratings as the country as a whole.
But within that hostile faction, her relationship with Kelce has transformed a merely unfavorable impression into outright paranoia, with various online influencers portraying the romance as some kind of carefully crafted political propaganda, whose true purpose is to make a Swift or Swift-Kelce endorsement of Biden’s re-election bid as meaningful as possible to Swifties and football fans alike.
To give this theory its maximal due, it is apparently the case — at least per my colleagues’ reporting — that the Biden campaign is indeed hoping for a Swift endorsement and imagining that it will give the president some kind of electoral boost. So there is some partisan interest, some hope of an advantage for the Democrats, at play in both the celebrity romance itself and perhaps the outcome of the Super Bowl.
But there are two levels at which the online right’s reaction to this doesn’t make any sense. The first is that celebrities’ endorsing liberal politicians is just not an especially decisive part of politics. Swift endorsed Phil Bredesen in the Tennessee Senate race, and he lost to Marsha Blackburn by 11 points. She endorsed Biden in 2020 and he won, but nobody looking back imagines that the Swift factor mattered all that much.
If you wanted to stretch a bit to envision a real Swift effect in 2024, you could say that Biden’s distinctive problem with youth turnout and Gen Z disillusionment has created a rare situation in which a superstar endorsement could make a meaningful difference. But the idea that it would matter enough to inspire and justify a media-regime influence operation, complete with some remarkable acting performances by the faking-it romantic partners and some kind of game-fixing shenanigans by the N.F.L., is the silliest possible conspiracy theory.
The deeper issue, though, is that regardless of the electoral impact of a Swift endorsement, the cultural valence of the Swift-Kelce romance isn’t just normal and wholesome and mainstream in a way that conservatism shouldn’t want to be defined against. It’s normal and wholesome and mainstream in an explicitly conservative-coded way, offering up the kind of romantic iconography that much of the online right supposedly wants to encourage and support.
Normally you can’t scroll for more than a few minutes through right-wing social media without encountering some kind of meme valorizing the old ways of jocks and beauties, big bearded men and the women who love them, heteronormative American romance in some kind of throwback form.
The quest to make sense of the right’s anti-Swiftism has encouraged weak attempts to suggest that the Swift-Kelce romance is somehow subverting these traditionalist archetypes and modeling a more progressive idea of romance — that because she’s richer and more famous than he is and he respects her career, they’re basically one step removed from a Bay Area polycule or Brooklyn open marriage.
But come on. A story where the famous pop star abandons her country roots and spends years dating unsuccessfully in a pool of Hollywood creeps and angsty musicians, only to find true love in the arms of a bearded heartland football star who runs a goofy podcast with his equally bearded, happily married, easily inebriated older brother … I mean, this is a Hallmark Christmas movie! This is an allegory of conservative Americana! This is itself a right-wing meme!
But the meme-makers don’t want it. They are rejecting for secondary and superficial reasons — Swift’s banal liberal politics, Kelce’s vaccine P.S.A.s — what they should be affirming for primary and fundamental ones. They are turning down the deep story, the primal archetypes, because the celebrities involved aren’t fully on their political side.
But the celebrities aren’t on their side precisely because the right keeps making itself so weird that even temperamentally conservative people (which both Swift and Kelce seem to be) find themselves alienated from its demands.
There are two key reasons for this self-defeating weirdness, both of them downstream from Trump’s 2016 victory. The first is the realignment that I’ve discussed a few times before, where the ideological shifts of the Trump era made the right more welcoming to all manner of outsider narratives and fringe beliefs (including previously left-coded ones like vaccine skepticism) while the left became much more dutifully establishmentarian. This realignment made the right more interesting in certain ways, more inclined to see through certain bogus narratives and official pieties — but also more inclined to try to see through absolutely everything, which as C.S. Lewis observed is the same thing as not really seeing anything at all.
The second reason for the right’s abnormality problem is that even normal people in the Republican coalition overlearned the lesson of Trump’s election. Having made the safe and moderate choices in 2008 and 2012 and watched both John McCain and Mitt Romney go down in defeat, Republicans made a wild-seeming choice with Trump and saw him win the most improbable of victories. And there was a reasonable political lesson in that experience, which is that sometimes a dose of destabilization can open a path to new constituencies, new maps, new paths to victory.
But the dose is everything, and trying to be abnormal forever because it worked for you once is self-defeating in the extreme. The goal of destabilization, after all, is to eventually create a new stability, in which your party and vision and coalition are understood by most Americans to be a safe and normal place to belong. That is what the Trump-era right has conspicuously failed to achieve. And it won’t get there so long as it sees even cultural developments it should welcome, romances that it should be rooting for, and shakes its head and says, “It must be a liberal op.”
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