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The uncomplicated, dumb engine driving political false claims about Taylor Swift

I am professionally obligated to begin this article by explaining to you who Taylor Swift is, who Travis Kelce is and why I am talking about them. I know this will come off as condescending (if not insulting) to most of you, but for that one person who, this very morning, emerged from a 20-year-long meditative retreat atop Aconcagua and — as one would — opened The Washington Post’s website: Here you go.

Taylor Swift is a musician. More specifically, she is one of the most famous musicians that has ever existed on this Earth, in the company of Michael Jackson, certainly … if not, like, Beethoven. Travis Kelce is a football player who was well-known in sporting circles a year or two ago but who, by virtue of dating Swift, is now also well-known among Swift fans and, by extension, most Americans.

The reason I am talking about them is that Kelce’s team, the Kansas City Chiefs, won a playoff game Sunday that will return them to the championship game. And in response, a surprisingly large section of the American political right decided that this was somehow related to politics.

There are lots of manifestations of this, including multiple presentations on the right’s preferred cable news channel. The iteration that attracted perhaps the most attention, though, came from former presidential candidate and Donald Trump cheerleader Vivek Ramaswamy (speaking of people who suddenly emerged in the public consciousness to polarizing effect).

In a social media post, a prominent right-wing conspiracy theorist linked Swift to … let’s see here … ah yes, George Soros. In response, Ramaswamy offered a prediction.

“I wonder who’s going to win the Super Bowl next month,” he wrote. “And I wonder if there’s a major presidential endorsement coming from an artificially culturally propped-up couple this fall. Just some wild speculation over here, let’s see how it ages over the next 8 months.”

The implication (again: forgive my telling you something obvious) is that the Chiefs are being ushered to the Super Bowl … somehow … to secure Swift’s endorsement for President Biden.

This makes a lot of sense because the Chiefs haven’t been to the Super Bowl since, uh, last year, when they won. But before that they hadn’t been since, well, two years before. But that one they lost! But they’d won the year before that.

You can see why they need … someone … to give them a boost. Because otherwise, Taylor Swift wouldn’t endorse Biden, something she hasn’t done since 2020 — the last time Biden ran.

A lot of the responses to this broad line of argument — that the commingling of the Chiefs and Swift is somehow targeted at politics — note that it’s probably not wise for Republicans to side against the NFL. The NFL is wildly popular, and attacking popular things is not a good way to yourself become more popular.

But this backlash from the Fox-News-iverse isn’t about electoral politics. It is about appealing to a more immediate source of power on the right: online and on-air attention.

This was the crux of Ramaswamy’s entire presidential campaign. He understood, having observed Republican politics over the past decade, that attention can be parlayed into a lesser form of power, elected office. Trump blazed this trail, certainly, showing others the path and helping clear it of overgrowth. Ramaswamy’s 2024 bid was centered on jumping into the online conversation and bringing its themes and rhetoric to the campaign trail. It built him a loyal following of similarly online types, enough to get him about 4 percent of the primary vote by the time he dropped out.

But this is the incentive path that’s feeding the Swift clamor. The wilder your assertion, the more traction it’s going to get. Your allies will riff on it and build on it, and you can come along for the ride. Maybe you’ll end up as a member of the House of Representatives from Georgia or Long Island. Maybe you’ll go higher: landing a recurring spot on Sean Hannity’s prime-time show.

It’s important to recognize the overlaying element here: The speculation should leverage the widespread belief on the right that Democrats only get legitimate votes by brainwashing their idiotic base. (Republicans also believe Democrats get lots of stolen votes too, of course — a similarly incorrect theory.) This idea comes up a lot, that Democrats win by snookering college kids or duping credulous city voters into ignoring their apocalyptic surroundings. (This is ironic, given that believing that cities are hellholes requires a credulous acceptance of propaganda from the right, but I digress.)

Republicans losing the presidential popular vote in 2016, the House majority in 2018, the presidency in 2020 and underperforming expectations in the 2022 midterms has built a strong incentive to look for nonpolitical explanations for strong Democratic performance — since many Americans don’t know anyone who holds opposing political views, including Republicans baffled at the idea of voting Democratic. So, particularly given Trump’s insistence that the 2020 race was “rigged” by media and cultural elites … somehow, it is quite fashionable on the right to suggest the existence of intricate plans aimed at securing Democratic votes from glassy-eyed voters.

Like, say, that a football team gets ushered into the Super Bowl to secure an endorsement from Taylor Swift.

I’ve avoided doing so but I can no longer resist: How would this work? Did the Baltimore Ravens take a dive? Did someone pay them? Are they just that committed to Democratic politics that they all agreed to lose? Did the Buffalo Bills before them? And the Miami Dolphins before the Bills? Or does the government have some Havana-Syndrome-esque device that it trains on opponents, causing field goals to go wide right? What’s the mechanism, exactly?

It doesn’t matter, obviously. These are not rational conclusions drawn from observed facts. They are, instead, clout-chasing assemblages of words that, through a process of grim Darwinism, seek rewards in the right-wing conversation.

Never mind that the supposed outcome here — the Swift endorsement — is itself wildly overpowered in the right’s imagination. One of Swift’s first prominent endorsements came in 2018 when she backed the Democrat in Tennessee’s U.S. Senate race. Polling was close; he then lost by double-digits. You think that Swift — whose fan base includes millions of people younger than voting age — is so valuable an endorser that you’re going to rig the NFL? Okay. Sure.

It’s all silly, but the silliness exists over a range that runs from innocuous to bizarre.

I’ll leave you with the wise words of Ramaswamy, almost certainly responding to the (wonderful! desired!) controversy he’d stirred up with his football observations.

“What the [media] calls a ‘conspiracy theory’ is often nothing more than an amalgam of incentives hiding in plain sight,” he wrote. “Once you see that, the rest becomes pretty obvious.”

The natural Step 2 here: When the media points out that my comments make no sense, it proves that I’m right. Okay.

Wait. Actually, I’ll leave you with an observation attached to Ramaswamy’s second post, one that comes from the world’s most prominent seeker of attention by way of posting controversial/bizarre/unnecessarily-political comments.

“Exactly,” wrote Elon Musk.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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