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Why conservatives are melting down over Taylor Swift

Swift represents a constituency they’re losing big time: Young women.

Taylor Swift lit up onstage.
Taylor Swift performs onstage during the Eras Tour at Allianz Parque in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on November 24, 2023.
Buda Mendes/TAS23/Getty Images/TAS Rights Management
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

The latest Taylor Swift conspiracy theory has nothing to do with a cryptic new novel or unproven speculation she’s secretly queer — and it’s certainly not being floated by Swifties.

As a recent offering from conservatives goes, Swift is part of a psyop, or a psychological operation, that’s being used by the Pentagon to convince her followers to support Democrats. Yes, you read that right. That idea, which has been floated by Fox News anchor Jesse Watters (who himself said he had no evidence for it), has started to gain traction on the right as Swift has gotten more media coverage related to her appearances at NFL games. The conservative furor around this theory — as well as similar ideas suggesting that she and boyfriend Travis Kelce, a tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs, are Democratic plants — has only intensified after the Chiefs made it to the Super Bowl Sunday night.

“I wonder who’s going to win the Super Bowl next month,” former presidential candidate and noted conspiracy theorist Vivek Ramaswamy mused on X on Monday. “And I wonder if there’s a major presidential endorsement coming from an artificially culturally propped-up couple this fall.”

These theories are a recent manifestation of an emerging conservative backlash and obsession with Swift fueled in part by political views she’s expressed, but more broadly by fear and misogyny in the right-wing manosphere. They mark the latest example of conservatives going after a female star they perceive as a threat, and they underscore how frustrated Republicans are that Swift — and many of the young women who make up her fan base — aren’t on their side.

The right-wing conspiracy theories around Taylor Swift, briefly explained

The conservative conspiracy theories about Swift center heavily on her acting as a tool of the Pentagon and of Democrats in order to boost Biden’s reelection chances. Like many conspiracy theories, these ideas hinge on the smallest grain of truth, which is that Swift endorsed Biden in 2020 and is being courted by his campaign to do so again in 2024.

Beyond that point, however, the theories are thin, hard to follow, and frankly bizarre.

Watters first elevated the psyop conspiracy theory in a January 9 broadcast of his Fox News show Jesse Watters Primetime, during which he suggested that Swift could be part of a Pentagon operation that leverages her large online following to combat misinformation and to elevate Democrats’ political aims. “I like her music, she’s alright, but have you ever wondered why or how she blew up like this?” he asked.

Primetime obviously has no evidence. If we did, we’d share it,” he makes clear. In lieu of offering said proof, Watters played a clip from a 2019 conference hosted by the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence that shows data engineer Alicia Marie Bargar describing strategies to fight misinformation and listing Taylor Swift as an influential individual.

Watters also interviewed former FBI agent Stuart Kaplan, who said that a psyop would involve the Biden campaign targeting a prominent celebrity and getting them to do social media posts and statements akin to public service announcements. “It is possible that Taylor Swift does not know she is being utilized in a covert manner to swing voters,” Kaplan posited.

To be clear, the reason Taylor Swift might not know she is being used is because it isn’t happening.

Bargar, who’s worked as a researcher at Johns Hopkins, has told Business Insider that she has “no connection to NATO or the Pentagon, and that her remarks were taken out of context.” Additionally, nowhere in the clip that Watters played is there any indication that Swift is being pitched for some type of covert operation. And the Pentagon, for good measure, has fully dismissed it, too. “As for this conspiracy theory, we are going to shake it off,” Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh said in early January.

Setting aside Fox News’s poor presentation, the plausibility that the Pentagon and Democrats (who are often mocked for messaging blunders) could pull something like this off is more than a reach.

Besides being baseless and outlandish, these allegations attempt to deprive Taylor Swift of her agency in the political choices she’s making, and even of her role in her career. It’s not the first time the right has attempted to provide alternative explanations for her success beyond the work that she’s put in, and such statements have become more frequent.

“What’s happening with Taylor Swift is not organic,” Trump adviser Stephen Miller wrote in December, griping about Swift’s fame and the success she’s had with her record-breaking Eras music tour, which has thus far grossed more than $1 billion. Former DOJ attorney and Trump loyalist Jeffrey Clark claimed she’s “a Trojan horse.”

Those grievances have grown into both the psyop conspiracy theory and newer critiques and assertions about Swift that exploded following the Chiefs' victory this past weekend.

Those theories argue that Swift and Kelce’s relationship, and the attention it’s generated, is also part of a ploy to bolster Biden and that the Chiefs’ win was “rigged” by the NFL so the couple can make a splashy endorsement. “Calling it now: KC wins, goes to Super Bowl, Swift comes out at the halftime show and ‘endorses’ Joe Biden with Kelce at midfield,” conservative broadcaster Mike Crispi said.

In addition to allegations that Swift is operating as a political agent, Republicans have also ramped up other critiques. “Taylor Swift lands in Baltimore ahead of AFC Championship, jet belches tons of C02 emissions,” a January 28 Fox News headline read, prompting online commentators to point out the irony of the publication expressing concerns about climate change. (Progressives have long criticized Swift’s jet use, a practice which has been found to have a negative impact on the environment.)

It’s worth noting that the focus on a Swift endorsement is high in both the Biden and Trump camps, given how dedicated her fan base is. Biden advisers have discussed how they could best leverage a potential endorsement, and even a possible appearance at Swift’s Eras tour, according to the New York Times. Trump sources, meanwhile, told Rolling Stone that they intend to declare a “holy war” on Swift to undercut her authority.

Why conservatives are so obsessed with Swift

The right-wing meltdown is a product of both misogyny and frustration with Swift’s past statements supporting Democrats. Additionally, given how much attention she’s gotten from her blockbuster tour and the recent appearances she’s made at NFL games, it’s also just a plain old attention grab.

“She’s arguably the most successful woman on the planet right now and is, therefore, an easy target for a wide range of men’s grievances,” Brian Donovan, a University of Kansas sociologist who teaches a course on Taylor Swift, tells Vox.

Those grievances — which have included everything from “dads, Brads, and Chads” being furious about how frequently the camera pans to her during football games (not that much, according to the New York Times) to trolls creating fake AI nudes of the songwriter and posting them all over X to prominent right-wing commentators questioning the source of her success — are all fueled by the same strain of misogyny.

That misogyny is especially prevalent in the GOP and can be seen in the countless male legislators claiming they know best when it comes to women’s reproductive rights and voting to ban abortion. It’s evident in Congress members standing by and promoting Trump even after the Access Hollywood video emerged featuring him bragging about committing sexual assault. And it’s demonstrated in Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) leveraging male rage to defend a Supreme Court nominee, now justice, who was also accused of sexual assault.

On the far-right fringe of the party, such misogyny has taken a more extreme form, with far-right commentator Nick Fuentes arguing that women shouldn’t have the right to vote or be in the workforce. Fuentes’s views are among the most radical iterations of such thinking, though they’re part and parcel of conservative arguments that women should take on more traditional gender roles and be responsible for most of the domestic duties in a household.

As journalist Ryan Broderick notes in his Garbage Day newsletter, Republican misogyny has also included treating prominent women — like internet culture writer Taylor Lorenz — and trends women like as threats to conservative hegemony.

Such logic undergirds the pushback toward Swift, which is driven by both fear and anger over the influence she’s accrued and her stature as a powerful woman with a devoted following. Trump’s reported comments griping about how he’s “more popular” than Swift only underscore how her clout has been perceived.

“They’re scared,” Stephanie Burt, a Harvard professor who also teaches a course on Taylor Swift, tells Vox. “I think Taylor’s power — cultural, aesthetic, and financial — makes some men feel threatened.”

By suggesting that Swift’s gains are the product of a shadowy government campaign, conservatives aim to discredit her platform and her talent. And by implying that she’s a puppet for Democrats, they also seek to undermine Biden’s support by arguing that it’s not organic.

Another source of this irritation is the fact that Swift, though she’s often criticized from the left for not being political enough, has spoken out in favor of Democratic candidates and positions and influenced young voters as a result.

Kelce puts his arm around a smiling Swift on the football field.
Travis Kelce (left) with Taylor Swift, showing their possibly left-leaning faces at the AFC Championship.
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

She did so for the first time in 2018, when she backed Tennessee’s Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen over Republican Marsha Blackburn, noting that she could not “vote for someone who will not be willing to fight for dignity for ALL Americans, no matter their skin color, gender or who they love.” Swift added, “These are not MY Tennessee values.”

That endorsement didn’t necessarily swing that election, though an Instagram post calling for people to register to vote did contribute to a surge of 35,000 voter registrations in 2023, according to Vote.org. The Blackburn moment also received renewed attention after it was heavily featured in Swift’s 2020 documentary, Miss Americana, and a clip from it — in which she says she’s not afraid to appear anti-Trump — has continued to go viral.

In 2020, Swift endorsed Biden. “The change we need most is to elect a president who recognizes that people of color deserve to feel safe and represented, that women deserve the right to choose what happens to their bodies, and that the LGBTQIA+ community deserves to be acknowledged and included,” she told V Magazine that year. On her recent Reputation tour, she stayed mostly apolitical, with the exception of a statement during Pride Month in June expressing her support for the LGBTQIA community.

Swift’s relationship with Kelce has also added to the conservative panic. He’s a Covid-19 vaccine spokesperson for Pfizer — a role that has prompted conspiracy theorist and football player Aaron Rodgers to dub him “Mr. Pfizer” and one that counters some of the anti-vax views expressed by prominent right-wing personalities like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Kelce has also been publicly supportive of quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem to draw attention to police violence against Black Americans.

Compounding conservatives’ frustrations is the fact that Swift is embodying a lot of what Republicans would typically champion.

“Taylor Swift [is] an extremely affluent blonde, blue-eyed white woman who writes country-inflected pop music and is dating a football player headed for the Super Bowl. She should be a resounding victory for these guys,” Broderick writes.

That her success, autonomy, and views don’t fit neatly into the easily contained box they expect must grate. And the fact that her music appeals to people on all sides of the political spectrum — including prominent Republican lawmakers and their daughters — is likely yet another added annoyance.

The GOP attacks underscore the party’s problems with young women

Bubbling beneath the surface of the Swift attacks is the GOP’s own weakness with many members of her fanbase, which is heavily composed of young women.

As multiple recent polls have found, the party is increasingly losing this constituency as they’ve denied abortion rights, blocked policies that promote gender equity, and backed a presidential nominee who faces more than 20 allegations of sexual misconduct. According to a January 2023 Gallup poll, 42 percent of young women identify as liberal while 25 percent of young men do the same, the largest gender gap in years.

“Since 2014, women between the ages of 18 and 29 have steadily become more liberal each year, while young men have not,” Business Insider’s Daniel Cox writes. In his investigation of the phenomenon, Cox finds that the Me Too movement and its pushback against sexual misconduct was a formative moment for many young women that shaped how they engage with politics.

Following Trump’s election in 2016, there were also key changes to long-held political patterns. Outside of voting, young men have historically been more likely to participate in politics via channels like donations and running for office. That dynamic changed some that year, with some surveys showing young women now more likely to donate to candidates and attend protests, and more young women increasingly pursuing elected office.

The partisan shift hasn’t been limited to young women, either.

Women’s overall pivot left has also had concrete electoral consequences that highlight the risks Republicans face. Fifty-seven percent of all women supported Biden in 2020, compared to 54 percent who voted for former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016. College-educated white women in the suburbs, in particular, deserted Trump. In 2018, Democrats also saw the highest margin of victory they’ve ever had with women voters, a development that helped usher in an overwhelming blue wave in the House. And in 2022, women voters — angry about the overturning of Roe — helped stem Democratic losses and enabled the party to keep the Senate.

The gender gap Republicans face in support is massive and likely more bad news for the party moving forward. Lashing out at Swift, however, probably won’t win them many new fans and, definitely, few Swifties.

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