It’s a common observation that modern-day politics increasingly resembles fandom: Both feature communities created around and united by passion, and both are often heavily fixated on a single public figure. Many pundits are now calling right-wing voters “the Trump fandom,” as though there’s little difference between a Trumpist who flocks to a political rally and a member of the Beyhive snapping up seats to Coachella.
Drawing general parallels between the two movements can seem easy, even simplistic, but when we look closer, what we find are mutually thorny, mutually complex ideological ecosystems with telling overlap. In both subcultures, the rise of social media echo chambers has fomented toxicity, extremism, and delusional thinking. For instance, you may not think there’s any link between QAnon and the belief that this Chinese actor is a hologram, but they both arise from the same basic problems: disinformation and zealotry serving to distort and fracture our shared sense of reality, all in the name of what devotees believe to be a higher cause.
Fandom and politics both depend on big shared narratives
Passionate enthusiasts have existed throughout human history, but fans who identify as “part of fandom” move within larger communities of other actively engaged fans. The word “fan” came into popular use in the late 1880s, with “fandom” surfacing around 1903. The concept flourished in niche geek and sports communities throughout the 20th century, and finally found its way into the mainstream in the aughts and ’10s thanks to the rise of the internet.
While fandom was evolving online in the 2000s, organic political movements were growing more commonplace, with very similar dynamics. At their core, fandom and politics both require emotion, with all the intensity that implies. Fandoms were collectives of people drawn together by their emotional attachment to specific sports teams, creatives, or works of media. Grassroots political movements of the aughts, from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street, were localized collectives initially drawn together by a shared narrative of what they wanted their country to become.
That communal narrative is crucial connective tissue between politics and fandom; it unites people around not just a shared sense of identity, but a shared story and the idea that they’re building that story together. These narratives aren’t just entertainment. To their proponents, they have a higher moral purpose, whether it’s “draining the swamp,” rooting for your favorite characters in a series to get together, or freeing Taylor Swift from the oppression of the closet. Big fandom narratives often segue into big political ones: Several fandom projects of the early internet spawned offshoot social and political movements, like Fandom Forward, which began as the Harry Potter Alliance, and Project for Awesome, an offshoot of the Vlogbrothers fandom. Both groups encourage fans toward social change. A single piece of Harry Potter fanfiction is arguably responsible for popularizing the Effective Altruism movement.
Trump’s political rise coincides with a specific substrain of intense celebrity fandom that emerged in the new millennium. The “stan,” sometimes referred to collectively as “standom,” is an ironic term borrowed from Eminem’s 2000 song “Stan,” about a stalker fan whose obsession goes too far. The concept of “stanning” was hugely shaped by Twitter’s ability to allow fans to follow their faves in real time, commune with other fans, and even talk directly to the creators they stanned. It hardly seems coincidental that during the era when celebrities and pop stars became more immediately interactive with their fanbases, Trump successfully styled himself not as a politician, but as a celebrity who deigned to do politics just to satisfy his long-suffering fans.
By pretending that he didn’t need politics but politics needed him, Trump established the idea that his political participation was not self-serving, but rather a conduit for the frustrations of his followers. From the outset, he presented himself as a vessel for their beliefs. As one Trump supporter recently told MSNBC’s Garrett Haake, “When Trump is facing all these things, he’s doing it for us in our place.”
But the idea of Trump as a conduit works both ways. If you wanted to see political change, you couldn’t just vote for Trump; you had to transfer your emotional investment from politics at large onto him individually. You had to stan him.
When stans call themselves “stans,” it’s a wryly self-deprecating label that implies plenty of self-awareness on the fans’ parts about the tricky relationship they have with their idols. It also predicts the slippery slope that can result when fans’ investment in their faves gets too intense. Increasingly, however, there are fewer self-aware stopgaps in modern celebrity fandom, and, as January 6 taught us, even fewer in politics.
Our emotions increasingly shape how we view reality and what we’re willing to do to preserve that view
Applying the concept of a shared narrative to political activism imbues that activism with all the heady intoxication of a fantasy role-playing game, whether it’s a fantasy of progress or a fantasy of extremism. In his recently republished 2007 book Dream: Reimagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy (now retitled Dream or Nightmare), author Stephen Duncombe observed that Trump won the 2016 election not based on facts — he lied often — but upon his ability to create fantasy masked as truth. “Facts, it seems, are not things that are verifiably true or false, merely components in a story,” Duncombe notes. “Over the past decade, right-wing populists from Israel to India, all throughout Europe and the UK, have been inventing facts to fill in fantasies of national greatness, and imminent destruction, in their rise to power.”
This distortion of reality is partly inadvertent slippage. After all, when all your friends are playing the RPG with you, it can be hard to re-enter reality. And when all your friends are creating the narrative with you, it can be hard to remember what parts are real and what parts you constructed together.
The narrative predetermines not only what information you receive, but how you interpret it and order it within the larger story. As Duncombe writes, “We understand our world less through reasoned deliberation of facts, and more through stories and symbols and metaphors.” Received in a community of devotees, such stories and symbols often morph into esoteric codes only true believers can see, from “Q drops” to signs that Louis Tomlinson’s baby is fake. And as with intensely held religious beliefs, such communities tend to double down on their beliefs once challenged or proven inaccurate rather than rethink them. In fandom communities where this happens, we see groups collectively rejecting a more measured version of reality in favor of intense conspiracy theories to support their big narratives, again and again and again and again and again.
In both fandom and politics, these distortions are often also intentionally exacerbated by community leaders. Influential members can manipulate their followers by deliberately twisting or omitting facts to suit the narrative they prefer or the narrative that’s most advantageous to their larger agenda. Their role as a translator of reality to their followers can’t be overstated.
Media researcher Sarah Banet-Weiser, in the recently published Post-Truth, Fake News and Democracy: Mapping the Politics of Falsehood, observes that while it’s common to worry we’ve entered a fractured, “post-truth” era, the idea of “truth” itself has always been highly contextual. Moreover, truth in various contexts relies on who’s telling it: “It [depends] on the assumption that certain actors tell the truth, and that these actors have been authorized with the mantle of veracity in their understandings of the world and of themselves.”
When we’re emotionally invested not only in the narrative being bolstered by the truth-teller but in the chosen truth-teller themselves, it becomes even harder to extricate an “objective” version of reality from the version they’re dispensing because the stakes feel so high. These believers aren’t above engaging in what internet researcher Alice Marwick has termed “morally motivated networked harassment”: the simple yet profound concept that being part of an ideologically driven community allows believers to justify even the most toxic behaviors, even if their ideology is unusual and a bystander wouldn’t understand their motivations or goals as moralistic. Left to themselves, most of the people who sieged the Capitol on January 6 would probably never have been instigators; as part of a larger collective being egged on by their leader, however, they came to feel fully justified even in acts as extreme as insurrection.
We project our own symbols onto celebrity personas — even to the point of religious idolatry
While Trump’s stage is the political arena, his aims and tools are about his celebrity, not his politics. “Trump was not using tools of entertainment to appear a better politician,” Duncombe writes. “He was using politics as a better stage for his performance as an entertainer.” You might wonder what celebrity qualities Trump has that allow him to influence his followers to this extent; after all, he’s no Beyoncé. But, as Trump himself is extremely aware, he doesn’t have to be — he only has to encourage his followers to make him into whatever they want him to be.
The public figure’s persona is a collectively created construct. It’s built by the celebrity and what they present to the media and the public, and then built by the media and the public and how they interpret and interact with the famous person. Once fans have created a personal parasocial relationship with their celebrity of choice, they will project whatever positive attributes they want onto that celebrity’s persona — even if they don’t align with reality and even if they’re internally contradictory.
The secret of Trump’s following isn’t that Trump unlocked the be-all and end-all of political campaigning, but rather that he understands how his public persona works. From the outset, he encouraged his followers to project their own desires and fantasies onto him. “Every day I wake up determined to deliver for the people,” he said in his party nomination acceptance speech in 2016. “I am your voice.”
While some stars offend their fans by refusing to play into their narratives — see, for example, Taylor Swift battling the gaylors — Trump remains unflappable in the face of any and all interpretations of his persona. By enabling his fans to project their anxieties and hopes onto him, Trump inflated his public persona to a degree that has become completely divorced from the man himself and completely bulletproof. “Trump is our David and our Goliath,” an Iowa voter recently told the New York Times. Not even Beyoncé has range like that.
This level of idolatry seems to have shifted Trump’s fandom beyond relatively normal parasocial relationships. Trump lost the 2016 Iowa caucus to Ted Cruz, largely because Cruz courted evangelical voters who were uneasy about Trump’s extreme nationalist politics. In 2024, after he handily won the same state, columnists like Amanda Marcotte and Sarah Posner pointed out that he seems to have usurped the role once held by leaders of the religious right to become a religious idol himself.
This certainly wouldn’t be the first time a celebrity has been compared to a religious figure, but the existential and blatantly fascist threat to democracy presented by this development can’t be overstated. Trump already holds sway over his followers’ fantasies, and he already determines how (or whether) they receive facts and information. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that portrayals of Trump as a near-deity will fuel an even sharper divide — an ever-widening gap between how his supporters view reality, America, and his place in it, and what the rest of us see and experience.