Is this the face of a Democrat media-manipulator? (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

January 31, 2024   5 mins

In pop music, one of the most time-honoured devices for upping the emotional ante is known colloquially as the “Truck Driver’s Gear Change”. In it, the melody stays the same, but is modulated up a whole note, with the effect of raising the emotional pitch. It’s a common device, but my (and my daughter’s) favourite modern example comes from Taylor Swift.

Released in 2008, Swift’s “Love Story” recounts the frustrations of a young “Juliet” kept away from her “Romeo” but longing for him to carry her away. In the final stanza, the song’s “Romeo” unexpectedly kneels and — cue Truck Driver’s Gear Change — proposes marriage. It’s hugely satisfying, emotionally powerful — and, in a way Swift has always instinctively grasped, it’s a story drawn straight from the collective female unconscious.

The central trope in “Love Story” is that of most romance novels: true love whose course doesn’t run smooth, but which ends Happily Ever After. It is, perhaps, the most conservative of all plot lines. So why, amid rumours that Swift’s own much-publicised romance with American football star Travis Kelce may be on the brink of its own emotional gear change, do conservatives seem to be furious with the real-life “Love Story” heroine, Taylor Swift?

The hate is not exactly new. Last year, MAGA activist Laura Loomer posted a long and impressively swivel-eyed X screed about how the Soros family has induced Taylor Swift to help the Democrats manipulate the media, in exchange for re-acquiring the rights to her own music catalogue. But the incipient lunacy of the 2024 US election cycle, plus Biden calling on Swift for an endorsement, seem to have inflamed the hatred to fresh levels. Presidential also-ran Vivek Ramaswamy, for example, has popped up with a nudge-nudge about the Superbowl being rigged for Kelce’s team.

So, is Swift a Democrat media-manipulation asset? I doubt it. But if we view conspiracies poetically rather than literally, we might say a deeper intuition is at work: a sense that the cultural force embodied by Swift is both a political loose cannon, and one that has very little to do with traditional democratic politics. And, worse (from the perspective of Loomer and her like), it’s a force the Right neither understands well, nor has much prospect of turning to their advantage.

The force in question is internet-enabled swarms. There are a great many instances of this phenomenon, but Taylor Swift’s collective fandom — or “Swifties”, as they are known — represent perhaps the largest and most well-known. They can also, occasionally, have startling effects in the real world. In 2022, for example, after Ticketmaster crashed during a surge of unprecedented demand for tickets to the singer’s Eras tour, Swifties enraged by the ticketing firm’s dodgy practices mobilised to break up the company: a campaign that is now bearing fruit. And just last week, after obscene AI deepfakes of Swift were released, the Swifties swarmed again, drowning out the fake images and prompting calls in Congress for greater regulation on such tools.

And perhaps here we can grasp the contours of what the conspiracy-theorists are gesturing at, however clumsily, when they claim that “Taylor Swift is a psyop”. When public discourse comprises a host of overlapping swarms, of which Swifties are only one of the better-known and more prominent ones, politics simply doesn’t work the way it used to. Just recently, the think-pieces and polls have woken up to this — speculating on whether, or how, Taylor Swift might shift the upcoming US election.

And if there’s a weirdly misogynistic edge to the boos and “empty egg carton” jokes (referring to 34-year-old Swift’s supposedly diminished fertility) prompted by media images of Swift doing girlfriend stuff, this is less for who she is than what she represents. For this isn’t just “popular music women really like” but something far more insidious and wide-ranging: her role as metonym for the female-coded phenomenon of swarmism.

Infectious emotions are not uniquely female, but studies suggest women are more prone to them. Anyone who has ever observed a group of teenage girls will recognise the way, whether in real life or via internet channels, emotions felt by one member of the group refract and are amplified by others. This process is, in turn, linked to the well-documented prevalence of conversion symptoms and social contagion among adolescent girls, such as the pandemic-era outbreak of “TikTok tics” among a predominantly teenage female cohort — or, more darkly still, the teenage girls’ Instagram suicide group uncovered by police in 2021.

In other words: swarmism can harm, or even kill. It’s also radically intensified by the internet. Part of the joy of fandoms and online subcultures is the sheer pleasure of getting caught up in its contagions. The kind of high-intensity stampede common on social media is also, now, a potent political force. It was at least partly the power of online swarm consensus that powered the duration and intensity of Covid measures, while punishing dissent using (again, very feminine) sanctions such as social ostracism and character assassination.

Now, as we roll into a crunch election year across numerous very online democratic nations including Britain, Germany and the United States, it seems more than likely that swarmism will play a crucial role. And this perhaps explains the Right-wing panic over Swift. For many conservatives — especially older conservatives — simply do not understand how swarm politics works, or how to exploit it for political advantage.

Conservatives are also, by and large, fairly inept at mobilising female-dominated swarms. And the genius of Swift lies in her capacity to render, musically, the emotional landscapes of young women; it’s no surprise that her internet-enabled fandom should be among the largest, most emotionally labile, and most female in existence. Given the now widely-noted global phenomenon of sex-divided political fandoms, in which the Left leans female and the Right male, it’s therefore reasonable to assume that Swifties are likely to be structurally Left-wing.

To the misogynistic subtext of Swift hate, we can perhaps add a side order of resentment that the Left possess such a potent and well-organised potential swarm ally — even if that swarm’s figurehead seems currently mostly occupied with falling in love and doing silly dances at NFL games. Swarms can be dangerous; but they can also tip the scales for your side. For conservatives — and especially those conservatives who still believe in pre-internet stuff like facts and logic — the mechanisms whereby a swarm can be persuaded to do so are largely mysterious. And under it all lurks the suspicion that there’s just something girly and therefore low-status about the whole business.

But despite this ineptitude, they are going to have to learn. For while swarmism may be female-coded, not all swarms are female-dominated, and nor is the phenomenon likely to disappear any time soon. Arguably the American Right-winger who grasps this most instinctively is Donald Trump, who has sailed serenely through his party’s primaries without participating in a single debate — and who is nonetheless already being hailed as the likely next POTUS even by the Davos elite.

Trump instinctively grasps internet demagoguery. But I can see how, for less adept conservative internet denizens, the femaleness of Swifties and Swift herself, plus women’s broader tilt away from Right-coded fandoms might make the emerging power of swarm politics look, in aggregate, like a sinister girly plot against the Right. So, when the stakes are this high, it’s probably too much to hope that anyone might see a successful young woman enjoying the third-stanza emotional gear-change in her own personal Love Story, wish her well, and leave it at that. For the swarm significance of Taylor Swift is simply too vast for her to be left in peace. No matter how resentfully the pre-internet Right may barrack her for it, the truth is that with or without her, the internet’s meme polities are not going back into their box.

This bodes ill for representative democracy on the pre-internet model. The emotional contagions of the networked world are transnational, near-instantaneous, and as emotionally changeable as adolescent girls, but with vastly greater power to affect policy or even take lives. But it also stands as a warning to the Right: future shots at power will stand or fall on conservatives’ willingness to make peace with the swarm.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.