This week, I saw a meme that gave me a moment of clarity. Donald Trump and Taylor Swift have an awful lot in common. Call me fearless — the last sentence could lead to nearly all of the Internet hating me — but the comparison is worth entertaining to consider our political moment.
Over the last few weeks, several Trumperati — Jesse Watters, Jack Posobiec, Judge Jeanine Pirro and the like — panicked on Swift’s potential political influence and musing on how the songstress’ present success must be orchestrated by those who wish to reelect President Biden and deny President Trump a second term.
While Swift has gone from superstar to the superstar in the last few years, she did not materialize out of thin air. The present fascination with her makes a lot more sense if you consider her self-made campaign to pop-dominance.
Whether that campaign helps or hurts a presidential candidate is not a conspiracy, but it does lead to my unlikely comparison. Both stars — Trump and Taylor — trade on the mystique of being self-made.
Trump’s father was a real estate developer himself, and there have been endless debates on how meaningful his initial support of his son’s business efforts was to the latter’s success. Only the most skeptical, though, could deny that President Trump has been successful at building a brand around himself. Likewise, while Swift grew up in a reasonably well-off family — and with a grandmother who had minor success in performance herself in the 1950s — her fame came from a methodical, decade-and-a-half push of savvy self-promotion starting with being one of the early Internet-first musical rising stars.
The result in both cases comes down to well-heeled families having a kid who far exceeds the parents in success and reputation. Direct talent aside for a moment, they became the figures we know through business savvy and the intentional formation of personas almost impossible for people not to know and relate to.
I rewatched Home Alone 2 this past Christmas and was amused afresh by the short cameo from then “merely” rich, private citizen Donald Trump. The forty-fifth president has been so ubiquitous for such a long time that the briefest of cameos of a real estate developer thirty-plus years ago would already have been noted by most moviegoers.
The project of building the Swiftian brand has been similar. Emerging as a young sensation in the mid-2000s, Swift demonstrated a savvy few teenage stars show, immediately setting to build a “brand” that was well formed before she hit 20. Instead of garnering tabloid headlines for drunkness and drug use like so many young stars, Swift was putting together chess pieces for an empire. She isn’t merely Pop Star #1 or one of the most accomplished songwriters of recent decades, she also has managed to make people — even people who don’t listen to her music — get involved in her “brand.”
Trump took the staid CEO role and made it an actual reality TV spectacle. Swift got the average person to care about the nitty gritty of copyright law as she fought for control of her master recordings.
Both have shown a particular savvy for social media. To be sure, their social media approaches are nearly opposites: Trump has made an art of oversharing everything that crosses his brain. Swift is amongst the most restrained social media powerhouses, letting out very precise bits to tease and delight fans about her next project.
A different approach, sure, but to the same effect: together, they have a unique prowess in directing the conversation of people around the world precisely where they choose.
Whether you love Swift and hate Trump; think Swift the Anti-Hero or would rather a pox fall upon both, objectively, they are masters of the art of celebrity.
Masters of celebrity, but notably, not politics. Trump was a standard issue New York Democrat not that long ago. Swift’s recent uptick in politics is rather standard issue, too, albeit characteristically in a more limited, reserved form than most of her peers (doing far more to promote voter registration than candidates).
This brings me to the meme that started this line of thought. It was in reply to one of the many examples of political voices complaining that Taylor Swift might influence the 2024 election. More than a few of those voices have now concluded that the NFL playoffs have been fixed to allow Swift to promote President Biden’s reelection campaign.
The idea is crazy in itself and would be contrary to Swift’s typical, careful on-brand use of major platforms. Should her boyfriend’s team win this year’s “Big Game,” it would be far more likely that she’d use the moment to drop a surprise new album than try to boost a politician.
But there was an irony to the handwringing that the meme pointed out even with the tinfoil conspiracy set aside. The poster replied with the “Awkward Look Monkey Puppet” meme and a quip that there is an irony to supporting Trump while complaining about people listening to a celebrity concerning politics.
President Trump held the title of president because of his aforementioned celebrity. Even far richer business people struggle to grab political attention like Trump did in his meteoric political rise in 2015, about the time of Swift’s previous top of the world moment. He traded on decades as the only real estate mogul that most people around a kitchen table would know to become a political power.
I have no qualms about celebrities offering their political hot takes like anyone else would. I also happen to agree with those currently in a frenzy about Swift that we don’t want large portions of the population taking their political cues from a celebrity. The trouble for those commentators is this cuts both ways.
Trump’s MAGA troops and Taylor’s Swifties both are militantly loyal to a fault. Indeed, they may vote for whomever their preferred pop idol says, even, in Trump’s case, if it happens to be himself. But neither the movements nor their leaders appear well anchored into geopolitical realities.
Whether one is on the Right or Left, we need to go back to favoring expertise rather than starlight. Opening an opulent hotel does not make a person a geopolitical wizard. Crafting an exquisite album does not make one a constitutional lawyer.
Thus I wish the two stars had one more thing in common. Wouldn’t it be nice if Trump adopted Swift’s love of registering people to vote while both stepped out of the limelight with regard to how people voted?
Of course, Swift and Trump don’t have to reach that commonality for us to change. There is no invisible string forcing us to follow any celebrity’s opinion. If a star has shown acumen in an area beyond just being a star — building a successful business empire, for example — we should note their input in places relevant to their accomplishments. But it is high time we weigh a lot more what others say, not because of stardom, but because they understand the intricacies of different matters of governance.
It’s folkloric, but setting aside fandoms in favor of facts would sure do a lot to get our country out of the woods.