Taylor Swift—the darling of the American heartland and whose melodious roots lie in the conservative world of country music—recently announced her support for two Democrat candidates in the lead up to the US midterm elections.
Folks formerly known as Swifties have demonstrated the end of their fandom by burning their merch. T-shirts and caps and posters are all being set ablaze to protest Swift’s apparent partisanship.
This is not the first time that fire has played such a key role in conservative backlash.
In 2017, the Keurig coffee machine company pulled their advertising from Sean Hannity’s chat show on Fox. Hannity had defended Roy Moore, an Alabama senate candidate. Moore had been a candidate dogged by allegations of sexual pursuits of underage girls and who had Trump’s backing right to the bitter (and unsuccessful) end.
To show their support for Hannity, for Trump and for Trump’s chosen scamp, MAGA hat wearers protested the Keurig slight by smashing their coffee machines. Supporters of the Terrible Three posted photos of their pummeled percolators all over social media.
In August 2016, footballer Colin Kaepernick knelt rather than stood, hand-on-heart, for the American anthem. In the days that followed, Trump chastised him, suggesting that maybe he ‘should find a country that works better for him’. As more players knelt out pre-game anthems, Trump’s rhetoric escalated to the point of calling the protesting players ‘sons of bitches’.
So enthused about Trump’s ‘patriotism’ and so aggrieved about the NFL’s inaction, lighter fluid would be brandished and league merchandise would be charred. When Kaepernick became the face of a Nike campaign last month, Nike shoes and shirts were similarly scorched.
It’s impossible to determine how common such theatrics really are: social media invariably gives us distorted views on just how much people care about plastic bags, too-sexy Halloween costumes or insufficiently Eastery chocolate eggs. But there are indeed videos. Some people have actually gone to the trouble of burning their property, filming it, and posting it online. And I find it fascinating.
Given that Taylor and Keurig and Kaepernick already have your money, all this destruction seems a bit farcical. If you’re burning items that you actually need, at best, your bonfire is an act of self-sabotage forcing you to replace your seared stuff. You’re now the one out of pocket.
It’s a tad more complicated than that though.
Ever since the 1950s’ ‘Reds under the bed’ paranoia, the reverence of the American flag has exacerbated to the point where it serves not only a metonym for the country, but as a way to demonstrate that you’re not merely patriotic, but loyal, virtuous and most of all conservative.
Cue flagpoles secured to the sides of houses so that your devotion can wave in the wind, 24/7. Cue ritualistic worship of cloth, of song.
In the years since, burning the flag—even if, in reality, it’s just flaming a piece of fabric—has become a symbolic act of dangerous rebellion. And such burnings mean something gravely serious to conservatives. So when Trump supporters get out their own box o’ matches, they too are making their own grand, if silly, statement.
If Brett Kavanaugh’s recent indignant testimony taught us anything, it’s that extent of white man rage. We knew this of course: from the ‘lock her up’ chants of the Trump campaign rallies, to the MAGA caps paired with ‘Trump that Bitch’ T-shirts: a hostility has long been brewing in the US, leading to an election result that maybe shouldn’t have surprised us.
In the smashing of coffeemakers, in the burning of Taylor Swift posters, insight is provided into just how resistant conservatives are to progress, to change, to any questioning of traditional sources of authority, to chinks in the status quo. In all their fervour for the second amendment, they just seem to have forgotten the first one: free speech.
The Free Speech amendment allows Keurig to choose where to direct their advertising budget. The Free Speech amendment permits Taylor Swift to use her platform for good and not evil. And yet, a strange attempt to sanction such speech is transpiring through lawn fires and backyard burnings. That unless your speech is MAGA certified, it’s bad and worth turning to ash.
Perhaps most interesting of all, the very side of politics that’s mounting their case with flames, is the same side calling the Kavanaugh detractors an ‘angry mob’. Because American politics is nothing without its irony.
Of course, maybe I’m just reading too much into it. Perhaps we’re all just cavefolk at heart and still fixated on the flame.
Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne and the author of nine books on gender, sexuality, politics and pop culture. She co-hosts Radio National’s ‘Stop Everything!’ pop culture show and Mamamia’s ‘Sealed Section’ podcast and can be found at: www.laurenrosewarne.com.