Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” was written more than 2,000 years ago, but it’s become abundantly clear that the Republican Party has not yet digested its most famous maxim.
“He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight,” wrote the legendary Chinese military strategist. Or in more modern words: Pick your battles.
This week’s news that Donald Trump and his acolytes have somehow decided that it’s in their best interest to pick a fight with two of the most venerated institutions in modern American life — the global cultural phenomenonTaylor Swift and the ever popular National Football League — indicates that the former president and his allies missed the first day of Strategy 101.
Social media is awash in MAGA conspiracy theories about Swift, her boyfriend Travis Kelce and how their romance might influence the 2024 presidential election now that Kelce, a record-setting tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs, is headed to the Super Bowl with his team.
Spawned in the fever swamps of the right-wing media ecosystem, these flights of fancy were boosted into the mainstream when former GOP candidate VIvek Ramaswamy posted on X, “I wonder who’s going to win the Super Bowl next month. And I wonder if there’s a major presidential endorsement coming from an artificially culturally propped-up couple this fall.”
Of course, these theories are manifestly absurd, and their emergence should come as no surprise. After all, that’s kind of our 45th president’s whole thing. (And it should be noted that many conservatives are also rolling their eyes, including National Review editor-in-chief Rich Lowry who dryly quipped in Politico Magazine, “We have met the enemy, and it is Taylor Swift.”)
If you genuinely believe that the only explanation for a famous pop star and a well-known athlete falling in love is that it’s actually a secret “psyop” masterminded by shadowy interests to steal the Super Bowl and ensure Joe Biden’s reelection (it remains unclear how those two outcomes are connected), I’ve got some oceanfront property in Nebraska that might interest you. (Also, David and Victoria Beckham might want a word. Not to mention Russell Wilson and Ciara. Or Alex Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez. Or any number of the many other high-profile musician-athlete power couples we’ve seen over the years.)
While the recent hyperventilations about the Swift-Kelce union may be unmoored from reality, that doesn’t mean the Trump campaign’s threat of a “holy war” against the beloved singer isn’t political malpractice here in the real world. After all, going to battle with a force much bigger and more popular than you generally doesn’t end well. Just ask one of Trump’s erstwhile rivals for the Republican nomination, Ron DeSantis.
If anyone knows the perils of picking a fight with an iconic American cultural institution, it’s DeSantis. His eagerness to go to war with the Walt Disney Company — despite the fact that the House of Mouse was (and continues to be) significantly more popular than the Florida governor with American voters across the political spectrum — was a fool’s errand for anyone with national aspirations.
After some initial fanfare in right-wing circles, DeSantis’ once-signature “war on woke” subsequently stalled out thanks to limited public support (again, Mickey Mouse remains very popular) and virtually disappeared from his campaign’s messaging by the fall. Of course, we all know what happened next: DeSantis limped through the remainder of a disastrous campaign before exiting the race after an underwhelming performance in the Iowa caucus. By the time pundits sifted through the wreckage of his Hindenburg-level political immolation, DeSantis’ decision to “put nearly all his eggs in the basket of a ‘war on woke’” by doing battle with Disney was declared central to his ultimate undoing.
Given his front-row seat to DeSantis’ implosion, it’s curious that Trump is so eager to follow in his footsteps. And the former president may be setting himself up for an even steeper climb than his vanquished challenger: He’s chosen to take on two unstoppable forces at once. What would Sun Tzu say about fighting a war on two fronts?
And make no mistake, Swift and the NFL are both dominant cultural juggernauts — which is particularly notable at a time when monocultural sensations increasingly don’t exist. With apologies to baseball, football has become modern America’s actual pastime, with NFL games constituting a staggering 93 out of the 100 most-watched U.S. television programs in 2023. Meanwhile, Swift’s recent string of runaway successes are familiar to anyone who didn’t spend the past year living under a metaphorical rock: her record-shattering new album, her rapturously received re-recordings of past albums, her billion-dollar tour, her box office-smashing film, her selection as Time’s Person of the Year, just to name a few.
So it’s unsurprising that a recent Marist poll showed that Americans overwhelmingly love them some Taylor Swift — with 70% of respondents saying they view the “Shake It Off” songstress favorably (including large majorities across partisan lines), and an identical number saying that she is having a “mostly positive impact on the NFL.” Given that his own favorability ratings haven’t climbed above the low 40s in years, Trump’s not so much fighting an uphill battle here as he is waging war on gravity itself.
If you squint your eyes hard enough, you can kind of understand the impulse. On a personal level, Trump has always been famously fixated on his own fame and popularity, so it’s not necessarily shocking that he’s reportedly “privately grousing he’s ‘more popular’ than (Swift).” And from a political perspective, a recent Newsweek survey found that 18% of voters were more likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by Swift. While the megastar has not yet endorsed any candidate for 2024, given the expected razor-thin margin of the election and Swift’s past statements about Trump, you can see why the former president might be inclined to get combative.
But still, the fundamental political truth of the matter remains: This is not going to end well for Donald Trump, the Republican Party or anyone else who insists on picking fights with beloved American cultural icons. We’ve seen this movie before.
The only question left is whether this will be the time that the Republicans finally learn their lesson — the same one that Sun Tzu first wrote down on bamboo slats all those thousands of years ago.
Given their recent track record, I’m not holding my breath. All signs point to a cruel summer ahead for the GOP.
Steve Pierce, a contributing writer for Deseret, is a Democratic strategist and communications consultant who advises campaigns, causes and brands on matters of message and strategy. He is a senior director at Bully Pulpit International, a communications firm based in Washington, D.C.