After a few unruly federal government Twitter accounts hit President Trump with some unsubtle subtweets, the Trump administration ordered a social media blackout for all bureaus and departments. In the wake of the crackdown, anonymous and unverified unofficial Twitter accounts for various government agencies — like the National Park Service, NASA, and even White House staff — have popped up to challenge the president's policies and authority. At the same time, conspiratorial Medium posts purport to lay bare the real intentions of the Trump administration, divining a cogent master plan lurking underneath the apparent disarray of the first few weeks. And liberals are eating it up, leading The Atlantic to describe this trend as the liberal answer to the bumper crop of rumors, hoaxes, and fabrications that's come to be called “fake news.” But I think the concept that best captures this phenomenon has different, broader roots than the rumors that took the Facebook 'n' FWD crowd by storm. In fact, liberals have been consuming it since long before November. It's political fan fiction.
A hefty share of the media coverage during the campaign was concerned with the incompetence of Trump's shambling operation, which resembled nothing so much as a whirling carousel aflame, contrasted with the steady and practiced professionalism of Clinton and the Democrats. The conflagration became fodder for jokes that imagined what was happening behind the scenes. Comedy writer Owen Ellickson was the most prolific and popular writer of this genre. His Trump is a domineering Neanderthal, with Paul Ryan playing straight man and punching back to his absurdism. Ellickson renders Clinton world-weary and acerbic, hewing close to the “Texts From Hillary” meme. Writer Sady Doyle imagined Hillary similarly at her victory rally, coldly triumphant and asserting her dominance over her husband, whose entire presidency would become a historical footnote at best, just rising action in the story of the First Woman President. I hypothesized what Trump would say were he an articulate man who could be honest with himself.
It's a fool's game to try to explain why something is funny. But I think the reason why these tweets resonated is because they try to capture something essential about the politicians and their campaigns. It serves the same function as fan fiction — filling in the missing details, repairing backstories, acting as a vector for wish-fulfillment and catharsis. This mode of engaging politics didn't start during this election for progressives. “Uncle Joe,” an imagined version of the former vice-president, emerged in Obama's first term as a passionate eccentric, blunt and blue-collar, goofy but earnest. The Hillary of “Texts From” fame is also an idealized character, a no-nonsense pragmatist with a heart of gold.
Nobody really believes that, say, Biden literally shotguns beers shirtless while listening to GZA, and it's easy to claim that we can keep fact and fiction separately accounted in our head. But we're imagining him that way because we think it gets at something true, and this can make it difficult to keep the character of Biden from bleeding into our impression of the real one. “Uncle Biden” has done a lot to mask the fact that the real Joe Biden fought desegregation, wrote the 1994 crime bill, and appeared to side with Clarence Thomas over Anita Hill during Thomas's confirmation hearings. The hyper-competent “Texts From Hillary” made it more difficult for the real Clinton to rebut charges of shadiness and corruption, and also served to mask over the fact that she had never won a closely fought election.
Trump really was unprepared and unfit to be president, but the image of a perpetually unraveling campaign that Republicans cultivated during the primaries and Democrats adopted during the campaign was an exaggeration. For instance, many missed the fact that the RNC had built a sophisticated, data-driven GOTV operation. This narrative also bred a general underestimation of Trump's eventual chances in the general. Ellickson himself told the New York Times in October that he thought that there was a “ firm ceiling” for Trump's support and that fact made him optimistic about the results. The Trump of Ellickson's Twitter account could never have defeated the Clinton the writer had conjured up.
“The problem comes, as with any other metaphor, when you return to it so often that you start projecting the characteristics of the metaphor back onto reality.”
Instead of creating alternate-universe versions of politicians, some projected them onto existing fandoms, imagining the Democrats hitting the campaign trail for Clinton as the Avengers, or Clinton herself as fictional heroines like Hermione Granger, Katniss Everdeen, or Daenerys Targaryen. I'm not exempt from this method of engaging politics either, casting Kasich and Cruz as the main characters of the first season of True Detective. This kind of playfulness can be harmless fun, and fun can be fine, even in politics. The problem comes, as with any other metaphor, when you return to it so often that you start projecting the characteristics of the metaphor back onto reality. If you envision your party's politicians as superheroes too often, for example, you can start to lose sight of the fact that they aren't noble guardians of truth, justice, and the American way, but rather rich people pursuing their own self-interest.
It is difficult to imagine, for instance, the real Hillary Clinton making an unannounced appearance at the Women's March. Whether you like her or not, dramatic and risky symbolic gestures aren't really her thing. But it is not difficult to imagine Leslie Knope as Hillary Clinton showing up at the march and sliding into the crowd.
Trump's victory has been the impetus for new forms of liberal fan fiction. In one of these stories, the defeated Democratic establishment is not really defeated because it is secretly fighting Trump, playing some kind of oblique long game. The canonical example of this is the viral “ game theory” thread, in which author and self-styled consultant Eric Garland gives a studiedly whimsical and idiosyncratic history of the last several decades of U.S. history in an attempt to show that appearing to do nothing is really the best option for Clinton and Obama. In another, more explicitly fictional genre, Clinton actually won the election and everything is splendid. Tim Kaine is vice-president, Merrick Garland is on the Supreme Court, and Clinton is the no-nonsense president that liberals had been dreaming of for more than a decade.
This latest strain imagines that career federal employees are leading a rebellion in the executive branch, like the government's immune system is reacting to an infection. These are the numerous unofficial “alt” and “rogue” accounts of federal agencies, and, most flamboyantly, a Twitter account supposedly run by the president's own staff. It's no coincidence that the voice this account writes in sounds exactly like Ellickson's pre-election fanfic — both are telling liberals what they want to hear. That Ellickson presents his version as a fiction and @RoguePOTUSStaff presents theirs as fact is irrelevant.
But the fantasy of Trump as too incompetent to be effective has been replaced by a new one. Instead, in Medium posts and Twitter threads, Trump is some kind of political savant, with Bannon playing a strategic genius pulling his strings. The Trump administration expertly deploys distraction, misdirection, and even feigned incompetence as threads in a vast conspiracy. So Trump's executive order about immigration was something even more sinister than it appeared: Trump was probing America's institutions for weaknesses, checking to see if it is ripe for a coup yet. “ Trial Balloon for a Coup,” written by Google engineer Yonatan Zunger, postulates that Trump never really meant for the executive order to hold. The ostensible confusion and then backtracking about whether green-card holders should be included in the ban was intentional and plotted in advance, in order to “create chaos and pull out opposition.” Silicon Valley techie Jake Fuentes hypothesizes along the same lines, but goes even further: The entire immigration ban was an enormous feint meant to distract from Trump's rearranging of the National Security Council. Fuentes concedes that it's possible that he's wrong, but that's not what he's betting on. “With each passing day, the evidence tilts more in the other direction,” he ominously concludes.
Although completely different in tone and execution from the humorous caricatures created by Ellickson and others, these Medium posts end up functioning in similar ways. Like fan fiction, instead of trying to analyze and understand reality, they mine reality for the raw material to build satisfying, comforting fantasies. It might seem unusual at first to say that the idea of being ruled by an evil genius would make you feel better, but this is the central attraction of many conspiracy theories — they impose intention and purpose on what seems random and chaotic.
But the simplest answer seems the most likely one to me: The reason Trump's executive order was sloppy and amateurish is because Trump is a political neophyte who has surrounded himself with amateurs. It's true that Trump has spent a lot of time tweeting about the supposed perfidy of judges and attorneys who have sought to block his order, but this is perfectly consistent with Trump's character — a whiny, insecure narcissist who never takes responsibility for his actions. It is certainly true that Trump will use any pretext to grab more power for himself, but that does not require him (or Bannon) to be some kind of political genius. To his credit, Zunger clarifies in a follow-up post that Trump isn't really some kind of mastermind. That post, however, had a fraction of the reach of the original. It's not what liberals were interested in hearing.
Underestimating your foe, as Republicans did in the primary and Democrats did in the general election, is obviously a mistake. It can lead to a false sense of confidence and security. But overestimating your enemy can also be a mistake. You can overthink things in the search for your opponent's “real” strategy, neglecting the obvious response in the search for the counterintuitive. Fuentes, for instance, warns that if his hypothesis is true, it means that any victories that protests win are illusions that play into Trump's hands, and that they can only win “mild, symbolic concessions,” at best. “[Protests are] not sufficient,” he writes, but he doesn't say what people should be doing instead.
This is the danger of liberal fan fiction — it beats a retreat from the real work of trying to understand the political terrain, abandoning it for a manufactured landscape that is easier to accept or understand. We can look past or ignore the plain facts that are right in front of our noses in favor of a construct that doesn't match reality. There's room for metaphor and even escapism in the ways that we talk about politics, but we need to be aware of the subtle defects of any lens through which we view the real world. Because the real world is there waiting for us, outside the worlds we have constructed for ourselves. It is very patient.