The replacement of Donald Trump as president was a desperately yearned-for occasion. One could be forgiven for being a bit overcome. One could be forgiven, perhaps, for posting earnestly about Michelle Obama’s bold wine-colored ensemble or for publicly admitting to weeping at the sheer thought of Joe Biden’s decent soul.
Then again, there are limits. “In my fantasies,” tweeted a particularly overcome author, “Pete & Chasten will have Kamala & Dougie over for weekly potlucks that Michele O. will crash with a bottle of wine & gossip, after which Dr. Jill & Joe bring the dogs over along with some homemade brownies to enjoy while they all sing Karaoke.” Another woman asked whether she was “wrong” to “ship” Ella Emhoff, Kamala Harris’s arty stepdaughter, with Amanda Gorman, the youth poet laureate who delivered a stirring poem during the inauguration, two young women who, to my knowledge, have never expressed romantic interest in each other.
Giddy at the long-anticipated inauguration of Biden and Harris, some liberals on Twitter acted out in a familiar way: posting tender White House fanfiction about the first and second families.
There’s a lengthy history here, of course, and in the last few years, Twitter has hosted a wealth of examples. Who could forget the infamous Beto sex tweet, which posited that erstwhile Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke is like a guy who “is all sweet and nerdy but holds you down and makes you cum until your calves cramp”? Or, more endearingly, the meme casting Elizabeth Warren as the ideal colleague or friend, the kind who never takes up too much of the floor in meetings? Or the romanticization of Biden and Barack Obama’s professed close friendship, a cultural obsession so deranged that it spawned a series of detective novels starring the duo?
The most fascinating and puzzling of these fantasies contain an odd solicitude. They seem to arise from a (probably baseless) belief that our favored pols are martyrs tirelessly laboring on our behalf and are therefore deserving of love and multiple orgasms and potlucks featuring hearty laughter and five-alarm chili, which the populace can summon for them through the power of positive thinking.
Democratic thirst tweets can be horny, or they can simply be corny, but there is almost always a sort of huggable fuzziness to them. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a tweet about the Bidens and Harris-Emhoffs forming a quarantine pod or planning an excursion to Medieval Times together, or inviting Dr. Anthony Fauci to a monthly key party. In these tweets, politicians are sweet and pure of heart, fun to split a bottle of wine with and will always let you know if you have spinach in your teeth. They’re low-key sex symbols who put in the work between the sheets. Tweets of this genre, in short, are fantasies of niceness and consideration, as manifested interpersonally among our government’s elite.
What’s going on here, on a basic level, is simple. It’s fandom. Once you’ve invested part of your identity in loving the Obamas or Hillary Clinton, you’re invested in burnishing their image, which is linked to your own self-worth. Luxuriating in thoughts of their beauty and virtue becomes a salve in a cruel world that has, at least, offered you this one good thing (the love of Pete and Chasten Buttigieg) to feel joy about. Even (actually, especially) Bernie Sanders, parka- and mitten-clad amid the sleek inaugural spectacle, became a focal point of fannish regard as affectionate memes about his Inauguration Day look spread across the globe.
When we elect government leaders, questions like whether they’re generous lovers and whether their families get together for takeout pizza every Friday night are, bluntly, irrelevant. Their role is to shape policy that makes the government work for the people. Perhaps because our campaign season effectively never ends, or because the intractable stalemate between the two parties means substantive legislation rarely if ever gets passed, or because celebrity adulation is how we prefer to relate to public figures in America, many of us have grown accustomed to conceptualizing politicians, in wrestling terms, as faces or heels, avatars who either endorse our values or oppose them.
But is this primarily a malady of the left? On Thursday, Texas Monthly senior editor Christopher Hooks tweeted, “Dems seem to love writing and reading fanfic, sexual and not, about their guys. Republicans don’t do this. Say what you will about movement conservatives, but none of them would think to say ‘I bet Mitch hits those back walls np.’” This isn’t entirely accurate, as I noted in a reply; I have barely slept a wink since seeing right-wing pundit Kurt Schlichter tweet back in October that “Suburban women sense that Pence can lay pipe.”
On fan fiction sites, there’s no shortage of Donald Trump tales, with the caveat that much of it seems ironic. There’s the filter bubble question, too: Personally, I’m unlikely to find myself in spaces, on Twitter or otherwise, where conservatives might be speculating feverishly about their favorite congressperson’s gift for erotic massage, whereas I am only one or two degrees of Twitter separation from people who do the same with Democratic leaders.
But there does seem to be an awfully strong tendency to write this sort of glowing fantasy content among liberals. I’m put in mind of Jess Zimmerman’s 2018 essay about how the Democratic and Republican parties are configured along a gender binary, the feminine-coded and masculine-coded parties. Republican fantasies about their leaders tend to frame them as hypermasculine strongmen, the muscular Trump of Ben Garrison cartoons attending to exhortations to “lock her up.” For Democrats, the party associated with femininity, caretaking and community-building, there are certainly fantasies of domination over the opponent ― but the fantasies of coddling our most beloved leaders, seeing them flourish and experience pleasure, seem to set the tone.
The liberal fantasies got a lot of agreement, but also mockery and criticism. Tweets were deleted, and accounts locked, after backlash to tweets like those mentioned at the top of this piece. Meanwhile, another fond left-wing tweet varietal was spreading: memes of Bernie Sanders, clad in woolly mittens and a parka, sitting with his legs crossed on a folding chair. It was an irresistible image, the bundled-up man waiting patiently if uncomfortably, like he was on the sidelines at a kids’ soccer game or camping out in line for season tickets. Memes of him perched in unlikely settings ― in a subway car, on the way to Flavortown ― spread like wildfire.
Though Bernie wasn’t the only one dressed for warmth rather than style at the inauguration ― Elizabeth Warren wore a puffer coat and a Planned Parenthood scarf, while Janet Yellen paired her heavy coat with a lap blanket ― his signature crumpled look and grumpy air struck a particular chord, perhaps providing the strongest possible contrast to the glamor onstage. And before long, there was some tentative backlash. “This is misogyny,” posted one tweeter. “Emotional labor is not beneath you,” tweeted another.
This is meme-on-meme jousting, pitting an imagined version of Sanders ― the resentful grump who wishes he were elsewhere ― against the images of elegant, successful women in jewel-toned coats. How unfair, how cruel that he upstaged these women by wearing a warm coat and sitting.
None of this, it must be said, is real. There’s no real basis to say that Bernie refused to smile for Joe and Kamala’s big day; we can’t even see his face behind the mask. The resentment is that the photo of him hooked onto something in the popular imagination and that it garnered a natural, affectionate response that some believe is owed, instead, to the new president and vice president and the others onstage ― who, by the way, will be fine if we all post memes of Bernie in adorable mittens for a couple of days.
The reality is Bernie is memeable precisely because he seems so unaffected by his surroundings rather than bending to the pomp and circumstance of the setting. He looks just as appropriate, or inappropriate, almost anywhere you place him. Bernie is just Bernie: He’s here to keep his hands warm and talk about Medicare for All, whether it’s on “Red Table Talk” or in the driveway of your childhood home. Say what you will, the guy is mission-focused, and the mission is actually what matters.
It’s true that we expect women in the public eye to behave more like celebrities ― more groomed, more fashion-conscious, more attuned to the expectations of their role and setting. But it’s also true that treating our politicians like celebrities hasn’t gotten us very far. With the country in the very grimmest days of a pandemic and millions without work or health insurance, maybe it’s a good time to cool it with the fantasies of elite slumber parties and fantasize about our leaders doing some work.