It’s also extremely image-savvy.
During the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton had celebrity endorsements by the boatload. Beyoncé endorsed her, and so did Oprah. She had the Kardashians and Rihanna and Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. She had YouTube stars. If you were even a little bit famous, the narrative seemed to be, it was your duty to use your platform to lift up Hillary Clinton and denounce Donald Trump.
But one giant celebrity was notable for her silence. Taylor Swift declined to endorse any candidate in the 2016 election, or to speak out against Trump after the election was over. It was a decision for which she took an enormous amount of heat.
Swift began to position herself as a feminist in 2014, two years before the election, and to some observers, her decision not to campaign for Clinton seemed to be a sign that her feminism wasn’t genuine, that it was just a fashionable stance she’d taken on to sell albums.
“To stay silent in this election, in which a candidate has unabashedly insulted women and people of color, is to ignore the mission [Swift] has claimed to be promoting, and makes money off of,” proclaimed one article in Splinter in 2016. A 2017 Guardian article declared that Swift’s refusal to denounce Trump showed that she was “a musical envoy for the president’s values.”
Even the articles that were most sympathetic to Swift’s silence generally argued that she was keeping quiet because she came up in the conservative country music world and didn’t want to alienate her Republican-leaning country fan base. “Neutrality is her safest option,” wrote Caroline Framke for Vox in 2016. “Some people who find her silence disappointing might be fans, but more will be people who never counted themselves as such.”
But in a new profile in Vogue’s September issue, Swift explained why she chose not to publicly support Clinton — and her reasoning is a lot savvier than the generally accepted wisdom gave her credit for at the time.
“Unfortunately in the 2016 election you had a political opponent who was weaponizing the idea of the celebrity endorsement,” Swift explained. “He was going around saying, I’m a man of the people. I’m for you. I care about you. I just knew I wasn’t going to help.”
Swift isn’t the only person who thinks the plentiful celebrity endorsements might have hurt Clinton’s campaign rather than helped. “Did celebrity endorsements contribute to Hillary Clinton’s presidential upset?” asked Kenzie Bryant at Vanity Fair shortly after the 2016 election. Bryant concluded that celebrity endorsements are always a mixed bag, and that they meant little when running against a celebrity candidate: “Instead of the transitive property of Katy Perry (‘I’m a Katy Perry fan; Katy Perry is a Hillary Clinton fan; I’m a Hillary Clinton fan’),” Bryant wrote, “there’s the much simpler ‘I’m a Trump fan’ equation, for better or worse.”
Swift also told Vogue that she felt her particular star image in 2016 would have been a liability for Clinton. The summer of 2016 was the moment when Swift was at the nadir of her popularity, after Kim Kardashian published a video to Snapchat that appeared to catch Swift in a messy public lie about Kardashian’s husband Kanye West. In response, people flooded Swift’s social media feeds with snakes.
“The summer before that election, all people were saying was She’s calculated. She’s manipulative. She’s not what she seems. She’s a snake. She’s a liar,” Swift said. “These are the same exact insults people were hurling at Hillary. Would I be an endorsement or would I be a liability? Look, snakes of a feather flock together. Look, the two lying women. The two nasty women.”
Swift isn’t wrong to recognize that there’s some overlap between the way people talk about Hillary Clinton and the way people talk about her. Clinton was dealing with what the press tended to call her “likability problem,” the sense that she wasn’t genuinely warm or charismatic enough to form an emotional connection with voters, and that she had to calculate and lie to get as far as she got. Swift, meanwhile, often reads to the public as manipulative and controlling.
In other words, many people tended to view both of them as liars.
“When did you first realize that Taylor Swift was lying to you?” asked the Ringer in July 2016.
“Why can’t Hillary Clinton stop lying?” asked the Atlantic, one month later.
Swift’s reasoning is a reminder that for all the criticism she gets for being out of touch and un-self-aware, she understands her image — and all the reasons that people don’t like it — better than anyone. And when the consequences are truly monumental, she knows how to get out of her own way.