How ‘Stan’ Culture Infiltrated Politics

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It was a good week for schadenfreude. Or, depending on how you spent the past year and a half, just plain old shame: After New York Gov. Cuomo announced his resignation on Tuesday amid allegations about his sexual harassment of at least 11 women, a wave of nauseating remembrance swept the internet regarding the uncritical cult of personality that sprung up around the governor during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

If you were the proud owner of a “Cuomosexual” t-shirt, I’m not here to judge you. (There’s plenty of time for that on Twitter.) Over the past decade, a new form of deeply personalized, extremely-online devotion to various political figures has crawled out of the social media fever swamps and infiltrated the mainstream, leading to eccentric and parasocial devotions like those once sworn to Cuomo until his predictably rapid fall.

If you’re a member of Vice President Kamala Harris’ “KHive,” you might have recently swarmed to the veep’s defense amid scrutiny of her perpetually disappointing favorability rating, or a modestly critical viral blog post. Andrew Yang’s “Yang Gang” still haunts America’s subreddits, albeit in dwindling numbers, after the gadfly candidate’s disappointing showing in the New York City mayoral race. Even decidedly analog politicians like 75-year-old Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey can earn an impassioned, meme-wielding youth following, provided they push the right button combination to simultaneously activate a certain subset’s policy and cultural preferences.

American politics has always been a personality game. Thomas Jefferson was the Democratic-Republicans’ avatar of agrarian nobility, contra John Adams’ Federalist, centralist elite. JFK was America’s dynamic future; Richard Nixon its dowdy cloth-coat past. George W. Bush’s aw-shucks Americanism was an implicit critique of John Kerry, despite their shared blue-blood lineage. But there’s something historically novel about modern-day personal politics — something that can be understood only through the lens of one of 21st-century pop culture’s great characters in his own right: Marshall Bruce Mathers III, a.k.a. Eminem, a.k.a. Slim Shady.

If you count yourself among any of the fan clubs mentioned above — the KHive, the Yang Gang, the Cuomosexuals — you just might be a “stan.” That term, enshrined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “an overzealous or obsessive fan, esp. of a particular celebrity,” is self-deprecatingly borrowed from Mathers’ Dido-interloping 2000 hit of the same name, a morbid tale about the titular Slim Shady fan whose obsession ends in tragic violence. “Stan culture,” a shorthand for the obsessive, hyper-passionate subcultures that spring up around various celebrities, has overtaken the realms of K-Pop, Marvel Comics and any number of cultural points between — and now it’s established itself in politics, a reflection of how social media and the strange passions it engenders are changing American life.

“Stans” aren’t just enthusiasts for the objects of their affection, they’re evangelists, even paladins, creating highlight reels, memes and harassment campaigns on behalf of their chosen idols. They cultivate cultural micro-universes, complete with their own historical rivalries, blood feuds and banks of Talmudic knowledge.

Crucially, “standom” is different from traditional “fandom,” insomuch as you might be a “fan” of the Milwaukee Bucks or “The Bachelorette.” It involves an intense, personal identification with one’s idol, where their preferences, beliefs and aesthetics are largely substituted for one’s own — and subsequently defended at any cost. In a post-monocultural era, a stan-friendly politician isn’t a mass-marketed product of the Nixon era, but a boutique offering who activates one’s niche cultural affinity instead of a hazily-defined American spirit.

Politics is now as much of a marketing battle as the Billboard Hot 100 or the box office; it was inevitable that “standom” would eventually reach it. But to understand how it shapes public discourse — and how it might, or might not, benefit the ambitious politicians who possess their own — it’s helpful to look at where the phenomenon has manifested before, and who’s been able to most successfully harness it.

If you’re a news consumer of a certain age, the first time you might have encountered the “stan” nomenclature was likely during one of 2020’s many hallucinatory, now-almost-forgotten events: former President Donald Trump’s ill-timed June campaign rally in Tulsa, which was supposedly derailed by anti-Trump TikTok users and K-pop stans. The narrative was almost too good to be true, too poetic in its generational conflict: Trump’s rally, seemingly flouting both public health recommendations in a pre-vaccine world and good taste amid ongoing racial justice protests, was depressed in its attendance by internet-savvy young people who registered for tickets with the express intent of not showing.

Although the campaign’s direct impact is still somewhat unclear, the stan army at the very least succeeded in baiting Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale to crow about the massive RSVP numbers and book an outdoor overflow space — leading Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the beneficiary of her own fiercely devoted fanbase, to crow afterwards on Twitter that the Trump campaign got “ROCKED by teens on TikTok.” Those who organized it may not have been “stanning” on the behalf of any one politician, but their methods and tone were a perfect introduction for the political mainstream to how “stan culture” organizes and imposes itself on the broader media ecosystem: through virality, simplicity and a deep sense of grievance and indignation.

Nowhere in mainstream politics is that combination better reflected than with Kamala Harris’ online army, the aforementioned “KHive.” The self-bestowed pun nickname recalls Beyoncé’s “BeyHive,” infamous for its swift and relentless retribution against anyone who might besmirch (or even mildly criticize) the pop mogul. KHive stans—many of them former supporters of Hillary Clinton—view themselves as the frontline defenders of a trailblazing politician who has defied the obstacles that traditionally stymie Black women in politics only to face continued, unfair scrutiny after her triumph on the 2020 ticket.

Here, the substance of that complaint is less relevant than the form it takes. KHive members keep lists of their opponents, presumably as targets for relentless trolling. They generate strange kitsch art. Some rarely leave the house without some form of identifying pro-Kamala clothing or merchandise. The KHive comprise a political movement only insomuch as Kamala Harris is literally a politician; in reality, the group is closer to a fandom. And in that light, it’s only natural that it grew out of the 2020 Democratic primary, which featured a cast of characters almost as expansive and distinct as the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself.

That primary featured the KHive and the Yang Gang, but also the return of the Bernie Bros and the pro-Warren Liz Lads, as well as an organized fanbase for then-South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, albeit one lacking a similarly catchy nickname. (This author’s attempt to identify and activate a movement of “Bennet Bros” has been, as yet, unsuccessful.)

For the most intense devotees of the candidates, the 2020 primary was, literally, a personality contest, with the unique charm of their preferred candidate the only thing standing between American democracy and oblivion—“oblivion,” in this case, being American standom’s great success story: The political project of Donald J. Trump, whose most devoted fans have engaged in all of the behavior described above (and far more).

The vast empire of Trump’s fandom almost makes the KHive look like minor league ball—his re-election campaign spent more than $10 million on MAGA swag for its hungry audience, which picked up any remaining slack with bootleg merch of its own (not to mention a series of ostentatious boat parades, often-surreal social media tributes, and nigh-ubiquitous remixes of the American flag celebrating their idol). Just as Harris taps into something aspirational in her most devoted fans, so does Trump, albeit with about as different an ideological character as one could imagine.

The power and size of Trump’s fandom stems from both his decades of cultivated celebrity and his appeal to America’s large number of voters with racist beliefs, as shown repeatedly by studies from the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group. His personality-based stranglehold on the Republican Party is a perfect case study in what can happen when a fandom grows so intense—and resonates so deeply with a subset of the American cultural psyche—that it can win a crowded major-party primary, force that party to at least re-evaluate, if not significantly alter, its core policy beliefs, and even decide it might be a good idea to subvert American democracy itself.

Trump’s success, contrasted with the lack thereof among his would-have-been presidential rivals with equally personalized followings, reveals a key difference between the two major parties. Within the demographically homogenous Republican Party, the power of one activated fandom can be enough to secure its nomination and all the baked-in partisan support that comes with it.

In the Democratic Party, which is much more demographically diverse and factional, coalition-building is far more essential. An intense personal fanbase is neither necessary or sufficient to win national power in a party so segmented across class, race and educational lines. Enter, then, perhaps the man with the biggest gulf in American history between his decades of electoral success and lack of relative standom: President Joe Biden.

Biden’s success in the 2020 primaries was built on an alliance of Black voters, suburbanites and skeptical moderates. He won by appealing to the one thing that Stan culture, with its endlessly insular, password-protected nature, seems to flout: the existence of a shared American monoculture. As much of a cult of personality as he enjoyed in his own right, Biden’s Democratic predecessor in Barack Obama played it down in favor of his own appeal to American unity, to massive electoral success.

A charismatic, yet ideologically niche, figure like AOC can win a primary in a safe blue district through grassroots energy and sheer force of personality; establishment figures like Markey or Cuomo can bolster their pet issues or (now-thwarted) ambitions, respectively, by cultivating a similar following. But at a national level, with its bumptious, often contradictory coalition, the Democratic Party can’t afford the level of insularity that stan culture tends to engender. The more homogeneous GOP almost needs it, to gin up the base.

Trump did this by leveraging the fracturing of the American monoculture to wild success, from his first 2016 primary win all the way to the White House. A standom is a signifier that a given politician has tapped into something that resonates elementally with their followers— whether that’s racial justice as defined by Harris, Ed Markey’s environment-first populism, or the yearning for “revolution” among Bernie Sanders’ followers.

But as Biden’s numerous defeated foes from 2020 would attest, such a following is no guarantor of victory, or even mass electoral appeal. As long as boring old horse-trading and coalition-building remain essential parts of the democratic process, mere cultural resonance won’t be enough, even on the Republican side of the aisle absent a sui generis political talent such as Trump.

Stan culture is now endemic to American politics, but might ultimately be more sideshow than main event. Yet as the sobriquet’s inventor understood all too well, the Stans have a funny way of grabbing attention above their weight class, even—maybe especially—when they’re on the sidelines.

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