George Osborne loves Peter Mandelson. David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s coalition was rife with cross-party passion. Steve Bannon’s good for a hate fuck. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are good for a hate fuck. Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau are the fresh faced lovers of the French speaking world. The Clintons do it constantly. And everyone wants to fuck Barack Obama.
If you spend enough time on the internet, you find things you wish you had never seen, but sometimes those impossible to un-see sights offer a fascinating insight into the weird and wonderful ways we parse the most complex and exhausting of worlds. Politics has never been a barrel of laughs, but now it seems to be more hostile than ever, stuck somewhere between a perpetual parody and a blinding signal of impending doom. It’s beyond laughter, but hard to look away from. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that one way our glorious comrades of the internet have decided to process this terrifying world is through fan-fiction. Rule 34 exists for a reason, after all, yet there’s something to be said about fandom looking inevitable panic in the eye and dealing with it as they do everything else: Keep Calm and Write On.
During the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government of the UK, from 2010 to 2015, there was an apparent increase in politics related RPF (real person fan-fiction). Politics may be show-business for ugly people, but by the staid standards of our crop of MPs, the combination of David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne, Ed Miliband and Andy Burnham proved aesthetically pleasing enough to encourage screeds of fic. Of course, fandom will always gather wherever there are enough decent looking white dudes with an iota of chemistry between then, so seeing the influx of stories where Cameron and Clegg sealed their political pact through illicit liaisons in the Houses of Parliament didn’t so much shock me as reinforce everything I knew about the world.
I read a lot of this fic during the first couple of years of the coalition; not because I found it especially titillating (this was pre-Justin Trudeau, and my Never Fuck a Tory rule extended to the literary realm), but because it became so enthralling to see these narratives played out with the most powerful, privileged and despised men in the country. All of the fandom favourite tropes were there: The coffee shop alternate universe (AU); the “aliens made us do it” sex; the exquisite agony of angst brought on by infidelities and political betrayals; the cross-dressing and BDSM porn; and the minutely detailed genre epics that transposed these familiar faces to Orwellian circumstances, albeit with more fucking. Particular characterizations became happily accepted as canon, from Peter Mandelson being the Machiavellian prince of darkness to Ed Miliband being the ceaselessly beleaguered object of pity. Much of this came from the narratives of the press, and it seemed like fandom offered a creative form of emotional catharsis, a moment of freedom amidst the callousness of reality. It’s a parallel reality that tries to pull back the veil in search of the humans behind the machinations of power. Ed Miliband beats his brother David to the Labour leadership; cue hurt/comfort fics that take sides, dissect the pain and hope for a happy ending. George Osborne gets booed at the Paralympics; there’s plenty of stories about the emotional cost of that and the passionate comfort provided by colleagues. Canada elects a fresh faced Prime Minister; clearly every world leader must squabble over him like a high school prom date.
Catharsis could often be less than romantic. Never forget, that government imposed measures of staggering cruelty on the British public that may never be fixed. The richest, most privileged men of our society would never feel those repercussions, even if they were voted out of office since they so often seemed to fail upwards (George Osborne is now editor of the London Evening Standard, despite having no journalistic experience). When you are starved of your power, you find new ways to scratch back a sliver of it. Dark fics were common - gaslighting, assault, prison rape, humiliation, that sort of thing. Fury radiated from those stories, offering a tiny form of vengeance against the men who sentenced us to austerity and societal erasure. These were hard to read, which may be the point.
What surprised me most about this fandom, known frequently as lolitics, was not how seriously engaged in the political process many of its members were - young women have never been given credit for such enthusiasm - but how genuinely invested in these men (and few women) they’d become. Knowing that there were women my age who unironically liked George Osborne, who found him charming and supported his policies, sent more shudders up my spine than any fantasy narrative where he liked being wined and dined by Mandelson. That earnestness revealed the double edged sword of the fandom conundrum - how do you make real life people an abstract concept enough to turn them into fan-fic creations, yet still deeply invest in the harshness of their reality? Lin Manuel-Miranda tread that treacherous path with Hamilton, but he never had to worry about those historical figures voting to treble tuition fees.
For most of us, politics is an impenetrable world, particularly in the UK where class remains our nation’s most beloved fetish. At the last election in 2015, almost a third of our MPs went to private school, with one in ten of those attending the all-boys school Eton. 48% of Tory MPs were privately educated. For context, only 7% of the general population have a private education. Oxbridge is the go-to university for Prime Ministers in waiting, and law or policy backgrounds remain the pre-Commons career of choice. Our most celebrated individuals are plucked from a tiny pool, and that doesn’t solely apply to politics. Look at our output of actors, judges, professors, and so on. Poshness is the default mode of power, which goes hand in hand with whiteness and masculinity. Those of us on the margins find new ways to explore this mysterious world that dominates all around us. There isn’t much that unites us as a society, but sex is pretty good for that.
Then again, it’s the non-sexual stuff that ends up being the most intriguing to me. When a politician or candidate is on our screens 24/7, pleading with the public to invest in their campaign and hand them the keys of power, there’s an inevitable hunger for the truth that accompanies it. The bigger the enigma, the greater the thirst for knowledge. During the 2012 Presidential campaign, there was a boom in popularity of Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan slash fiction. Finally, Mittens got to have a discernible personality.
It’s the unspoken rule of fandom that you keep your shenanigans separate from the real world. Reporting on fandom and its activities tends to be misguided at best and scornful at worst, especially when written by tourists. Your imagination is your own and it’s unpleasant to see it be interrogated, regardless of your interest. Real life has also begun to infringe on fandom in different ways: When the system itself has moved beyond parody, the media reporting on it can’t decide whether to be All the President’s Men or a bastardized emoji board. Even respected journalists crack shipping jokes, tweet the memes and adopt the vernacular of teen girls the world over. Even the President gets into social media squabbles. It’s a decidedly different experience to see the insular ecosystem of fandom become the language of journalism. Why read a House of Cards AU fic when everything happening in real time is far more bizarre? Fandom’s good at keeping ahead of the curve though. Ted Cruz may be the Zodiac Killer, but the fan-fic about that is priceless.
Now, things are shifting. The coalition is gone, we have a minority Conservative government at the feet of Northern Ireland’s DUP in a futile attempt to keep power, and the Labour left have revitalized the youth vote. Across the pond, the joke of Trump has long since stopped being funny, but the tools of fandom remain sturdy. Right now, the most popular political fan-fiction involving Americans centres on the Clintons - the maligned dynasty of the centre-left have found a new audience seeking narratives of passion, power and optimism (it’s still pretty rare to see a heterosexual pair, and a long-time married one at that, dominate any fandom). There’s obvious humour to be found in the set-up to one fic, where Robert Mueller and James Comey engage in phone sex, but the meat of the tale itself is oddly sweet. Putin fucks Trump, obviously, and it’s in these moments where you appreciate fandom as a satirical power. A rather blunt one, but effective nonetheless, perhaps because the execution is so earnest and you can see the hard work that went into it. Who wouldn’t find that better than a staid political cartoon? It’ll surprise nobody that the Jon duo of Pod Save America have their fans, which I imagine they’d find entertaining. I can’t help but find comfort in a fandom that creates the perfect fictional partner for Huma Abedin. She deserves it.
“Love Trumps Hate” is the new t-shirt slogan of the resistance age, but it’s long been a rallying cry for the fandom world. Those maligned tools of cultural enthusiasm, wielded primarily by young women, have been put to good use in ways that intrigue some and baffle others. When the world is as confusing as it is these days, fan-fiction makes a depressing amount of sense.
Of course, sometimes the world just makes it very easy for them.