No politician deserves fan fiction

Save your weird projections about our next Democratic nominee for your therapist.

Picture, if you will, the following scenario:

Thanksgiving is falling apart — none of the dishes are coming together, your timetable is all out of whack, the food is going to be cold by dinnertime. Until Sen. Elizabeth Warren, your beloved nextdoor neighbor, swings by, spreadsheets and spice rack and and hot plates in tow, and calculates the optimal warming temperatures for each dish and adds the perfect spices just in time to save the entire holiday.

Or this:

You are 12, and you are bad at sports. You have just been informed that you didn’t make the cut for the middle school basketball team, so your uncle, former Vice President Joe Biden, picks you up from school (with mom’s permission) to surprise you with milkshakes and ice cream after hearing the bad news. “That’s just the way this whole kerflofpbob crumbles, kiddo,” he says as he pours hot coffee into his “No Malarkey!” mug. He then says something off-color that you don’t catch because you’ve already started looking at your phone.

On this most Super of Tuesdays, allow me to welcome you into the world of presidential-candidate fan fiction, where presidential candidates are our personal saviors and our knights in shining armor, even if these idealized versions of them have no basis in the world of policy or even reality.

If you’ve been online recently, or even just within the past few years, you’ve encountered this phenomenon. From the people behind the Texts From Hillary Clinton Tumblr of the Obama years to today’s scribes writing “Real Person Fiction” about former South Bend, IN mayor Pete Buttigieg and his husband Chasten, a certain type of person can't get enough of imagined scenarios of very real politicians. In the matrix of deranged internet use, it is somewhere near Harry Potter  Is Politics, and a toothless Chuck Klosterman essay.

At its best, these cut to the core of a candidate’s public persona, as seen by those who love them. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is a detail-oriented taskmaster with Oklahoma charm, so she holds your hand as she helps you navigate this sick, sad world. Bernie hates superfluous niceties and bullshit, so he does not partake in the fan fiction at all. Or maybe he proposes in a Friendly’s parking lot, whatever. Joe Biden was Obama’s Vice President, and so you run into him at a Washington D.C. ye olde ice cream shoppe where he gives you a nickel for a cone and you say, “but inflation,” and he tells you that he could get a cone for five cents the same summer he was a lifeguard, and the meanest guy in town was this guy named “Corn Pop.”

At its worst, political fan fiction is rejected comedy writing by and for liberal arts graduates who want to really show their first-year creative writing teacher they have a solid online fanbase. Instead of explaining that Sen. Warren is responsible and reasonable, they illustrate it with examples, like how well she can compartmentalize your love life or clean your closet. They explain that Sen. Bernie Sanders is an unreasonable, demanding terror by invoking the sophisticated rhetorical skill of comparing him to an abusive father terrorizing a family. Even the New York Times has succumbed to such fan fiction, with probably the most cringe example, real or fake, I have offered so far, describing former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg as:

[I]n a sense, the boyfriend you failed to appreciate when he was around — the guy who could be gruff, insensitive, colossally self-regarding but who also tidied up and kept house rather nicely. In his own way, he took care of you — for all those years, 12 of them. You could not accuse him of having a problem with commitment. And he bought you things — didn’t he? — at least when you weren’t needy or begging.

The paper of record also hypothesized what each candidate's dating profile would be in an Opinion section feature called “Tinder the Vote”, because… [phone loses signal]. Even politicians themselves trot out these fantasies, with Joe Biden at times seemingly writing fan fiction about himself, telling fake war stories and claiming he was arrested in South Africa while visiting an imprisoned Nelson Mandela, spouting lies that in his telling are merely exaggerations, because “the central point” of them is “absolutely accurate.” (Another lie.)

As Jezebel’s Ashley Reese put it: “Politics already resembles both the petulant toxicity of a shipping war and the fabricated urgency of a sports event, and those who approach politics as more of a hobby than a marker of survival can be blinded to the material conditions that are actually at stake.” Simply put, if the only way you can comprehend or speak about the election is by translating a politician's personality into real-world scenarios, you have a solipsism problem.

Frustratingly, it makes too much sense that sweeping fantasy (and infantilization) has such a hold on us, considering how entrenched gossip and fantasy has been in politics. The modern political era has been defined by the candidate focusing on displaying charisma and charm in public, while a team of wonks in the back room works out the nuts and bolts of their actual policies. In this sense, we are voting not for the best policy, but instead the best sales pitch. Recall the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate, the first to be shown on television, in which Nixon was still recovering from the flu and looked visibly tired from the campaign trail, whereas Kennedy had kept himself fresh in a hotel room as he prepared. As historian Jill Lepore wrote, “Nixon was expected to win, because he was a good debater, in the college-debate-society sense.” He lost, of course, because Kennedy understood that the point of a televised debate was not to “win,” but instead to look good on TV.

It’s not like anyone really thinks their favorite politician is the one true pure diamond in a corrupt swamp, and that only they can stick to their guns and do the day-to-day gruntwork of running the government. Politicians are, at their core, representations of their policies, puppets for what they stand for (or, more cynically, what the moneyed interests that back them stand for), and in light of those abstractions, personality goes a long way. But still, enough is enough, goddamnit.

Fan fiction is another manifestation of an internet on which gossip masquerades as content masquerading as news. We’re living in peak times of What this celebrity’s internet presence says about blah blah blah and What this cultural event means, really and How Nancy Pelosi’s State of the Union Protest Disrupted Everything and Changed The Way Women See Themselves in the Workplace (despite being entirely politically meaningless, shallow symbolism and a toothless attempt at dissent after her utter failure to stop Trump from doing whatever he wants. Bernie’s three houses don’t prove him to be a hypocrite — it’s just a gossipy non-sequitur that purposefully misunderstands his policy positions in the hopes of subverting them. (Plus, that “gotcha” only works if you’re implicitly saying that “equality for everyone” means that everyone should be equally poor.) Elizabeth Warren cracking a beer in her kitchen doesn't make her just like us, it probably just means she noticed that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram livestreams from her kitchen were successful. Pete Buttigieg’s pre-politics career fixing bread prices and doing a tour in Afghanistan as part of the Anecdote Corps For Future Presidential Candidates doesn’t make him a loveable, hardworking millennial striver, they were covers for his C.I.A. activities. (Kidding! Maybe.)

There is nothing more condescending — and yes, I am taking those Seamless subway ads into consideration — than trying to translate one of the next world leaders into a character. When we do so, we ignore the actual nuts and bolts of what they truly stand for in favor of whatever image a cabinet of consultants has strategically cobbled together in the hope of appealing to as many people as possible. There is no reason to do their job for them. We don’t need a mascot, we need redistribution of power, resources, a living wage, healthcare. We need to speak about subject matter as it is, not what we wish it were. Until that happens, politicians whose values and convictions could be so easily gleaned from the actions and political positions they’ve taken will continue to disappoint us because they don’t live up to our fantasies of them, just like that boyfriend from college who kept letting you down because you couldn’t stop dreaming about the person he could be if he finally got his shit together.

Darcie Wilder is a contributing writer at The Outline and the author of the novel literally show me a healthy person (Tyrant Books, 2017).