Samuel Ashworth| Longreads | September 2019 | 13 minutes (3,389 words)
Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) are nestled in one another’s arms, sweat glistening on their muscled chests. They kiss softly and tenderly. It’s the middle of the night in a hotel somewhere on the campaign trail, and they are in love.
“So, if you were an animal, which would you be?” asks Ted.
“Let me think,” says Marco. “A manatee.”
Welcome, friends, to the glorious world of congressional fan fiction. If you’ve always associated fan fiction with the kind of people who hand-sew their own Star Trek jumpsuits, think again. Since going online in the late ’90s, fan fiction — a fan-created spinoff (sometimes way, way off) of an already-existing pop culture presence — has exploded. Its protagonists range from fictional, like Han Solo, to real, like Ariana Grande or members of the British Parliament. Published stories, which can range from a few hundred words to a few hundred thousand, number in the tens of millions, and boast an immense readership. The genre also remains one of the few resolutely not-for-profit corners of the internet: Since the work often involves trademarked intellectual property, fair use rules forbid fanfic authors from making money off their writing, unless they change all recognizable details, as E.L. James did with her BDSM Twilight fanfic story, Fifty Shades of Grey. Stories about congress fall under the penumbra of “Real-person fiction,” which isn’t bound by copyright laws in the same way.
For as long as people have been telling stories, people have been telling stories about those stories. It’s a basic human impulse: The Greeks wrote fan fiction about the Trojan War; the Chinese wrote it during the Ming Dynasty; the Spaniards wrote it about Don Quixote; the Victorians about Sherlock Holmes. Typically, we date its modern iteration from the late ’60s, when Star Trek fans began to circulate mimeographed zines full of their own adventures aboard the USS Enterprise. It was the punctuating backslash in “Spock/Kirk” that created the genre for stories which literalize unspoken sexual tension between same-sex characters: slashfic.
While not all fan fiction is erotic or romantic, a lot of it is. Pop culture mega-properties like Harry Potter or the TV show Supernatural have the biggest constituencies, but niche fandoms abound (for example, there is even one — mercifully chaste — story devoted to my favorite podcast, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour). One growing niche is political fan fiction; the influential fanfic site Archive of Our Own (AO3), with more than 2 million users, has a thousand stories dealing with 21st-century American politicians alone.
Fanfic is inherently, delightfully goofy, but it’s also worth taking seriously. Fandom has become one of the driving forces of American pop culture. When provoked, fans can rescue a TV show like Brooklyn 99 or One Day at a Time from cancellation, or they can kill a project in its infancy, as numerous young adult novelists have found. Even though fan fiction is necessarily noncommercial, the world of fandom is an economic behemoth, and with economic power, inevitably, comes political power — whether it’s wanted or not.
Most political fanfic features world leaders: AO3 features dozens of erotic romances between Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau, or David Cameron and a rotating harem of male British MPs, while the past two years have seen a proliferation of meme-ready “Trump/Shrek” slashfic. Sample line: “Donald Trump was building a wall. No, not to keep out the Mexicans. He built it around his heart, to keep anyone from getting there and breaking it like Shrek did.”
But since the 2016 election, as American political engagement has boomed — the 2018 midterms had the highest voter turnout percentage for any midterm in 104 years — fan fiction scholars have noted a spike in stories featuring the U.S. Congress. What makes this boomlet strange is that at its core, fan fiction “is about genuinely liking a person,” says Dr. Amber Davisson, coauthor of Politics for the Love of Fandom: Fan-Based Citizenship in a Digital World. And historically, well, not many people like Congress. As of August of this year, the institution’s average Gallup approval rating was 17 percent — somehow an improvement over the first half of this decade.
And yet, the more I spoke to authors, the more congressional fan fiction began to make perfect sense as a response to our high-strung political moment. To Ehren Hatten, a prolific fanfic author living in Austin, Texas, people gravitate to fanfic because it’s “writing something you want to see.” During the Obama administration, Hatten wrote a series of stories modeled on the “Hetalia” universe — a Japanese webcomic turned manga and anime series featuring nations personified as broadly stereotypical characters (France, for instance, hits on every woman who crosses his path). In her tale, the embodiment of America storms onto the floor of Congress and delivers a scorching tirade against the Affordable Care Act, which he calls an unconstitutional attack on the “will of the people.” The law, he warns direly, will bring about another Civil War — and a justified one at that.
Even though fan fiction is necessarily noncommercial, the world of fandom is an economic behemoth, and with economic power, inevitably, comes political power — whether it’s wanted or not.
“I was trying to point out how wrong and out of touch Congress has been for years,” Hatten told me. What she wrote was mostly “a way for me to get ideas out of my head,” but at the same time, she was annoyed by other Hetalia-based fan works “that would portray things like America being a superfan of Obama.” In the climax of her story, America triumphantly punches Obama in the face.
Similarly, Amanda Savitt, an ACA supporter, said writing fan fiction “made me feel like I had a little bit of control.” In her story, Steve Rogers is divorced from his role as Captain America’s alter ego and is now a young diabetic art student. (This is typical of the “alternate universe” genre of fanfic, which takes characters from one world and reimagines them in another, often with completely different characteristics. One such story features Rand Paul as a high school goth tormented by/in love with rich bully Donald Trump.) Afraid the Republican Party will kill the ACA and take away his access to health care, Steve and his best friend Bucky Barnes decide to marry so Steve can secure health insurance. Eventually, Steve and Bucky attend a town hall led by a Paul Ryan–esque figure. Steve delivers a scorching tirade against the repeal of the ACA. In the climax of her story, Steve triumphantly punches the Paul Ryan–esque figure in the face.
For many political fanfic writers, this catharsis is the main point of the exercise — to blow off steam. While William Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility,” fan fiction omits the tranquility part, which may explain the sheer ferocity of a lot of the eroticism. One author in Alaska who wrote a story about Mitch McConnell (R-KY) having intense and almost feral sex with Paul Ryan (R-WI 1) after failing to repeal Obamacare told me they banged the whole thing in an hour when they were feeling ground-down and angry.
Somewhere in Washington, rain is pouring outside as a young person curls up under a blanket with their girlfriend, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY 14). Suddenly, a blackout ripples across the city, plunging them into darkness.
“Don’t be afraid,” she whispers. “I’m here.”
Yet for all the rage that has soaked into our political rhetoric lately, stories wherein characters physically attack politicians are rarer than you might think. Instead, most congressional fan fiction, even the really out-there stuff, is all about the romance. In one story, Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA 12) get intimate after a spirited game of one-on-one basketball. In another, Paul Ryan and former Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL 18) long for each other from across the House floor. The exception to this rule is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose stories, so far, are loving but pointedly nonsexual. This has much to do with the fact that fanfic authors are overwhelmingly female, making sites like AO3 something of a refuge from the male gaze. “When the media reports on AOC and ‘girlifies her,’” Davisson explains, “they’re diminishing her. … [Her fans] care about her as a person.”
All of which brings us to Rubio and Cruz nuzzling, flushed with the thrill of new love and discussing their spirit animals. There are no fewer than 24 separate stories under the “Crubio” tag on AO3, but one of the first, “Fifty Shades of Red,” was written in 2016 by two high schoolers, who asked, not unreasonably, to remain anonymous in this article.
“Fifty Shades of Red” runs over 15,000 words long and chronicles a sweet but relentlessly raunchy (a phrase that could capture fan fiction at its core) senatorial affair, culminating in the two men admitting their love on a debate stage. They then exit stage right to apologize to their wives — who, in a classically Shakespearean twist, have also fallen in love with each other. “Our first taste of politics was Trump,” said one of the young writers, who collectively published the story under the nom de fan MikeRotch. “So it was kind of fun to turn the shitshow that was that election and make it into something more funny, and try to imagine that there’s something else inside these men aside from terrible policies and homophobia.”
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Both writers describe themselves as left-leaning and queer, and their story began as a dare during a sleepover. “We were just spiteful,” they said, but as they kept going, something unexpected happened. They became profoundly attached to their characters — Cruz as the gruff, masculine daddy, and Rubio as the besotted, timid younger man. A narrative which began as pure raunch turned into Cruz tenderly reading his favorite W.S. Merwin poem to Rubio, and Rubio confessing that “every day, I wake up questioning everything. Who I am. Who I want to be. Who I should be.” Their farce evolved into a real romance, fueled by an empathy that the authors never expected to feel for two men representing everything they loathed. That empathy stayed with them even after the story was written, and many of the other writers who wrote their own Crubio slashfic preserved it in their stories, too. On March 15, 2016, when Marco Rubio dropped out of the race for the GOP nomination, one of the MikeRotch authors called the other, crying.
Fan fiction is no different from any other kind of fiction: Empathy is its fuel, its AllSpark, its galvanic jolt. Without the writer’s willingness to probe the motivations of each character, good or evil, the story will not go. The plot will sit there, limp as wet cereal, and convince no one. This is why so much overtly political fiction is lousy: Instead of empathizing, the writer sets out to convince and condemn. The story groans under its own seriousness. But resonating fan fiction revels in humanizing its villains — there are 33,995 works on AO3 wherein Harry Potter hooks up with his nemesis Draco Malfoy. “I think there are a few reasons for that,” Savitt told me, “one of which is the fact that in popular media, unfortunately, villains tend to be queer-coded.” Just look at Disney: Ursula from The Little Mermaid was deliberately patterned on the immortal drag queen Divine. In Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent’s magical powers are just an outlet for her overflowing top energy. Male villains from Jafar to Hades to Scar (the Jeremy Irons version, not Chiwetel Ejiofor’s butch performance) are heavy-lidded, louche, effete. In fan fiction, authors have the power to overwrite that coding, to rethink the knee-jerk contempt we’re supposed to feel for these characters and depict them instead with an empathy the source material rarely affords.
This empathy makes congressional fan fiction remarkable in a political reality so divided that empathy isn’t just rare, it’s almost impossible. According to “The Perception Gap,” a 2019 study from the nonprofit group More In Common, the more politically engaged an American citizen is, the more likely they are to be wildly misinformed about the other side. Democrats flail around trying to divine the humors of the Trump voters, and Republicans believe that half of all Democrats are ashamed to be American.
Fan fiction is no different from any other kind of fiction: Empathy is its fuel, its AllSpark, its galvanic jolt.
Fanfic authors, on the other hand, tend to delve into objective research about characters and their worlds. Most stories about congresspeople feature direct quotes from speeches (in “Fifty Shades of Red” Cruz makes Rubio read one of his speeches while they have sex — something the authors spent “an embarrassing amount of time” researching), nuanced conversations about policy, and often, strikingly honest presentations of the villains’ arguments. In Ehren Hatten’s stories, Democrats assail America’s embodiment with real talking points (uninsured people “drain the system when they end up in the emergency room”). America has his answers ready, of course, but Hatten’s congresspeople are far from straw men. “I’ve been called a bigot and a racist more times than I really thought possible,” Hatten told me. “However, I still feel humans in general want to remember that the people they disagree with are still human and not some creature from the black lagoon. At least that’s my hope.”
That hope — the hope that maybe some of it isn’t fictional — is what drives people to write stories about Congress. Authors who write humanizing stories about politicians “are hoping in some sense that they are that human,” says Anne Jamison, an English professor at the University of Utah. If you can imagine a world where all Mitch McConnell needs is the love of a good man, or one where Susan Collins has a backbone, then you can convince yourself that maybe, just maybe, it could be true.
On the senate floor, senators are voting on whether or not to end the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees. Dean Heller (R-NV) weeps in the strong embrace of Mark Warner (D-VA), torn between his desire for moderation and his fear of a primary challenge.
“Be brave!” Warner urges him. Heller sniffles into a handkerchief.
Ten years ago, it might have seemed ludicrous to think that people would be penning heroic epics about members of the U.S. Congress. But troubled times are fertile soil for heroes. In Bertolt Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo, Galileo says, “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.” Judging by our recent cultural diet, we live in an unhappy land. In the movies, heroes flourish: The Avengers, Star Wars, The Fast and the Furious. These blockbusting franchises depend upon the absolute, indisputable goodness of the hero’s quest (and, in the case of The Fast and the Furious franchise, the limitless redeemability of villains). Meanwhile, we’re living in the new golden age of television, which derives its popular and intellectual voltage from daring us to fall in love with charismatic antiheroes: Game of Thrones, Fleabag, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Succession. The West Wing is dead, long live Veep.
In our fiercely divided time, the politicians we agree with aren’t just leaders, they’re held up as saviors. It’s not enough to just support them; we want to love them. We’re fans of them. This distinction is crucial: “Fandom is perverse,” says Davisson. “I mean that in the best possible way. Fandom is about love, and love is seldom a rational thing.” Rather, love is blind, jealous, obsessive. What it really wants is more — more access, more story, more flesh, more time. More content.
As Davisson points out, “we’re very aware that everything we’re seeing is being produced. A lot of [fan fiction] is about wanting to see behind the curtain. [People] want to see that these politicians that they see on TV have real passion — something genuine.” It is this perceived sense of genuineness which gives us permission to trust — and therefore permission to love. And increasingly, the savviest politicians — like movie studios and TV networks — are learning how to operate the levers of that love.
Much of Donald Trump’s appeal as a politician is the way he offers completely transparent, un-stage-managed access to his inner thoughts. Being a fan of Trump is probably delightful, even addictive. At all hours of the day — or in the dead of night — his fans have access to his unfiltered inner monologue, stripped not only of the political calculus with which virtually every other politician speaks, but of any inhibition or caution whatsoever. In essence, Trump is a fountain of glittering content; he is pure fan service. He is the triumph of quantity over quality. And his fans are hammered drunk with love.
Few politicians have understood popular love better than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose Instagram feed offers fans an unprecedented level of access to a politician’s personal life. From her first days in Washington, she has created a self-produced reality show. She brings followers (that word is significant here) into the madcap world of a freshman congresswoman. She takes them on trips up to her roof garden where she asks for advice on how to harvest her spinach plants, and she offers long, thoughtful reflections about shifting from a bartender’s salary to a congresswoman’s (she can now afford oat milk). She is perhaps the most relatable politician in the country. In addition to the tender, puppy-love-like stories about her on AO3, there is also a comic book, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Freshman Force. The cover features her in a gleaming suffragette-white pantsuit, standing astride the prone form of a red elephant, holding her phone in one hand and beckoning the reader to join her with the other. “New party,” she says, “who dis?”
The politicians we agree with aren’t just leaders, they’re held up as saviors. It’s not enough to just support them; we want to love them. We’re fans of them.
Drawing an equivalence between AOC and Trump is common to the point of cliché, and to do so ignores a crucial distinction between them: the nature of their fandoms. Fandom, at its best, is what patriotism should look like — loyal, welcoming, but not infinitely forgiving. Good fandom, according to Ashley Hinck, an assistant professor at Xavier University, “will hold you accountable.” But at its worst, fandom looks like patriotism at its most toxic: hostile to outsiders, utterly entitled, deaf to criticism. And increasingly, it’s getting harder to tell the difference.
On any given day in America, the president might signal-boost a doctored video of Nancy Pelosi. Theories floated on Fox News find their way into White House policy. Tweets intended as parody are accepted as legitimate. An echo chamber of commentators swiftly warp political developments whose audience does not care if they are accurate, so long as they are angry. In this world, the fear that fictional narratives — even those meant as jokes — can overwhelm the actual facts is well-founded. But for better or for worse, we are in an age of political fandom, and there’s no going back.
“We’ve entered a world in which fan identities matter,” says Hinck. “And if we underestimate fandom — and the importance of fan identities — it’s dangerous.” According to Hinck, the old demographics are outdated. The political world populated by easily targeted union members and soccer moms and Rockefeller Republicans is gone, and it is not coming back. The internet has broken the old molds of identity, and now we are gluing the shards back together into shapes that fit us better. “People are looking for new sources of belonging,” says Hinck. “People are members of these fan communities in the millions. These are huge voting blocs.”
“That’s true,” agrees Amber Davisson, but she points out that “the day you organize fandom, you destroy it. Creative work exists at the margins because they’re exploring the thing we don’t want to talk about. Fans need to exist at the margin because they need to push the rest of us. There will always be people pushing at the edges. And sometimes people pushing at the edges win.”
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Samuel Ashworth is a regular contributor to the Washington Post Magazine, and his fiction, essays, and criticism have appeared in Hazlitt, Eater, NYLON, Barrelhouse, Catapult, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Rumpus. He is currently working on a novel about the life and death of a chef, told through his autopsy.