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Can Ye win with black economic nationalism?

Kanye West’s message could do for black America what Trump’s did for the people of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin

October 1, 2018

6:34 AM

1 October 2018

6:34 AM

Kanye West is getting perilously close to the most disruptive idea in politics. ‘Disruption’ has been a buzz word among tech companies for many years now, but the political world got a taste of what it means for the first time in 2016, when Donald Trump shot straight to the White House without ever having run for lower office. He cut through all the indispensible consultants and ideologues and party apparatchiks who were supposed to run the GOP, then beat Hillary Clinton by winning states no Republican had won since Reagan. That was disruption.

But the forces of un-disruption are hard at work, and they’re confident that the Trump demographic is dying. Trump actually did better among non-whites than Mitt Romney, the last conventional Republican, did. Even so, the Trump coalition depends overwhelmingly on white voters, and as their proportion of the electorate shrinks, younger, more urban, non-white voters will tilt politics back in the direction of Clinton Democrats and Bush Republicans, or at least Obama Democrats and Rubio Republicans. The differences are cosmetic — these are brand names for the same liberal technocracy.

Ye, as he likes to be called, is a threat to all that, but not simply because he’s a celebrity. To this day, Trump’s detractors like to pretend that only his fame paved his way to the presidency. It was certainly critical, as West’s would be if he made a run in 2024 — a possibility he’s teased more than once. (Take it with a grain of salt, though: Kid Rock was also meant to be on the ballot for a Senate seat from Michigan this November, but of course he chose not to make good on the threat to run.) Yet Trump won not just because of his name recognition but because he stitched together an electoral map no other Republican could have created, campaigning hard in and winning industrial states that had long abandoned the GOP. The economic nationalism that Trump made a centerpiece of his campaign opened possibilities that were closed to conventional politics.

Economic nationalism isn’t just for whites. Working-class blacks have been adversely affected by large-scale, low-skill immigration and by policies that emphasise cheap goods (and weak workers) over dignified work (and self-assertive workers). That may be one reason Trump improved over Romney’s numbers among blacks. Trump is not in an ideal position to take his message of economic nationalism to black America. Someone who did so effectively, however, would improve upon and solidify the Trump electoral coalition. The same strategy that disrupted the presidential politics of the Rust Belt could disrupt another seemingly permanent feature of conventional politics — the fact that Democrats can take black votes for granted.

So when West criticises liberals and Democrats in his after-show remarks at Saturday Night Live, when he wears a MAGA hat and tweets about Trumponomics, he’s treading on dangerous ground. On Sunday, he came under fire for an ill-phrased tweet about ‘abolish[ing] the 13th amendment,’ the one that prohibits slavery. (What he apparently meant is abolishing the provision of that amendment which exempts uncompensated prison labour.) His other words in that same tweet, however, may prove more significant in the long run: ‘this [MAGA hat] represents good and America becoming whole again. We will no longer outsource to other countries. We build factories here in America and create jobs. We will provide jobs for all who are free from prisons…’

Can West’s message do for the presidential politics of black America what Trump’s message did for the presidential politics of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin? And even if it is the right message, is West the right messenger?

The short answer to the second question is simply ‘yes’ — West is the right messenger because he’s the one who’s actually saying it, just as Trump was the only man for his message two years ago. ‘Disruption’ — a silly but apt word — has to start somewhere, and it won’t be with the entrenched elite.

Republicans have dreamed about winning back the black vote before. Social conservatives have long wanted to believe that black America’s social values — church-based and skeptical of gay rights and abortion — would make blacks Republicans. Supply-siders from Jack Kemp onwards have made a case in terms of entrepreneurial opportunity, and in fact, even the Republican Party of Richard Nixon in 1968 was appealing to black voters along similar lines. (As I saw when I recently looked at the transcripts of the 1968 Bill Buckley-Gore Vidal commentary sessions held in conjunction with that year’s party conventions.) Republican voters fell in love with pizza-company CEO Herman Cain early in the 2012 presidential cycle: Cain is something of an overlooked precedent for Trump, in fact, though Cain’s supported imploded after allegations of sexual harassment were reported by Politico in late 2011. But even if Republicans nominate a black candidate, would black voters cast their ballots for a Republican?

The liberal conventional wisdom says no, because black voters are meant to see the GOP as irredeemably racist. The New Deal poses a problem for this interpretation, however: first because the New Deal depended precisely a coalition of racist, explicitly segregationist Southern Democrats and blacks (among others); and second because the New Deal coalition pulled off this unlikely feat of coalition building by putting a premium on voters’ economic interests, including blacks’. The Republican Party had been the party of black voters since Reconstruction. Blacks even voted overwhelmingly for Herbert Hoover in 1932 — despite not only the Great Depression but also Hoover’s outreach to segregationists. But in four years, Franklin Roosevelt flipped the black vote, winning more than seven out of ten black voters in 1936. Blacks have consistently voted Democratic in presidential elections ever since, and by double-digit margins. (Eisenhower in 1956 was the Republican nominee who did best with black voters since Hoover; he lost the black vote to Adlai Stevenson by about 20 points.)

Economic appeals matter. Values matter too, of course, but values are embedded in communities, and communities have economic needs. The best way to establish trust about shared values is through tangible economic commitments. And the problem with framing economic commitment to a community in terms of entrepreneurship is that most people — black, white, or otherwise — are not entrepreneurs, but workers. This is why what F.H. Buckley, as well as Trump, calls ‘the Republican Workers Party’ can do what the party of Mitt Romney never could.

A candidate who can put even a portion of the black vote into play can remake American presidential politics, throwing the old playbooks into the shredder. If Kanye West contemplates being such a candidate, however, he has to take heed of the enormous elite pressures that will be brought to bear on him. Already his dabbling with support for Trump over the Democrats has earned him considerable opprobrium from his famous ‘friends.’ If he moves toward a run — a campaign that might shatter the Democratic coalition where it seems to be strongest, and throwing Republicans politics into upheaval as well — the attacks will intensify and mud will be flung without relief. But Ye has taken the first step toward defying the enforcers of conventional politics just by wearing that MAGA hat. It gets harder from here, but that’s why outsize personalities like Trump and West are very often the only ones who can make the attempt.


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