Shortly after yesterday’s outlandish Oval Office episode, several national political reporters under age 40, such as the New York Times’s Jonathan Martin and the Washington Post’s Ashley Parker, claimed total ignorance of Kanye West’s discography — as though impressed with themselves for being oblivious to one of American pop culture’s most titanic figures of the past decade and a half. Maybe they’ve really somehow never heard ‘Jesus Walks,’ ‘Gold Digger,’ or ‘Power,’ which would cast slight doubt on their ability to gauge the political sentiments of the population they purport to cover. Or maybe they just feel compelled to throw Kanye down the memory hole now that he’s taken up with Donald Trump.
‘Incoherent rambling’ is how Kanye’s recent oratory has been characterised, so as to diminish him as a raving lunatic rather than someone who can make rational political decisions. But when considered in totality and granted a measure of artistic license, his proclamations are perfectly coherent. Trump himself championed this kind of loose rhetorical style when he based an entire presidential campaign on stream-of-consciousness rallies that were jumbled, contradictory, and sometimes borderline-deranged. This was deemed by many in the political press corps to be a mark of insanity, but millions of Americans related to it viscerally. Similarly, if you are predisposed to believe that having affinity for Trump is an inherently demented proposition, then of course Kanye’s latest endeavours couldn’t be anything but irrational.
In a sense, Kanye does appear to connect with Trump less on a political level than a performative one. It would not be surprising if he were to have embraced Trump out of some hair-brained aesthetic gambit, rather than a studied policy-based appeal. Then again, Kanye’s stated political objectives make complete sense when you examine them apart from the topsy-turvy, lyrical presentation. First, he’s a claimed billionaire, and therefore stands to gain a lot from Republican economic policies. He wants manufacturing jobs brought back to Chicago, where he grew up, as a means of reducing crime and also for general betterment of the population there. And he wants to get unjustly sentenced blacks out of prison, because he believes in another universe it might’ve been him in the same position. His wife Kim Kardashian already proved success at doing this, having secured the release of Alice Johnson in June, who’d been consigned to decades in a cage for drug offenses. Condemn these objectives all you want, but claiming that they’re incoherent or inherently crazy is itself incoherent.
In a way it’s kind of a lost opportunity that so many celebrities have taken to denouncing Trump to the point of tedium, because if they’d instead just flattered him a bit, he could probably be persuaded to reward them with substantive political concessions. Not the most enlightened way to conduct the affairs of state, surely — but that’s who Trump is, and maybe Kanye (and Kim) are the most rational of all for recognising this.
Kanye’s plot twist comes across as a godsend for Republicans, who have long sought to elevate blacks in an effort to show that their ideals have cross-racial appeal, but usually end up ‘tokenising’ them by giving platforms to obscure cranks and misfits who would’ve been of no use but for their skin tone. V.S. Naipaul, the recently deceased reactionary writer, once described the sad spectacle of former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver being trotted around the 1984 Republican convention as a kind of limp, lifeless version of his former self. Often these revolutionary-turned-conservative epiphanies are occasioned by personal tragedy, legal problems, sudden conversion to Christianity, the need for publicity or need for money. But none of these factors seemingly apply to Kanye. Yes, he might enjoy the massive swell of publicity that interacting with Trump inevitably produces, but it wasn’t as though he was fading into irrelevance otherwise. His embrace of Trump, rather, has the feel of the logical culmination of a persona that he’s crafted from the beginning — a natural step on the ‘hero’s journey,’ as Kanye called Trump’s rise, which would also describe his own.
Rather than reckon seriously with any of this, the sneering pop culture industry has reverted to the comfort of reflexive anti-Trump broadsides, with Jimmy Kimmel rebuking Kanye as an ‘irrational madman’ who ought to be thrown into an insane asylum. I’m all for genuine Trump criticism, because there’s plenty to criticise, but this culture industry actually exalts Trump in a way by making his opponents look impossibly smug at every juncture. Certainly there are reasonable arguments against Kanye bromancing with Trump, even if it might result in more freed federal prisoners or an adjustment to Trump’s position on stop-and-frisk (which Kanye directly challenged him on.) But none of these arguments require dismissing Kanye as mentally ill, which is an ugly yet common tactic used to discredit unconventional political views. This is all the more ironic because liberal pundits calling Kanye medically insane are usually the first to (rightly) bemoan the dangers of stigmatising mental health.
And anyway, Kanye’s public presentation and musical style has always had a certain manic quality — the same exhibited by prolific artists throughout the centuries — but somehow this only becomes a medical concern when he’s rubbing up against Trump. Maybe he’ll seem a lot less crazy down the line when federal subsidies arrive for what Kanye described as one of his youth education projects, ‘Yeezy ideation centres.’