DI Chat: Kanye Goes MAGA

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Singer Kanye West and President-elect Donald Trump talk at Trump Tower after meetings on December 13, 2016 in New York.
“We’re Brothers,” Kanye West said of his relationship with Donald Trump.

This chat will run in the Daily Intelligencer newsletter, which combines a digest of the stories you care about with exclusive political commentary that you won’t find on the website. To subscribe to the newsletter, click here.

I’m your humble host and editor Ezekiel Kweku, and today I’ve
gathered representatives from New York’s culture, tech, and politics teams — Dee Lockett, Max Read, and Eric Levitz — to talk about Kanye West’s neoreactionary turn and what it says about American culture.

Ezekiel: So first question: on, say, a 1–10 scale — how surprising were Kanye’s … activities over the past couple days.

Eric: Well, Kanye did say that Trump was his second choice in the 2016 election (right behind not voting), shortly after his victory.

Ezekiel: He also was famously photographed meeting with him.

Eric: And he has an affinity for tweeting dumb, “shocking” stuff, so … I’m not terribly surprised.

Max: If 1 is “the sun rising in the morning” I’d give “Kanye wearing a MAGA hat and tweeting supportively about Trump” a … 2? And “Kanye watching Jordan Peterson and Ray Kurzweil videos” a … 3?

Dee: I’d say about -1,000 on that scale. He has multiple albums to promote and what’s a better promotional vehicle than a megafamous black man with proven questionable politics screaming semi-supportive gibberish, about Trump, into the void? This is the same dude who started tweeting in spurts before The Life of Pablo random musings like “BILL COSBY INNOCENT!”

Max: LOL.

Dee: Excuse me, forgot to add like ten exclamation points.

Ezekiel: So what accounts for the reaction, do you think? He lost how ever many millions of followers — which seems odd if nothing is surprising about Kanye supporting Trump, and it took over my TL for the day. I imagine it did y’all’s as well.

Dee: Short memories and the desperate need for a voice of reason. I think people also really wanted to believe that Kanye’s behavior re: Trump around the time of his breakdown was attributed to that. I don’t know that his recent behavior proves it wasn’t, and still isn’t, but people want the old Kanye back. That man is gone. But the part of him that feeds on an elaborate, troll-y album rollout is still all there.

Max: Also, the internet loves drama, even unsurprising drama.

Eric: He also didn’t just praise Trump, but referred to his detractors as “the mob” (while stipulating that he loves everyone).

Max: Kanye’s also really good at raising the stakes on his provocations. Ratcheting up from a relatively tame Candace Owens video to a photo of him wearing a MAGA hat is pretty artful from a drawing-out-the-drama standpoint. Reminds me of someone else whose behavior is never surprising but always gets a big reaction …

Ezekiel: Thanks for the segue, Max. Very smooth. Does this tell us anything about Trump’s appeal?

Eric: I don’t think so? I guess one could see it as a reminder that some portion of the American electorate likely put Trump more in the category of “outlandish celebrity” than “far-right demagogue” on Election Day 2016 … or that Trump outperformed Romney with black men. But I don’t think it tells us anything new.

Dee: To be honest, it tells me more about the terrible ennui of wealth and celebrity that the only appealing form of currency left for these types of dudes is shock. But the reaction to this whole Kanye-Trump exchange has also been very telling along racial lines about who’s allowed to be even just a little bit visibly conservative. Somewhere, Stacey Dash is rewatching “All Falls Down” and punching a wall.

Ezekiel: Haha.

Dee: Azealia Banks, too #neverforget.

Max: I think “currency” is the right word, Dee. To me the weird convergence between these two guys and the parallels in how they behave and talk tells us more about the way the media works than about either of them in particular. Kanye and Trump both understand — intuitively or strategically — that attention is scarce and being able to command an outsized portion of it puts you in an advantageous position. Unfortunately it tends to mean poisoning the discourse, corroding mutual understanding, etc. But boy it gets people to look at you and consequently maybe buy your albums/vote for you.

Ezekiel: It feels to me that the atomization of the monoculture means that the way to the top is not by appealing to as many people as possible, but exploiting polarization to radicalize your own supporters.

Max: I think that’s true, with the addition that exploiting polarization doesn’t just radicalize and bind your fans to you as supporters (and not just “customers”) but also gets the other side to talk about you. Better to be hated than ignored, in other words.

Dee: I have learned more about our own collective stupidity and gullibility this week than I have anything new about these two men. It’s also important to note that Kanye has always aligned himself with problematic popular men: Louis Farrakhan, R. Kelly, I mentioned Bill Cosby. Right now, there is arguably no person on the planet more unpopular or polarizing than Trump, and if you want to steal public shine after months in hiding — which Max points out isn’t easy, unless your name is Beyoncé — what better way to do it than by dropping in to say you love the man?

Max: It is worth noting that Beyoncé managed to get an absurd amount of attention through a surpassing performance, rather than by shitposting. Kanye, whatever else you might say, is a supremely talented musician. If he needs attention it would be nice if he, IDK, put on a breathtaking Coachella show.

Ezekiel: You want the old Kanye.

Max: I used to love Kanye.

Eric: Could Kanye have achieved the same objective by coming out in loud opposition to Trump. Seemed to work fine for Eminem.

Ezekiel: I think the problem with coming out in loud opposition to Trump is that you have to level a substantive critique. Him saying he doesn’t like Trump wouldn’t be interesting enough.

Dee: Kanye will be the first to tell you he’ll never do what’s expected or obvious. He’s not here to bore you, I’ll give him that.

Eric: Lyin’ Trump, low-dragon energy.

Ezekiel: LOL, he may need new ghostwriters after all those tweets, Eric. You should apply. I also think Eminem being a white guy from the midwest worked to his advantage.

Max: Yeah, there’s a set of a racialized expectations around Kanye/Eminem and Trump. And Taylor Swift, for that matter.

Dee: I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but this week has made me pity Taylor Swift to a very small degree.

Max: Me too, Dee, though if I were Taylor I’d be happy someone was distracting everyone from that atrocious Earth, Wind & Fire cover.

Dee: Hahaha. But, like, all girl did was show up to vote and suddenly she’s Milo Yiannopoulos!

Ezekiel: That EWF cover sounded like a gag. Like that video of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” pitch-shifted so that it was in a major key.

Dee: There’s just no right way to be a celebrity and have any relationship with politics anymore. Those days are long gone, if they were ever really there. You can’t be apolitical like Taylor wanted, and her coming out in support of, all shocking things, gun control, I think is an admission of that. But you damn sure can’t be whatever Kanye is trying to be either.

Ezekiel: I think that might be true — I think in polarized times, politics colonizes everything.

Dee: I’ll just add that it never ceases to amaze me the different expectations for Hollywood types vs. musicians re: their politics. It baffles me though I know it shouldn’t. But we do tend to elect Hollywood types so …

Ezekiel: The fact that we don’t expect anything politically from Hollywood people? We’re burning bridges this morning apparently.

Dee: Aw, John. Or should I say Jesus. The fact that we assume Hollywood people are all already so in bed with politicians (which isn’t wrong) but musicians are somehow supposed to have a higher moral ground? I don’t know.

Max: Is John using Android now? I think it’s worth noting that while the Trump stuff has made the headlines, I think Kanye falling into the Scott Adams-Candace Owens-Jordan Peterson YouTube rabbit hole is way more interesting. If similarly unsurprising — Kanye fits close to the exact demographic profile of the people those right-wing and conservative YouTubers tend to appeal to: resentful, overconfident, entitled, misogynistic …

Dee: Wait, yes. That is the one thing I learned: Kanye’s media habits. I think he spends way too much time at Caitlyn’s house. Something tells me he wasn’t on the side of ostracizing her from the family.

Max: Oh, good theory.

Ezekiel: Yeah, that’s a good point. What do you find interesting about Kanye going down that rabbit hole, Max? We’ll make this the last thing.

Max: I think a lot of celebrities — Caitlyn, e.g. — become conservatives when they get successful in part because their class position is changed. Or more simply that they want to pay fewer taxes. But Kanye seems to be entering his weird new ideological place (and I don’t want to say he’s “become conservative” because who can tell) through incessant YouTubing. But I also think it’s sort of “too early to tell” what Kanye is doing exactly, or what he believes, whether this is a breakdown or a put-on or authentically felt belief or some weird combination. I think it speaks to the kind of radicalizing and communicative power that the YouTubers of the right have, that it’s not rich Calabasas entertainment lawyers Kanye is going out to dinner with who are turning him on to conservative ideas, it’s the fucking Dilbert guy.

Ezekiel: The stuff he’s saying, especially in that text message to John Legend, makes it sound like he’s joining a cult. Which is another thing that celebrities are sort of famous for doing, I guess.

Max: Yeah, he sounds like Mike Cernovich!

Ezekiel: Also like a text message Tom Cruise would send.

DI Politics Chat: Kanye Goes MAGA