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Kanye West, Donald Trump, and the Reign of Human Clickbait

Kanye West hugs Donald Trump in the Oval Office on October 11, 2018. Photo: Oliver Contreras - Pool/Getty Images

Kanye West visited the president yesterday, and they discussed American manufacturing and prison reform. Well — “discussed” is probably too strong a word. Beyond that, it’s hard to know how to talk about the confab. Was it “successful”? Most meetings with presidents, even this president — like the sitdown between Trump and Kanye’s wife Kim Kardashian, after which Trump agreed to commute the sentence of a grandmother serving life in prison for a nonviolent drug offense — have a clear goal and a coherent throughline. This meeting had Kanye showing the president a GIF of a hydrogen-powered plane on his phone. “We’re gonna have Apple, an American company, work on this plane,” Kanye told the president. “We’ll get rid of Air Force One,” the president replied. So, sure, I guess it was successful — iPlane 1, all the way!

It’s hard to know how, exactly, to talk about Kanye West. He’s obviously lost the plot. Is he ill? Is he overexcited? Is he just … an average Trump supporter? He told the president he’d been “diagnosed with bipolar disorder,” but later met with a neuropsychologist who, after extensive testing (“I had a 75 percentile of all human beings when it was counting eight numbers backwards, so I’m gonna work on that one”), told him he’s actually suffering from “sleep deprivation.”

Maybe it suffices to say: Kanye seems unwell. Kanye the human being, who needs to string together coherent thoughts and maintain relationships with other human beings, seems unwell, at any rate. Kanye the celebrity? Kanye the brand? Kanye the guy who needs people to buy his clothing, albums, and concert tickets? That Kanye is doing great. That Kanye is the center of attention, at a moment when it’s never been more difficult to become the center of attention.

Really, if the summit was “successful,” it was successful along a single vector: It drew everyone’s attention to Kanye and Trump. The spectacle made me think of the observation by the psychiatrist Allen Frances — an author of the DSM-IV — that no matter Trump’s obvious emotional instability, he can’t be considered mentally ill because he “does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.” He has “been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy.” The behaviors that, in a different person, might lead to a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder were the very behaviors that ultimately helped place Trump in the White House.

The same dynamic seems to hold true with Kanye. In May, when he went on an erratic, multi-week stint of binge-tweeting about Trump, Twitter users were unsure about whether it was a masterful piece of performance art or a classic hypomanic episode. Ultimately, it seemed not to matter. The effect was the same: Everyone was paying attention just as he was releasing a string of new albums. West calling bipolar disorder his “superpower” was divisive — was he glamorizing bipolar disorder? Trivializing it? — but you could see why, in the narrow context of celebrity and the attention economy, he’d imagine it that way. West, like Trump, lives in a world where the qualities that might lead someone to be diagnosed with a mental illness — including, but not limited to, grandiosity, unpredictability, and self-aggrandizement — are the same qualities required if he hopes to stand out in a crowded media marketplace.

There’s a cruder question lurking behind this observation: Does being “crazy” make you good at social media? Do you have to be “crazy” to be good at social media? This idea is playing out at its crudest on YouTube, where Shane Dawson, a YouTube star with 17 million subscribers, has recently been releasing segments in what he describes as an eight-part documentary about Jake Paul, another YouTube star with 17 million subscribers. The thesis of the video series is that Paul, who’s probably most famous for turning his quiet West Hollywood street into a YouTube-prank hellzone, is, clinically speaking, a “sociopath.” (In the world of YouTube, armchair diagnosis is, actually, a relatively sensitive and nuanced form of discussion.) In fact, Dawson wonders, maybe all YouTubers are sociopaths. “YouTubers have to have some kind of personality disorder, something, right?” he asks in one video. “To do what we do — putting ourselves on camera all the time.”

Because this is the world of YouTube, where any kind of attention is an excuse to draw more attention, Jake Paul’s brother Logan responded to Dawson in a video of his own: “A lot of us, me included, will do some dumb shit,” he says, “maybe some stuff that lacks empathy, strictly for views.” Indeed, a sociopath, by Logan’s definition, is simply “someone who is just more savage than everyone else.” (“Savage,” in the world of the Paul brothers, is more or less a good thing.)

It’s important to tread carefully here. Just as we have no idea whether or not West’s May tweets came in the midst of a manic episode, we don’t know that Jake Paul could be, or has been, diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (the clinical term for what is still colloquially called “sociopathy”). None of us would be able to diagnose either Paul or West, or anyone else we encounter over social media. Furthermore, being mentally ill does not confer upon you celebrity or special talent; nor does it in itself make you a Trump supporter, or unempathetic, or stupid. The vast majority of people with mental illness live compassionate and productive lives and manage to never describe the president as having “dragon energy.” They also would most likely prefer to be left alone, rather than to become the obsessive focus of millions of media consumers. Most people who live with it would not describe bipolar disorder as a “superpower” and would be rightfully annoyed at the idea that manifestations of their diagnosis might be read as cynical tactics for succeeding in an attention economy.

The point, anyway, isn’t that Kanye’s seeming manic episodes are “actually” publicity stunts — or, for that matter, that his publicity stunts are “actually” manic episodes. The point is that, on Twitter, it was impossible for people to distinguish between the two. The connection between eccentricity, erratic behavior, celebrity, and attention is not, obviously, a new dynamic — think of Tom Cruise or Charlie Sheen. But social media, and the news its dominance incentivizes, has created an environment in which the quickest and surest way toward blanket coverage of you and your output is acting in a way consistent with mental illness, regardless of whether or not you would be diagnosed as ill in a clinical setting. This is as true in business, where erratic behavior and market manipulation are two sides of the same coin — just ask Elon Musk — or in politics, where a particularly obsessive set of theories about Donald Trump can net you tens of thousands of followers, as it is in entertainment. What’s necessary to succeed in an economy where attention is the reserve currency is a set of attributes that appear with no small frequency in the DSM.

Of course, the attention economy is fickle. Elon Musk’s outsize personality and accessibility on social media have driven investment in Tesla, but it also earned him an SEC fine. Roseanne Barr was ABC’s hilariously kooky cash cow, until she became a dangerous liability by tweeting a racist joke about Valerie Jarrett. And Kanye has, in the process of making himself the most talked-about pop star in America, alienated a huge swath of his fans. This isn’t to excuse Roseanne’s racist tweet as the product of mental illness — she herself blames it on taking Ambien — or to suggest that Elon Musk could be diagnosed as mentally ill. Simply to say that eccentricity can be punished just as it can be rewarded. Attention is great, until it isn’t. You’re cannily weird, until you’re unemployably crazy.

But this is exactly why these questions are so epistemologically tricky. If we define some “mental illnesses” as clinicians do, around the disruptive power they have in people’s lives rather than against some objective standard, what happens when “disruption” is the point? Maybe there are better questions to ask than, “Are all YouTubers sociopaths?” or, “Is Kanye crazy or canny?” For Katherine Lo, a researcher who studies mental health and online communities, the issue is not really about “mental illness” at all, but about the structures that incentivize and reward behavior online. “Are the algorithms that mediate our online experiences encouraging this,” she asks, “in a way that means that, just as media outlets have had to create versions of clickbait, we’re just going to have to make unhealthy personas?”

The president, who understands the demands and rewards of the attention economy better than just about anyone, is well aware of the value of unhealthy behavior — and the exploitation thereof — as a way to attracct attention. As Maggie Haberman pointed out on Twitter, Trump’s rallies are generally not aired live on TV anymore, denying him the free media that was instrumental to his rise. But Kanye’s ten-minute Oval Office soliloquy, delivered across the Resolute desk to a grinning Trump, was. If people aren’t paying attention to your outrageous, rambling tirades, find someone else giving outrageous, rambling tirades and stand in frame with them. (To put it in Pauline terms: Trump’s not a narcissist; he’s just more savage than everyone else.)

It’s Logan Paul, though, who directly answers Lo’s question. Doing “stuff that lacks empathy,” he says in his response to Dawson, “gets us views, which gets us subscribers. Our motivating factor is to reach the next, next level.” The danger is not that social media makes us “crazy.” It’s that it makes us all human clickbait.

Donald Trump, Kanye West, and the Reign of Human Clickbait