Kanye West’s 2020 Run May Be the Future of Presidential Politics

Photo: Randall Hill/REUTERS

Kanye West’s presidential campaign may be the future of American politics. This is not to detract from the fact that it was a shambolic, hastily organized ego trip undertaken by a political neophyte of questionable mental health. But as Election Day approaches, what seemed like a minor summer subplot to the 2020 presidential campaigns feels more and more like the precursor to the next phase in American politics.

Through covering Kanye West’s presidential campaign over the nearly two-month period between when he first announced his run to when he changed his focus to urinating on one of his Grammy Awards, it served as a testament to how easy it is to run for president when you’re rich. West has no real constituency, no grassroots support, and no idea what he was doing. But simply spending around $10 million, he’ll be on the ballot in a dozen states.

The failures of Kanye West’s campaign should not be attributed to laws written to perpetuate the two-party duopoly, to crafty legal maneuverings by Democrats set to thwart him, or to even just the sheer indifference of voters toward the presidential candidacy of a celebrity who has built an entire persona around unorthodox behavior. Instead, there’s one simple reason behind them all: Kanye West himself.

Although West said in a recent interview with Joe Rogan that the idea of running for president in 2020 occurred him while taking a shower five years ago, the rapper took his time before moving toward fulfilling what he still apparently views as his divine destiny to be president of the United States. West announced his presidential campaign in a tweet on July 4. Aside from an interview with Forbes that could charitably be described as unhinged, he waited until July 15 to take his first public steps toward actually running for president. Then, after spending days wavering behind the scenes, West both filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to be a presidential candidate and cut a $35,000 check to the State of Oklahoma to appear on the ballot in the Sooner State.

That weekend, he held his now infamous campaign rally in South Carolina as part of a failed effort to appear on the ballot there. But, aside from that, his public involvement in his own presidential campaign was limited to a handful of tweets. Instead, West spent millions of dollars of his own money to hire firms that paid people to gather signatures necessary to get him on the ballot as an independent candidate.

It was often a shoddy, last-minute process. In Illinois, the rapper made the decision to get on the ballot with a day’s notice.  In New Jersey, the firm he hired skipped the hard work of bothering people outside a supermarket and just resorted to outright forgery and fraud.  West was thrown off the ballot in both states.

The entire campaign simply seemed buffoonish until it took on more sinister overtones. In early August, it became clear that the effort was riddled with Republican operatives and activists. Questions were raised if this was an elaborate plot to use West as a stalking horse to siphon Black voters away from Joe Biden in order to help Donald Trump, whom West ardently supported until recently.

Instead, it turned out that West was merely a useful idiot for Republicans. He kept on forking over money to GOP operatives, but it seemed that their motivation was mostly mercenary. They weren’t in it to accomplish grand ideological goals. They just were getting paid.

At the same time, the operation for West to petition to be on the ballot became more professional. The operation actually allowed West to make some ballots, and when it failed, it was for increasingly baroque and convoluted reasons rather than for simply submitting insufficient signatures. When it was over, West had made the ballot in 12 states, four of which did not require the candidate to submit any signatures. In the 21 states where he at least attempted to mount a formal petition-gathering effort, he made the ballot in eight.

West’s failures did not have to do with a lack of money and certainly not with a lack of name ID. Instead, the campaign was fundamentally unserious. There’s obviously an argument that Americans had no desire for a quirky celebrity candidate four years after Donald Trump and in the middle of a pandemic accompanied by an economic downturn. West’s campaign lacked the most basic nod to that reality or reality in general. While no one expected detailed white papers, his campaign paid more attention to themed apparel than policy. The most coherent political views that West ever outlined was that he was generally pro-life but remained vague on what the actual implications of that would be if he were elected.

But for all these issues, Kanye West is on the ballot in 12 states and has attracted a disproportionate share of media attention. One would be hard-pressed to try to write a script where a celebrity ran a worse independent campaign for the White House than whatever we’ve seen from West over the past few months.

But what would happen if a celebrity did a halfway competent job of running for president? Politics and celebrity culture are already merging into one amorphous entity. After all, the current president is a former reality-television host. And while Trump had to mount a (successful) hostile takeover of the Republican Party, West’s run indicates a far less difficult path as an independent candidate for any celebrity willing to spend the money and actually do a little bit of work.

There’s no reason to think that it won’t happen in the future, and West has shown the path. Without lifting a finger to campaign or formulating a single discernible policy, he will receive tens of thousands of votes in November. If, in 2024, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or Oprah Winfrey or even Kanye’s wife, Kim Kardashian, decides to mount a bid for the White House, there is a road map. With a little bit of foresight and the same investment of over $10 million that West has made in his campaign, there’s no obstacle to getting on the ballot in a majority of the states. And if the candidate decides to actually campaign, articulate some basic policy goals, and maybe even raise some money, then that person could become a political force to be reckoned with. After all, unlike more obscure third-party candidates, there is no need to build name ID or desperately solicit media attention. Who needs Politico when People is already covering you?

This all may seem far-fetched, but this type of celebrity politics has already taken root across the globe and simply represents a natural extension of what has already happened in the U.S. with Trump and the lines between political allegiance and stan culture growing increasingly blurry. These trends will only accelerate and, for all his megalomaniacal pretensions, Yeezus may just be the John the Baptist of this new age in politics, a prophet who heralds the coming of a celebrity candidate who could actually blow up American politics.

Kanye’s 2020 Run May Be the Future of Presidential Politics