Kanye West has dominated the news for the past few weeks by spewing antisemitic rhetoric, ushered along by opportunistic right-wing personalities. Tucker Carlson, who aired a heavily edited interview on Fox News to remove West’s most antisemitic and bizarre comments, was one. Another is Candace Owens, who appeared alongside him in a “White Lives Matter” T-shirt at a Paris fashion show and whose husband is the CEO of Parler, the third-tier alt-right social-media website that West recently acquired.
There are clear parallels to West’s 2020 presidential campaign, where the rapper spent $12.5 million of his own money largely on Republican consultants who saw an opportunity to use him as a spoiler candidate to help Donald Trump win reelection — drawing a robust paycheck at the same time. (Their work gained him a total of approximately 70,000 votes.) Emails between the consultants and advisers to his campaign show the efforts to get him to run a more active presidential campaign (while spending even more of his money in the process) and his evident lack of interest in running.
One October 2020 email from Dan Centinello, a Republican operative involved in the campaign, includes a plan for West to potentially visit cities in several swing states where he was not on the ballot, such as Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. “We are considering a combination of events that could include rallies, quick press conferences, drop-ins to high-traffic areas, and Kanye participating in small venues where faith-based, community service is being provided,” writes Centinello, who notes that lawyers were already looking into potential COVID restrictions as well. In another email, he writes, “We have also researched the largest universities in key states that are still conducting normal classes in case we decide to have Kanye drop into one of these cities.”
There were also plans for scripted tweets around presidential debates, press statements, and an Election Night event. None of these ever materialized, and West was invisible on the campaign trail aside from a bizarre event that July that he held in South Carolina as part of a failed effort to appear on the ballot there. It’s when he infamously broke down in tears, declared that Harriet Tubman “did not free the slaves,” and talked about his opposition to abortion.
In another email, Jill Holtzman Vogel, a top Republican election attorney doing work for the West campaign, muses about potential legal action to force election officials in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire to recognize the use of stamps on ballots so that voters didn’t have to write the rapper’s name out in order to ease a write-in campaign. “If we want to be serious about impacting New Hampshire as well, then one this team should consider is suing NH pre-election re:stamps,” she wrote. No litigation was ever filed and West ultimately netted 82 write-in votes.
West’s involvement in the campaign is relatively minimal in the messages, which were attached to a lawsuit filed by a disgruntled campaign vendor that has since been dismissed. The only direct messages from West are text messages where he asks a digital vendor to place a campaign video on the top of his website and another where he says to hold off adding new clothing items to the campaign store. “Let’s wait,” he texts. “I’m doing a new video.” Instead, he seems focused on minor details like the specific wording of the campaign website as it related to drawing traffic from search engines and the apparel being sold in his online campaign store. In one email a month before Election Day, Centinello writes on the vital question to West about a purple hoodie in the campaign-merch store: “He keeps changing his mind. Haha.” There are also detailed back-and-forth text conversations about getting the candidate’s approval for various changes in the merchandise being sold online by his campaign.
Needless to say, West’s ultimate impact on the presidential campaign was basically nil. His strongest state was Utah, where he garnered just under 0.5 percent of the vote. He might have had far more influence on the ultimate result of the election if he had successfully made the ballot in the swing states of Arizona and Wisconsin and made the narrow margins in those states even tighter, let alone if he siphoned off votes from Joe Biden. The rapper’s campaign submitted sufficient signatures in both states but he did not make the ballot there for technical reasons.
It is unclear precisely what West will do with Parler if the transaction goes through and what type of CEO he will be, but his presidential campaign gives a sense of his laissez-faire management style and that there will never be a shortage of people looking to cash in on his notoriety.