The comparison seems too easy to make.
Donald Trump. Kanye West. Two narcissistic egomaniacs. Both wildly overestimate their influence, both say things that no decent person would ever think of saying, and both find themselves constantly embroiled in controversy, with passionate defenders battling the legions of harsh critics.
And both are black holes of media attention. Trump has dominated news coverage of the 2016 presidential election since he entered in June; some analysts claim that he’s already saturated the market so much that his continued dominance only benefits him in the negative, by keeping his opponents out of the news.
Meanwhile, Kanye has recently completed the most brilliant album release of all time—sure, it was messy, clumsy, and full of fits and starts, but The Life of Pablo’s name changes, associated Twitter beefs, Soundcloud singles, and ultimate launch party at Yeezy Season 3 took up most of the culture media landscape for the better part of a month. It has simultaneously boosted Tidal to the top of the app store and resurrected illegal downloading at heretofore unseen rates. If Donald Trump and Kanye West are brand salesmen, and the objective of brand salesmen is to achieve maximum possible exposure, both are unequivocally at the top of their respective fields.
More than that, though, both men have achieved levels of acclaim and support that seem impossible for such controversial figures. Criticism of Trump—stemming from comments on Mexican immigrants, lies about Muslim crowds cheering 9/11, sexist diatribes against Megyn Kelly, and bush-league verbal assaults on his competitor—doesn’t stick to the Teflon candidate. At the very least, it hasn’t hurt his numbers in national polls, where he continues to lead the field of Republican candidates by a sizable margin. Likewise, Kanye has proven his ability to say just about anything—from insinuating Bill Cosby’s innocence of rape to claiming that he made Taylor Swift famous—and still gain public influence.
Proof, beyond the statistics on The Life of Pablo: he’s acquired 2 million more Twitter followers in the past month, giving him the fastest-growing following on the Internet. Even if a large percentage of his Twitter fans actually despise him, they acknowledge his importance by the mere act of paying attention to what he has to say. The most effective way to silence a voice, as minorities in America are so painfully aware, is to ignore it.
Now, we must ask the more difficult questions: why haven’t Trump and West’s chronic spurts of political incorrectness marginalized them? And how do the answers to the first question impact the inherent societal value of each man?
The answer to the first question is simple on the surface—both Trump and Kanye have tapped into some part of the public psyche more effectively than anyone else. They have a self-awareness of their own influence, and they aren’t hesitant to flaunt it in self-declaration of their own greatness. For people who tend to mistake confidence for competence (i.e. the majority of humans), the brash arrogance is taken for charisma, which draws more followers, which gives Trump and Kanye more reason to see themselves as vastly important. To be fair, had they not succeeded earlier in life—had Trump not found massive success in real estate, or had Kanye not achieved critical and popular acclaim from the beginning of his recording career—the cycle of narcissism never would have started. But once it kicked off, each man had the mentality necessary to become a black hole.
Yet there’s a crucial distinction to make when comparing the egos of Donald Trump and Kanye West, one that gives the latter far more redemptive quality: Kanye knows and admits that he is fallible. Trump does not.
Kanye’s entire career has been defined by self-contradiction and, more than that, his awareness of his own self-contradiction (a topic I’ve written about at length). Even on The College Dropout, before he had become a game-changing rapper, he was simultaneously discussing his own desire for material goods and wealth while ripping the white supremacist economic system that engendered that desire. “All Falls Down,” even after all these years, still defines his perception of the world—”I’m so self-conscious,” Kanye raps, and that self-consciousness of his own hypocrisy has never faded.
The chief contradiction Kanye has battled has changed over the course of his career. When he became famous in the mid-2000s, it was the fight between his lust for fame and his acknowledgement that fame enslaves the famous (best typified by “Flashing Lights”). Then, it was the contradiction between having everything he could ever have dreamed of while losing his mother, the most important influence in his life, resulting in the alienation and depression that made 808s and Heartbreak such a powerful album.
Since then, we’ve seen Kanye rip into other artists (Taylor Swift, Beck, Wiz Khalifa, et. al.) while claiming that everything he does is for artists’ benefit; we’ve seen him rap repeatedly about fucking hoes, even as he holds down what appears to be a steady marriage with Kim Kardashian; we’ve heard him describe his influence in all sorts of hyperbole even while giving glory to God like a good Christian man. Many have turned on him through these struggles, and this is entirely justified.
But the key to Kanye is that all of his internal struggles have taken place in the public sphere, his scars borne by the art for which he would die. A man who cannot admit his own flaws would be incapable of creating “POWER” or “Runaway,” respectively the thesis statement for Kanye’s career post-Graduation and his most cathartic moment. The twin centerpieces to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, itself the aural version of a Greek tragedy, they serve as intensely private meditations on the glories and burdens of influence transmuted into public confessions, proof that Kanye is tortured by his inability to be both the greatest artist of all time and its most beloved. There’s a reason his Twitter profile picture is still the Suicide King from the single release artwork of “POWER”—he is the Suicide King of music, one of its greatest icons and most detestable personalities, an anti-hero to rule all anti-heroes.
And anti-heroes, unlike true villains, have a capacity for redemption, because they know their flaws and are constantly trying to heal the wounds they inflict over and over again. Anti-heroes apologize to Taylor Swift. They apologize to Beck. And they continue to seek absolution for their flaws, as Kanye does on The Life of Pablo. For all the braggadocio on a track like “Feedback,” the internal torment and struggle to overcome himself is never muted—listen to the three-song stretch starting with “FML” and ending with “Wolves,” and it’s impossible to deny that Kanye still harbors deep self-dissatisfaction.
Donald Trump is not an anti-hero, because he has not apologized to anyone and never will. He doesn’t expose his restless, self-contradictory psyche to the world—if it even exists. In the recent Republican debate in South Carolina, Donald Trumprefused to admit that he could be wrong about anything (I won’t count the joke about his wife as a concession). Such an attitude has proven to be the norm for him throughout this election season. He’s passed off his numerous trips to federal bankruptcy court as “sound business decisions,” and he’s passed off his various insults with different versions of “I love (insert insulted party), they’re great, I’m friends with them.” Instead of expressing regrets for his extramarital affairs, he defends them with pride. Rather than displaying the candor of self-inspection that Kanye West has done over the past decade, Donald Trump has moved forward with seemingly little regard for anything aside from his own presidential ambitions.
While such a manner of living without regret is admirable in some sense, it also means that Trump must be judged as a single-minded entity, standing firmly behind everything he has ever said instead of being afforded the nuances of thought that an admitted self-contradictory person like Kanye West possesses. And if we judge Donald Trump as simply the sum of all he has said over the course of this presidential campaign, we have no choice be to conclude that he would make a piss-poor president with little capacity for winning over Congress, foreign leaders, or the vast swaths of the American populace he has offended in his ruthless dogfight to gain enough support to win the presidency.
Conducting himself with unshakable hubris and the mentality that he must “win” every “deal” might have worked in Trump’s business affairs, and it’s certainly contributed to his becoming a larger-than-life personality. But choosing leaders with proven hubris tends to end badly for the people selecting the leaders. And I, for one, don’t want to see President Donald Trump having to attempt his first redemption story in the Oval Office, with America’s fortunes and American lives hanging in the balance.
To be clear, I’m not supporting #Kanye2020. But Donald Trump could stand to learn from his introspection.
Zach Blumenfeld is a Paste intern and would like nothing more than to witness a Trump-Kanye debate. Follow him on Twitter (@zachblumy).