Kanye West is unraveling—or so it seems. His recent return to Twitter after a nearly year-long absence began rather innocuously, with updates on new music and fashion that fans were eager to receive. But it has turned surreal in the past few weeks, with philosophical musings (“Some people have to work within the existing consciousness while some people can shift the consciousness…”) interspersed with explicit endorsements of President Donald Trump. This week, West called the president his “brother” and declared, “You don’t have to agree with Trump, but the mob can’t make me not love him.”
Many are convinced that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Stephen Colbert, for one, believes “that Kanye has lost his mind.” Others, like longtime Kanye compatriot Chance the Rapper, are scrambling to defend him. But it’s not like West didn’t warn us. After the election, he bewildered his fanbase by announcing at a concert that if he had voted, he “would’ve voted for Trump.” And still, everyone (except the president) seems to be shocked and appalled that West, a black American, would tweet his support for right-wing commentators like Candace Owens and post pictures of himself wearing a red “Make America Great Again” cap. Trump is, after all, the president who openly insulted Civil Rights leader and congressman John Lewis and suggested that NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem should be “fired.” Torch-wielding white supremacists, of course, are “very fine people.”
For a popular and talented celebrity like Kanye West to make such an endorsement would typically mean the end of his career. But it’s different for West. He doesn’t operate the same way as other celebrities, and pop culture has lionized him for it. Indeed, it has been his career-long mission to do and say whatever it is people think he shouldn’t.
At a national telethon for victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he alienated hordes of viewers by saying that President George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people.” When he stole the mic from a young Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV VMAs, he gleefully played the role of villain, and the impact was enormous for both performers, as he knew it would be. In 2013, he affixed images of the Confederate Flag to several pieces of merchandise from his Yeezus tour. Each time, he dared the culture at large to try and stop him, then proclaimed his fierce independence when they did, and proceeded to further grow his celebrity.
West has compared himself to cultural revolutionaries like Steve Jobs, Walt Disney and, most famously, Pablo Picasso. Critics loved his 2016 album The Life of Pablo. So did the public. But as the saying goes: “nobody loves Kanye more than Kanye.” And obviously, no one loves Trump more than Trump. “I’m the only one who can fix our problems,” he said during his campaign. A lot of people believed him. This is where the two men’s cult of personality dovetails perfectly. They are narcissists with the ability to convince others that they are smarter than everyone else. They revel in their distinctly masculine disruptor status, railing against what they believe is a culture of followers, not leaders. Trump, an ex-Democrat from the blue state of New York, supports white supremacists. West, a black man from the city that produced our first black president, supports Trump.
Given Trump’s unceasing assaults against people of color, women, immigrants, the disabled, and other marginalized communities, West’s pro-Trump tweets are indeed offensive. But they’re not surprising. As they were unfolding, his wife Kim Kardashian, likely worried about alienating her own fanbase, advised him to clarify that he doesn’t support Trump entirely. “I don’t agree 100% with anyone but myself,” he wrote. But no one should expect him to walk back his support of the president, like Canadian country singer Shania Twain did after people got mad when she stated earlier this month that she would have voted for Trump. He lives for this.
West thinks of himself as a genius, but what he might not have the foresight to see is that he’s placing himself squarely on the wrong side of history. Sporting a MAGA hat might be an outrageous way to reaffirm his contrarian status and earn millions of retweets, but its symbolism has real negative social impact, mocking the racism and misogyny that pervades our society. A celebrity can’t rock the same merch as a school shooter or a neo-nazi protester and expect the public to keep buying their records and wearing their clothes. We have to draw the line somewhere, otherwise we’re just as mindless as powerful men like Trump and West believe us to be.