I’ve been having the same debate with the same friend for about a year now. He is supportive of leftist causes and organizations but also sternly critical of their shortcomings and increasingly suspicious that many of the decade’s most popular activists became public intellectuals for the celebrity meet-and-greets. Our dialogue began after raucous student protests disrupted plans for a speech by disgraced alt-right enfant terrible Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley, and another at Middlebury College in Vermont by sociologist Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, whose inferences about race as a mitigating factor in human brain function landed him a spot in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s extremist files as a white nationalist. My friend argues that no-platforming speakers for troubling ideologies essentially gift-wraps the easy right-wing rebuttal that liberals aren’t interested in free speech but rather in speech that comforts them. The idea that “PC culture” is out of hand is popular among left-identifying media sophists: Bill Maher never misses an opportunity for a rant about liberal preciousness; on the night of the first Berkeley protest, YouTube vlogger Anthony Fantano remarked that, “The irony of antifa is they use force and childish tactics to get their way. Just like a fascist.”
I told my friend that he’s taking the exact stance a clever conservative would want him to, because leftist infighting over how to handle hate speech is an easier front to face than leftists united in manipulating democracy to pinch controversial speakers’ pockets. The conservative community that rebuked the comedian Michelle Wolf for jokes about Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders at last month’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner doesn’t seem interested in freedom of speech so much as the complete control of it. (A 2017 free speech survey by billionaire Republican donor Charles Koch’s think tank, the Cato Institute, suggested that many conservatives believe liberals fuss too much about offensive ideologies, but they also support job termination as a minimum consequence for burning the American flag or kneeling during the national anthem in protest. Gallup Inc. and the Knight Foundation released a study this March and found that students who identify as white, male, and Republican increasingly feel more secure in their First Amendment rights than students who are black, female, or Democrat.)
The quiet fascination with divisive conservative pundits like Milo, Ann Coulter, and Megyn Kelly among public figures who ought to know better is a function of relatability. Across party lines, they recognize a certain battleworn determination in the face of public criticism, and it softens them. The last two weeks of Kanye West news have presented a disconcerting study of someone straining to see the humanity in people who have never endeavored to return the favor. West’s apparent embrace of Trumpism is — if we are to believe any of his last 15 years of raps, rants, and public declarations — a stunning betrayal of the marginalized communities he once staked his career on defending. His loose grasp on the inner workings of black America’s relationship with the Republican Party, throughout history but especially now, is worrisome, but his inability to see the possible long tail of consequences for himself and the millions of people who consider themselves fans is amateurish and irresponsible behavior unbecoming of his station and his backstory. For the man who once wrote a song called “I Am a God,” there is a chance that Trump might just be Ragnarok, a flaming carnival of god death.
Kanye West isn’t nearly the first black celebrity to embrace a Republican politician in the last 50 years. Sammy Davis Jr. and James Brown supported Richard Nixon. Charles Barkley was a big Dan Quayle fan decades before his speaking engagements with the Democratic National Convention, and Karl Malone is a card-carrying NRA board member. And 50 Cent expressed admiration for George W. Bush the same year Kanye famously said the former president “doesn’t care about black people.” Black conservatism exists, to paraphrase Chance the Rapper, but often under fire. Republicans take pride in their history as the “party of Lincoln and civil rights” but often gloss over the ruinous effects of President Dwight Eisenhower’s neutered Civil Rights Act of 1957 and Senator Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on relations between African-American voters and the Republican Party, and the six decades of bad-faith stances on housing, policing, and incarceration that have since widened the chasm. Trump — a housing developer accused in 1973 of squeezing potential black renters out of his developments, a local New York celebrity who insisted on the guilt of the Central Park Five from their wrongful imprisonment well beyond their exoneration, and a national pop cultural titan who embraced the birther campaign insisting President Obama was not a U.S. citizen — has not done the work required to enjoy a reputation as a friend to the black community. His stances have forced, at least among black political thinkers not holding or otherwise angling for clout in the White House, a very public vote of no-confidence.
Kanye West, the son of a Black Panther and a black professor, was once known for fearless, prickly observations about race in America. At his best, he was the kind of firebrand who sold records offering caustic, panoramic assessments of black American disenfranchisement. “Crack Music” presented the war on drugs as a dangerous knot, tying together the bullishness of irresponsible presidents, the ruthless efficiency of the prison industrial complex, the lure of illegal narcotics both for sellers and buyers. “Murder to Excellence” took a heartbreaking look at steepening Chicago murder rates and then tossed the numbers at the feet of the architects of the Iraq War, in the process posing the question of why black death at home isn’t addressed with the same urgency as American offshore interests. Even in the solipsistic Yeezus era — whose central thesis seemed to be that the fashion industry’s reticence to accept West should concern us all, since where he can’t go, neither can we — there was a sense that he was aware of the sociopolitical systems at work around him and the ways that race colors and changes them. A guy like that ought to know the implications of “Make America Great Again” hats for people of color, the barely concealed messaging that suggests a black president and an influx of immigrants ruined the country and the real-world physical violence the thought process has wrought.
It is disorienting to watch a man who publicly identifies as a genius lose sight of his specific cultural utility. West complained of feeling like a pawn in a recent interview with New York rap radio host Charlamagne tha God, but then he walked into the arms of the Trump administration, where his friendship is already being framed — in lieu of actual political inroads — as proof this president loves and is loved by black people. (45’s presidential campaign was full of promises to combat gun violence in West’s hometown of Chicago, but he hasn’t been back since a volatile protest ran him out of a planned rally at the University of Illinois in Chicago before the 2016 primaries. He did hire a Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson, who just unveiled a plan to raise rents on families with subsidized housing. To Charlamagne’s question of whether Trump cares about black people, West didn’t have an answer.) A White House whose most visible black supporters have been officials on payroll like Ben Carson and Omarosa Manigault-Newman (and vloggers collecting nebulous consulting fees like Diamond and Silk) absolutely treasures the theater of West’s public consideration of their platform. Donald Trump craves nothing so purely as to be thought of as cool and ahead of the curve.
The same could be said of Kanye West, a repeat award-show stage-crasher who once responded to a South Park episode about how he overreacts to jokes by overreacting to the jokes in it. Kanye thirsts for approval, and if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have acted out over losses at the 2006 MTV Europe Awards and the 2007 VMAs, or dropped that line into “The Glory” apologizing for the flair of the suit he wore to the 2006 Grammys. He wouldn’t have devised the entire rollout of 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as a campaign of self-flagellation for the time in 2009 when he couldn’t resist telling America that the “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” video was better than Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me.” Kanye loves being liked, but as is the case with Trump, the only thing that animates him more than accolades is admonition.
Kanye West thinks the chorus of public and private reproach he received (and reposted) for doubling down on his support for Trump is just another “NO!” for him to crash through, like the time people told him he shouldn’t rap, or the time people told him he shouldn’t make clothing, or the time people told him he maybe shouldn’t emblazon hip-hop tour merch with Confederate flags. He can’t see that his efforts to champion “free thought” and corner empathy for MAGA aren’t actually helping to promote a more open society, because the thing that a movement built on white voters’ prejudices and persecution complexes (that flourishes at the expense of considerations for black, brown, and queer Americans) really wants is less people speaking and thinking for themselves. He should know that his specific function for this set is providing access to minority eyes and ears — tweet about Kanye West and Republicans, and note who shows up in your mentions. Once that value diminishes, he’ll be cast aside like Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, Omarosa, Middle American conservatives who rely on Obamacare, and anyone else who dares to have faith in Donald Trump.
Under the harsh light of public scrutiny, it can be tough to distinguish real tough love from the brutal peck of a peanut gallery. But the Kanye West who asked a friend to design a tattoo of his son’s name and didn’t notice the guy appears to have just typed out “Saint West” in a premade font, who presented Givenchy design director Tony Spackman’s old Nike activewear concept art from 2005 as research for new Yeezy clothes, doesn’t seem as sharp of a judge of character or design as advertised. You fight spiritual and creative vertigo like that by keeping great people around. But West doesn’t seem very adept at that now either. He is a vocal supporter of the rapper Tyga, who dated Kylie Jenner when she was 17, released a mixtape full of raunchy sex raps just two weeks after her 18th birthday, and cast her in the video for a song whose chorus goes, “She a big girl, dawg, when she stimulated.” (West told the Breakfast Club’s DJ Envy that Tyga “got in early.”) Ye is also a fan of fashionista and socialite Ian Connor, who was accused of sexual assault by multiple women in 2016 and disappeared, later claiming Kanye put him up in Japan.
We also haven’t spoken nearly enough about the ways Kanye’s finest work sometimes reduces women to being in thrall to money or sex. “All Falls Down” dismisses a struggling college graduate as a “single black female addicted to retail,” but when West’s own irresponsible spending comes up, he’s just “trying to buy back our 40 acres.” “Gold Digger,” “All of the Lights,” and “Blood on the Leaves” warn men against losing “18 years” to a baby by an opportunist, but while these songs question the morality of women, they also depict their male characters’ drug deals and domestic violence charges as fallout from a hard-knock life. The “spoiled little L.A. girl” riff in 808s & Heartbreak’s “Robocop” and the “Yeezy taught you well” breakdown in Fantasy’s “Blame Game” set templates for the kind of pointed cruelty to specific exes that Drake records used to catch hell for, and guys like XXXTentacion appear to be gaining steam from.
The president whose only changeless feature is his hair and the rapper who shucks styles like snakeskin might be a perfect pair down to a shared love of long, discursive interviews about their own greatness. But Kanye admits he hasn’t fully thought this thing through. If he knew his “friend” and “brother” repeatedly neglected to denounce racist violence by tiki-torch-bearing white supremacists, would he still court favor? If he knew about the trans military ban and the Muslim travel ban — apparently he didn’t — would they be deal-breakers? Is he just another music man silly enough to try and squeeze compassion out of a selfish, vindictive leader of the free world, a repeat of James Brown gambling his political cachet on the hope that Richard Nixon would do black America a solid, not knowing the president had demanded “no more black stuff” minutes before their first meeting? Does West think the last two weeks of backlash are just the natural flow of a finicky public who’ll “love you, then they hate you, then they love you again”?
It’s possible that we created this monster by weathering West’s arrogance and excusing his carelessness, because we thought his platform was too valuable to lose. Perhaps we were foolish to believe that an irascible rapper who once called himself a “proud non-reader of books” would make it out of the decade’s most crucial period for diligent reading and critical thinking. We should’ve clocked this fast and spurious descent into edgelord ideologies and pat “love everyone” sloganeering from a mile away. But what is done is done. If Kanye West never comes back from wandering out on the edges with the trolls and the racists, the times we felt inspired by his work and made something great and beautiful of our own still belong to us. The searching, vital work we once entrusted to Kanye West is fine in the hands of Beyoncé and Solange, of Janelle Monáe and Frank Ocean, of Kendrick Lamar and Donald Glover, of Issa Rae and Jerrod Carmichael, and of Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler. The lesson of the month — of MAGA Kanye, of Bill Cosby, of Infinity War — is, to quote OutKast, “heroes eventually die.” Believe in any one human being too much, and they will invariably let you down. No one man should have all that power.