2020 election

Kanye West and the Media Are Once Again Playing a Dangerous Game

The cycle continues: Kanye says a thing, we all go the long way believing it, the idea proves untenable, and his sense that people are out to get him is reinforced. Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

It’s a special kind of hell we live in right now when a celebrity who has admittedly never voted can claim to be running for president four months before the general election and catapult the internet into many days of trenchant debate about his motives for entering a race that he has yet to file any paperwork to join. That’s the rarefied air occupied by Kanye West, one of the most famous people on the planet and one of the least predictable figures in a sphere of American celebrities who move with careful intention, defined by the garrulousness of ever-present Twitch streamers and YouTube influencers, the pointed insouciance of political commentators, and the strategic poise of megawatt stars like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. Kanye, by contrast, moves like summer rain: He sneaks up, empties out everything that’s been brewing upstairs, and moves on while we splash around the puddles he leaves behind. After dividing his fandom by showing loud support for Donald Trump over the last five years, West walked it all back during a peculiar Forbes interview last week, in which he insisted his MAGA years were an act of protest “to the segregation of votes in the Black community,” inspired in part by his admiration for the décor inside the Trump hotels. There is the chance that seeing the president he once called a father figure entering a White House bunker to avoid George Floyd protests is the impetus for all of this; the retraction comes with the caveat that West thinks Trump is “the closest president we’ve had in years to allowing God to still be part of the conversation.”

With filing deadlines in big-fish states like Texas already missed, and crucial states like Florida, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio requiring paperwork and tens of thousands of petitions signed and filed in the next three weeks, the likelihood of Kanye following through on his July 4 announcement dims a little with every passing day. But the talk doesn’t die, because a popular musician and entrepreneur floating a White House bid is too irresistible a story to pass up, even when it’s not his third or even fourth such announcement — because social media, especially after “game theory,” is a place that often values protracted thought processes more than common-sense conclusions (and some of that trickles down to the media because the press is obliged to cover what moves people); and because four years after West’s 2016 psychiatric emergency, many of us in the audience and in the press still haven’t figured out how to deal with the auteur’s journey with mental illness or the possibility that it animates his ideological choices.

The Forbes profile is odd for a few reasons, most of which come from Kanye, who in it seems to be a fount of theocratic political takes and ideas that don’t seem deeply considered. He says he plans on structuring his administration after the fictional isolationist ethnostate of Wakanda, from Marvel’s Black Panther, and insinuates that the pandemic is divine retribution for American godlessness and that the vaccine will be tantamount to the biblical mark of the beast, then suggests that Planned Parenthood and teen suicide are tools in a plot by the Christian Devil to dethrone God. Much of it is textbook conservative youth-pastor logic; there are plenty of precedents for the pro-life, pro–school prayer, borderline anti-vaxx character who believes disease is a method of humbling mankind that West seems to have pivoted to. Where is it coming from? As much as it’s documented that he’s spending time around Elon Musk, Grimes, “Wash Us in the Blood” cinematographer Arthur Jafa, and others, West is also on good terms with Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the prickly televangelist, who fought to keep the school open in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, even as students fell ill. West is friendly with Joel Osteen and, in January, headlined Awaken 2020, an Arizona Christian conference featuring several controversial speakers, which abruptly booted homophobic firebrand Lou Engle from the bill as news of the artist’s involvement turned into criticism of Awaken’s lineup. To be fair, West’s personal pastor, Adam Tyson, and Michelle Tidball, the Wyoming therapist and life coach floated as his veep, seem mellow enough.

Some of West’s proclamations have been alarming, meandering, and impractical to a degree that draw similarities to the frenetic Life of Pablo days, where it seemed clear that something was up, but no one knew what until it came out that his personal physician had put him on involuntary psychiatric hold in late 2016. Forbes dispensed these stances as a bullet-pointed list of hot takes, a most unusual method of revealing the contents of a four-hour conversation with a star of this caliber. It seems patterned after the portion of a presidential candidate’s website that lists their platforms, but it ultimately robs the reader of the opportunity to hear West speak lucidly about what his life is like right now. The article serves up his most incendiary stances for pickup elsewhere on the internet; it wonders aloud if he understands the implicit humor of his position, but there’s nothing especially funny about this one. (It did seem funny onstage at the 2015 VMAs, when West accepted the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award and gave a rambling speech — “listen to the kids, bro!” — and promised to run in 2020. But we didn’t have the backstory we do today.)

Forbes also shared three Kanye “freestyles” from the interview. One celebrates the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial verdict as a victory for Black Americans and repurposes the lyrics about the death penalty from the second verse of “Wash Us in the Blood.” Another pokes fun at Trump’s masculinity: “How ‘bout we stop hiding in the bunkers and be a real man?” A third seems to be a fragment of a new song. The whole of the picture feeds into the old impression of Kanye West as a whimsical character with a tenuous grasp on the absurdity of some of his views, famously played for yucks by shows like South Park through the years. It is an image that needs reform, knowing what we now know about his wellness journey. TMZ suggested the artist’s family is concerned about what could be a “bipolar episode.” The lack of context regarding his diagnosis (and the timing of his more grandiose statements) in the Forbes piece and in coverage elsewhere on the internet, which questions the viability of the presidential bid but never entertains the possibility that the man giving all the outlandish pull quotes might not be doing so well right now, illuminate our inability to step back and ponder the ethics of the internet content mill when the subject is a world-famous rapper prone to puzzling public remarks that he later regrets.

As such, West, in all of his admitted political amateurishness and his poignant lack of coherent plans for leadership, has become the topic of a serious debate about the implications of a third-party candidate on the general election, as thinkers including actor Debra Messing called his run a plot to filch young Black voters from Joe Biden to help Trump win again. It’s a misunderstanding of the reasons Black voters would consolidate behind a centrist candidate — like, say, force of habit, or Republicans’ inability to even seem invested in the issues plaguing the community — and of the way Black hip-hop heads view Kanye in his Christian conservative years — which is either begrudging nostalgia, self-flagellating support, indifference, or open contempt — to treat it like an inevitability that people will march out in the middle of a pandemic to pull the trigger on a Kanye West presidency. It takes him at his word that he’ll see this thing through in his fifth year of proposing and delaying political plans. It falls into the common trap of sensationalizing what is likely another case of a billionaire spitballing fantastical plans for the future, like Elon Musk promising to put humans on Mars in 2022. (Even Elon thinks #Kanye2020 is far-fetched.) The cycle continues: Kanye says a thing, we all go the long way believing it, the idea proves untenable, and his sense that people are out to get him is reinforced, while the belief that he is coolly orchestrating loud drama for financial gain persists. What if we’re wrong, and what we see as promotional stunts is actually something much darker?

At some point, there needs to be a reckoning about the toxic relationship between Kanye West and the vox populi, how he pokes at it knowing it’ll overcorrect in response, how sometimes he is stirring the pot a little to keep his name warm, and how often it’s clear that he doesn’t even enjoy it. Last week looked a lot like the old-school tabloid days, where figures like Michael Jackson’s eccentricities were blown up and scandalized in service to the inevitable gasps and guffaws from audiences ever hungry for fresh drama. That ended badly, and this one has dark potentiality. This isn’t to say that West isn’t really planning to run for president or that his recent antics are some kind of a veiled cry for help. When the subject has a history with bipolar disorder and addiction, when he spent portions of 2018 railing against social media as a system of mind control, it behooves us to move more carefully when he appears to be acting in a way that seems counterintuitive to his peace of mind. There’s a way to say this bid seems like a bad idea without treating the subject like a circus bear, more fodder for giggles, gossip, and chatter. Last week wasn’t it.

*A version of this article appears in the July 20, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Kanye and the Media Are Once Again Playing a Dangerous Game