Kanye West, perhaps our greatest contemporary pop musician and almost certainly our most effective pop provocateur, has set the world (and some of his fellow pop stars) a-flutter by returning with a vengeance to Twitter after months of absence and reiterating his already-known affection for and support of President Donald Trump.
For those of you who don't remember Kanye's comments about Trump in 2016, which he said onstage in San Jose, here's how Ed Krayewski described them in Reason at the time:
When West told the crowd he would have voted for Trump had he voted, he was booed in response.
"That don't mean that I don't think that black lives matter," West said. "That don't mean that I don't believe in women's rights. That don't mean that I don't mean in gay marriage. That don't mean that I don't believe in these things because that's the guy that I wanted to vote for."
West stressed that no presidential candidate was going to "instantly be able to change" racism. "Stop focusing on racism," he told the crowd. "This world is racist, okay? Let's stop being distracted to focus on that as much. It's just a fucking fact. We are in a racist country. Period."
Immediately after that outburst, West canceled a major tour, was hospitalized for "exhaustion," and spent months away from the public eye; during this time, he was presumed to be off his rocker. (Kanye's wife, Kim Kardashian, has called out people who have been writing off Kanye's latest pro-MAGA tweets as signs of mental illness.)
People are certainly making more of these tweets, though they barely hint at support for any particular Trump policies, instead merely declaring that he has personal "love" for the president and admires the "dragon energy" that West believes he and his "brother" Trump share. The closest West comes to even hinting at an ideological commitment is a tweet declaring "I love the way Candace Owens thinks"—Owens being a black conservative YouTuber. This has excited both Owens and the MAGA world's court editorial cartoonist, Ben Garrison.
Three distinct groups are, knowingly or unknowingly, being confounded by all this:
1) Kanye's old fans. The "Old Kanye" seemed acutely conscious of the idea that racism harms blacks in a meaningful way worthy of worry and commentary.
At risk of overinterpreting, since Kanye said nothing specific about what he loved about Owens, the basic idea that black people are doing fine in America except for their own flaws, and that Democrats and progressives are feeding them a debilitating message of racist oppression, largely defines Candace Owens–ism in practice.
That might be hard to swallow from fans raised on the Kanye whose work seemed quite conscious of the problems that racism, institutionalized and not, causes for blacks in America. His lyrics have invoked police abuse, and they have included more than a few casual references to the idea that the U.S. government conspires against blacks. One of Kanye's famous previous provocations that made him America's Most Hated Celebrity was his declaration at a 2005 Hurricane Katrina telethon that George W. Bush "doesn't care about black people."
Here are just a few Kanye lyrics stretching over his whole career that might make his affection for Owens seem out of character:
• "I say, 'Fuck the police,' that's how I treat 'em/We buy our way out of jail, but we can't buy freedom/We'll buy a lot of clothes, but we don't really need 'em/Things we buy to cover up what's inside/'Cause they made us hate ourself and love they wealth." ("All Falls Down," The College Dropout )
• "How we stop the Black Panthers? Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer. You hear that? What Gil Scott was hearin'/When our heroes or heroines got hooked on heroin." ("Crack Music," Late Registration, )
• "And at the airport they check all through my bag and tell me that it's random….As long as I'm in Polo smiling, they think they got me/But they would try to crack me if they ever see a black me….And what's a black Beatle anyway, a fucking roach?/I guess that's why they got me sitting here in fucking coach." ("Gorgeous," My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy )
• " Meanwhile the DEA teamed up with the CCA/They tryna lock n***as up. They tryna make new slaves. See that's that privately owned prison. Get your piece today." ("New Slaves," Yeezus )
• "Watch who you bring home/They see a black man with a white woman at the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong." ("Black Skinhead," Yeezus )
• "Hands up, we just doing what the cops taught us/Hands up, hands up, then the cops shot us." ("Feedback," The Life of Pablo )
In 2011's "New Day," Kanye even rapped of an imagined future son: "I might even make him be Republican/So everybody know he love white people." So, you know, artists are complicated and not always speaking a politicized, ideological truth. But no doubt, Kanye fans might find something requiring explaining in his apparent affection for Candace Owens. Still, he's always been his own sharpest commentator and critic, and he rapped in 2013's "I Am a God": "Soon as they like you, make 'em unlike you. 'Cause kissing people's ass is so unlike you."
2) His new MAGA-world fans. For Trumpsters thrilled that at last there is a successful, iconic pop culture figure now unabashedly on their side, it is worth remembering that the very definition of Kanye's brand, going back at least as far his notorious interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Awards, is "that out-of-control arrogant, insane asshole who everyone hates." By 2013 I was writing that despite his huge manifest talent as a pop musician, nearly everyone, whenever West comes up, feels compelled to let you know how much contempt they have for him. Even President Obama felt free to publicly call him a "jackass" while granting his talents. He's been the target of a cultural far-more-than-two-minute hate long before Trump.
In other words, in the eyes of the culture's Trump-haters, Kanye coming out as a MAGA man is totally on-brand and gives no added cool points to Trump fandom. It's just the sort of thing that arrogant loon Kanye West would do.
3) Everyone who thinks they know what Kanye might mean by loving Trump. With the possible exception of the Candace Owens comments, Kanye's tweets give no signs of any specific thing he likes about Trump beyond the "dragon energy" he thinks they share. (He did call out Obama for having done nothing in eight years to improve conditions in Kanye's hometown of Chicago, but he does not claim that any specific Trump policy will improve anything either.) So those enmeshed in the cultural and political debates about Trump should bear in mind that something about the president clearly excites people independent of embracing any specific policy he may have furthered. (Kanye had previously been a Democratic Party donor.)
To internet weirdos of many kinds, there is an inchoate sense that Trump represents a disruption in a normie status quo worth cheering. A lot of that sort of Trumplove seems nihilistic and dangerous to me, but the people who believe it, likely including Kanye, don't see it that way. To them, Trump's unlikely victory represents a sort of hole punched in the Matrix that allows for all sorts of thrilling imagined changes. I even know some libertarians who have that feeling.
Or perhaps this is just a case of massively self-assured swagger recognizing massively self-assured swagger. Kanye's public evolution will doubtless continue to morph. That he's excited about meeting with Peter Thiel probably has more to do with a sneaker mogul and general business-building obsessive seeking billionaire partners and investors than it does a desire to seastead, hobble democracy, or spy on the world. (Though some think Kanye is subtly promoting Jordan Peterson. Who knows?)
Someone can "love" Trump without it being fair to lay on their heads the burden of strong belief in whatever Trump policy pisses you off or delights you, be it mistreatment of immigrants or transgender people or American steel users or even initiatives like deregulation or outreach to North Korea. To Kanye, MAGA means empathy and proof that he's an independent thinker. You might not understand why, nor is he explaining it well. But it won't help American culture to gin up a mass feeling that you just can't tolerate anyone who doesn't hate Trump as much as you do.