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The Politics of Self-Obsession

Kanye West has an affinity for Donald Trump — and why shouldn’t he? They’ve shared the same playbook for years.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Kanye West is an impulsive, self-obsessed, misguided person. I don’t say that to be rude. I say it hoping that I can finally break the spell that will otherwise inspire Kanye’s massive, cultish fan base to rationalize his Tuesday-morning meeting with President-elect Donald Trump as briefly upsetting but otherwise immaterial to their idolization of Mr. West.

Since 2003, West has seduced people with his brand of only-child narcissism — now the template for all millennial life — and so young people, in Kanye’s everlasting thrall, generally have a hard time saying, “Kanye West is an impulsive, self-obsessed, misguided person.” But it’s true. It’s not for me to say whether Kanye West is “crazy.” He is, however, a fool who just so happens to behave dramatically, and who may or may not be experiencing a mix of grief and mental illness. What Kanye offers in the way of unique musical brilliance and, for the most part, good taste, he consistently undermines with feats of egomaniacal spectacle and post-racial betrayals based on class transcendence.

For more than a decade now, he has ranted in a manner so captivating, if incoherent, that media have begun to repackage his loud, hot nonsense — which does indeed deserve to be described as “ranting” — as convulsive strokes of “genius,” a lofty term that frankly abuses the intelligence of anyone who happens to hear his musings. Kanye’s speeches are purely emotional appeals filled with energy and intent, even when they’re devoid of any factual or literal meaning; which is to say, he was speaking Trump’s language for years before Trump entered politics. One of his latest statements: telling a San Jose concert crowd that he would’ve voted for Trump (if he’d bothered to vote at all), which preceded Tuesday’s meeting with the president-elect for their friendly photo-op at Trump Tower. In the lobby, as West posed with Trump, a reporter asked the rapper whether he had anything to say — about Trump, his agenda, his rhetoric, anything. West’s response: “I just wanted to take a picture right now.”

There should be no good reason to take Kanye seriously in any realm beyond music; and yes, that would include my taking him seriously enough to resent him for glomming on to Trump. Under other circumstances, I’d be happy to view the Kanye-Trump clip, roll my eyes, and then move on with my day; I’d find no reason to be mad online. But here I am, writing not because I take Kanye’s politics seriously, but because I suspect the general interest in Kanye’s spectacular platform is maybe — just maybe — related to Trump’s ability to game the news media so successfully that he won a U.S. presidential election by coupling celebrity value with trolling. So here we are, now forced to consider that any celebrity’s Q-rating could ferment as political credibility overnight. How terrifying.

Kanye, a news troll himself, is the ultimate low-information voter: a man who, for personally obvious but philosophically unclear reasons, respects Trump’s skill for massive provocation. Kanye talks like a Trump voter while acting like Trump himself. The rapper who once famously admonished President George W. Bush for neglecting black victims of Hurricane Katrina has aligned himself with a race-baiter who has thanked black people who “didn’t show up” to vote in an election plagued by new voter ID laws that disproportionately disenfranchised black voters. Having apparently chosen to overlook the other toxic bits of Trump’s political appeal to neo-Nazis, Kanye has taken 2Pac’s provocational design and sapped it of all solidarity, conviction, and intelligence so that it’s nothing more than a personal marketing plan. I hope Assata Shakur eggs his house.

I wish none of this mattered. But from inside the matrix, where I’m writing this post, I can tell you it’s not only the U.S. electorate, but also serious people in media and politics who have somehow all agreed that celebrity, per se, is the low bar for entry into presidential politics. With Trump having shocked everyone, including himself, by winning a U.S. presidential election with “Host, The Apprentice” as the penultimate entry in his résumé, the Fawning Kanye West–Industrial Complex is caught in the awkward position of rebelliously doubting Trump’s political credibility despite having entertained West’s own presidential ambitions.

It’s always a joke, until it’s not. How, exactly, do you think we got here? I wouldn’t call it luck.

Shortly after his visit to Trump Tower, Kanye tweeted that the agenda of his meeting with Trump included discussions about “bullying, supporting teachers, modernizing curriculums, and violence in Chicago.” Lest you interpret that as assurance that Kanye didn’t use the meeting as an opportunity to beg yet another wealthy, white financier for money and/or professional validation, E! News reports that West also meant to discuss a potential “entrepreneurial leadership role” and/or to be “an ambassador of sorts” in Trump’s administration. Kanye’s qualifications for such a vague and pointless role are as good as anyone else’s. At every level of our politics, narcissism is the only virtue that endures in America, and the only popular cause is the self. In which case, it naturally follows that publicity, for better and worse, is the only qualification that matters.