Why Kanye West Likes Donald Trump

by Benjamin Studebaker

Kanye West is getting a lot of heat for appearing to come out as a Donald Trump supporter. Kanye is a much better poet than he is a prose artist, and when he speaks extemporaneously he tends to ramble. This often causes him to make flippant comments which become defining soundbites, drowning out the rest of what he says. Many people would be disinclined to take him seriously, and I’m sure some of you question whether this is a suitable topic for this blog. But there’s value in dissecting the views of people who seem politically unsophisticated–this is the only way we can come to understand the people outside of our bubbles.

Kanye doesn’t appear to fit the demographic profile for a Trump supporter–he’s black, and Trump only won 8% of the black vote. In a strict sense he isn’t one–he didn’t vote, he donated to Hillary Clinton, and he didn’t make his support for Trump known until after the election. He’s even planning to run against Trump in 2020, and he maintains support for a variety of social causes Trump is often alleged to oppose:

That don’t mean that I don’t think that Black Lives Matter. That don’t mean I don’t think that I’m a believer in women’s rights. That don’t mean I don’t believe in gay marriage. That don’t mean that I don’t believe in these things because that was the guy I would’ve voted for.

But Kanye does have a couple things in common with Trump supporters. For one, like many of them, he doesn’t have a college degree–Kanye famously dropped out of college. But perhaps the most important similarity is that Kanye fiercely identifies with the extent to which Trump and his supporters have been savaged by the commentariat. Kanye often says controversial things and gets roasted for it in the press. Like Trump, he keeps saying them anyway, and he is frustrated with the extent to which people take offense to the things he says.

The Clinton campaign often shamed Trump and his supporters for their comments as a strategy. Every time Trump said something controversial, their goal was to maximize the comment’s potential damage to Trump by placing it outside the bounds of acceptable political discourse. This of course does not restrict political speech in any formal, legal sense–it has always been legal in the United States to say politically unacceptable things–but it has contributed to a climate of self-censorship in which some people are afraid to say what’s on their minds for fear of social sanction. People don’t go to prison for the things they say, but they can lose their jobs, or even their pro basketball teams. And even if there are no economic consequences, there will be social and psychological penalties–the mob on Twitter will excoriate them.

Kanye West is famously hostile to racism. He became a hero of the anti-racism movement in 2005 when he accused President Bush of not caring about black people:

His songs frequently go after racism. In “New Slaves” Kanye criticized mass incarceration and talked about how his experience of racism has changed as he’s moved up the economic ladder:

My momma was raised in the era when
Clean water was only served to the fairer skin
Doin’ clothes you would have thought I had help
But they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself
You see it’s broke nigga racism
That’s that “Don’t touch anything in the store”
And it’s rich nigga racism
That’s that “Come in, please buy more”
“What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain?
All you blacks want all the same things”

That song came out in 2013. Kanye is still performing songs about race. Indeed, on the same night he made these comments, his tour’s set list featured racially charged songs like “Black Skinhead” and “Blood on the Leaves“.

And yet, even as he’s performing these songs, he’s saying things like this:

Before I get out of here I want to talk about race and the idea of racism in America and the world. Specifically to black people, stop focusing on racism. This world is racist, OK? Let’s stop being distracted to focus on that as much. It’s a f***ing fact. We are in a racist country. Not one or the other candidate was going to instantly be able to change [racism] because of they views.

For many people there’s just too much cognitive dissonance. This is the point where Kanye gets written off as a kook and placed in that bin full of people we dismiss because they don’t make sense to us. But if we dig deeper into the transcripts, we can find clues as to how this fits together for him. To start, Kanye seems to think that racism cannot be confronted unless it’s out in the open:

I hate the fact that because I’m a celebrity everybody told me not to say that I loved the debates. I loved his approach. It’d be like white people that’s racist running around saying “niggas” now. If people are racist and they feel more inspired to say how they feel then they exposing themselves, bro. This is what I’m saying. It’s already the beginning of change. Sometimes things that you might think are bad have to happen in order for change to fucking happen. Sometimes you might have to not get your way to really understand what to do in the future to be able to get your way.

If Kanye believes that, then a Clinton campaign which forces racists to self-censor would be driving racism underground and making it harder to confront. The last two last lines are particularly interesting, because they’re very clearly accelerationist–Kanye doesn’t necessarily believe Trump will do good things, but he thinks the bad things Trump will do will lead to something good. Kanye seems to think the left needs to listen to its opponents more and shame them less. This is implicit in his critique of Clinton:

It’s a new world, Hillary Clinton, it’s a new world. Feelings matter. Because guess what? Everybody in middle America felt a way and they showed you how they felt.

Kanye observes that Barack Obama had to act post-racial to win–he couldn’t confront racism head on and the fact that he occupies the oval office has been used to dismiss racial concerns:

Obama couldn’t make America great because he couldn’t be him to be who he was. Black men have been slaves. Obama wasn’t allowed to do this [screams] and still win. He had to be perfect. But being perfect don’t always change shit, bro. Being perfect don’t always change shit, bro.

Unlike Trump, who is often hypocritical about political correctness and encourages supporters to rough up dissenters, Kanye seems to genuinely believe that people should say what they feel. Here’s how he responded when one angry fan threw an object at him:

Oh shit, you threw something at me. Does something else wanna throw something at me? But, you know what, I got the power to get that guy kicked out, or whatever, roughed up. No. Stay here. What do you believe? That’s your opinion. Express your opinion, bro. Express your opinion. Thank you.

There’s a charitable way to interpret all of this. Kanye opposes racism as much as he ever did, but Kanye lost faith in the Clinton campaign as an effective vehicle for opposing racism because it tried to shut racists up instead of changing minds or proposing meaningful radical policies that would materially help people for color who are struggling.

All of this might have come across if Kanye had attached himself to someone like Bernie Sanders. But he didn’t–he attached himself to Trump, even though he acknowledges that he shares none of Trump’s substantive positions aside from hostility to political correctness. For Kanye, that turned out to be the most important thing. How many people are like Kanye in this respect? How many have no special attachment to Trump politically other than the vague notion of change he represents–his hostility to limits on acceptable public debate, his perceived willingness to go outside the box?

Many people who haven’t been to college and don’t pay much attention to policy feel this way. They no longer think the norms of political debate are written for people like them, and they don’t think our problems can be solved with the same old policy and rhetoric. They feel cornered, excluded, and deprived of good alternatives. They can all easily be won by the left if the left argues more fearlessly for what it believes and spends less time and energy putting down and silencing those who disagree. The left needs to come across as authentic, and that means it sometimes needs to be provocative without being personally hostile. Kanye West isn’t politically astute enough to do this effectively himself. He can’t express himself cogently enough in prose to be an effective political actor and he doesn’t know anything about policy. But he is right that we need to find a way to argue for what we believe that’s bold without being excluding. If we can’t do that, even a committed anti-racist like Kanye can find himself identifying with Trump’s persecution complex. And if you can be anti-racist and identify with Trump, it’s possible for any person who feels alienated by our political norms to get behind him. By the looks of it, that’s a lot of people.