Kanye West tweeted seven words that set the world aflame over the weekend. In expressing support on Saturday for the way controversial conservative YouTuber Candace Owens thinks, Ye set off a storm of criticism and bewilderment. It seemed that West’s praise of and meeting with Donald Trump had not been a momentary lapse after all. Instead, it’s part of a right-wing-supporting trend. Owens had, after all, called Trump the savior of the free world—a sentiment that is presumably one of those thoughts Ye is so fond of.
Kanye, unsurprisingly for someone who once portrayed himself as Jesus on a magazine cover, did not take kindly to people objecting to his praise of someone who dismisses Black Lives Matter supporters as “whiny toddlers.” He complained about the “thought police,” a term that intentionally obfuscates what's really going on.
Police have the ability to actually punish people—something even the author of the most-RT’d online missive does not. What West is facing is backlash—not, as he would have it, suppression. And it's backlash that is entirely expected, because we’ve seen it before.
Kanye is, knowingly or not, following the lead of right-wing trolls everywhere by saying things meant to shock and offend everyone except the powerful. The trolls get, in this case, the best of all worlds. They get to feel like a contrarian, but don’t actually risk annoying the people who sign their checks.
There are examples of this everywhere, including on the op-ed pages of our major newspapers. Check, for example, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, who is happy to contest global warming, or Kevin Williamson, who said that women who have abortions should be executed. Williamson lost one job for that extreme position, but ended up in the cozy confines of the Wall Street Journal afterwards. In both of these cases, the writer positions himself (and it's nearly always a him) as a rebel, bucking propriety. But on whose behalf? Polluters? Misogynists? Similarly, Kanye’s support of Trump may seem edgy, but who is he really challenging with it? Mostly, it’s members of the same communities that Trump is going out of his way to alienate and oppress.
On Monday, Yeezy gobbled up support from Dilbert creator and noted Trump apologist Scott Adams, who was over the moon about West’s praise for Owens. Adams said on Sunday that the rapper’s praise of Owens showed that he was breaking out of a “mental prison,” and the following day, Kanye agreed.
What West is missing in all of this is that jumping on board with the likes of Trump and Owens is not breaking anyone out of anything. By praising right-wing figures like these, Kanye is not taking a stand against the “thought police.” If anything, his support of Owens and company is only moving him closer to power and gaining him a new audience.
In just a few days since praising Candace Owens, West has gained prominent supporters—many of them the types of people who wouldn’t have gone near him in his “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” days. There’s Adams, of course, as well as other people in the conservative-to-conspiracy-theorist spectrum, like Bill O’Reilly, Mike Cernovich, and Alex Jones—the last of whom, don’t forget, has the ear of the president. The Washington Post noted that, in just a few days, Kanye had become “a hero of the pro-Trump internet.”
There is a decades-long history of people abandoning the political left to cozy up to conservatives. The move always looks the same. They talk endlessly about being original thinkers. They act as if what they are doing is rebellious or brave, and as if they are making big sacrifices. But somehow, they end up with more influence and prestige than before. Agreeing with people in power will do that.
Think of the neo-conservatives of the 1960s and ’70s, most of whom started out liberal. After their flip, folks like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz ended up far more powerful than they were in their student activist days. They had their own magazines, advised politicians, and even determined U.S. foreign policy. It turns out telling presidents to bomb people makes for good business.
Or remember Christopher Hitchens, a left-leaning writer whose conservative turn post-9/11 moved him from iconoclastic magazine writer to buddy to the likes of Newt Gingrich and Paul Wolfowitz.
To take a more modern example, look at Stacey Dash. The Clueless actress moved from supporting Obama in 2008 to endorsing Mitt Romney in 2012.
While she endured some backlash in the press and on social media, the endorsement did one major thing: it got people talking about Stacey Dash. She quickly got the memo, making a string of ever-more strident and offensive statements, and riding the reaction into a job at Fox News, and even into a short-lived Congressional run. Not bad for someone who, just prior, was starring in Nora’s Hair Salon II. And while Dash eventually went too far in her public comments even for Fox News and got canned, it's certain that she never would have had that job, or anywhere near the same visibility, if not for her right turn.
Hot 97’s Ebro Darden got to the heart of this issue when talking to Kanye over the weekend. Darden gave an account of the conversation on the radio Monday morning. The radio personality said, in not-so-delicate terms, that Kanye’s August 2017 visit to Trump Tower was a cash grab. In Darden’s telling:
[H]e was like, “Why, you think I’m gonna make more money because I’m saying the things I’m saying?” I said, “Yes, because the bankers and the executives and the right-wing folks and the audience that wants to hear a black man say these things, to separate himself from other black people, will celebrate that.”
If history is any guide, Darden is dead-on. Aligning himself with Donald Trump, while it may alienate some people, will gain West access to a whole new audience. As for his current supporters: they may chide West on Twitter, but a fire album (or two, or three, or five) will go a long way towards gaining him back much of the love and influence his Trump-backing may cost him. And let's not forget that the backlash for supporting Trump tends to hit women much harder than men.
There is no way in which aligning yourself with the most powerful man in the world is a bold, controversial choice. That’s something that Kanye West, who famously stood against someone in that same office once upon a time, should understand. Kanye spoke plainly and clearly about racism by people in power post-Katrina and, it should be noted, hit a nerve—George W. called it the worst moment of his presidency. Today, when another president’s bigotry is rolling back hard-fought gains and emboldening the worst trends in American political life, Kanye is more concerned with forgetting the past than with avoiding a repeat of its horrors. But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. As a young rapper/producer from Chicago once warned us, the prettiest people do the ugliest things.