Though you might not think so at first, the musical artist Kanye West and the Fox News host Tucker Carlson actually have a lot in common. Both men are very famous, and also very irritating. Both are sometimes remembered, sartorially speaking, for their preppier periods. Both have reached the peaks of success in their respective spheres within American mass media; both have chosen to use their platforms to pretend loudly and often that their platforms—and your freedoms—are actually in imminent jeopardy, thanks to the thought plague known as cancel culture. Did I mention that both men are very irritating?
It was only a matter of time before West and Carlson combined forces in a maelstrom of risible nonsense. That long-awaited moment finally came to pass on Thursday’s episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight, which was wholly devoted to a pretaped interview with West, who made a lot of people angry this week when he wore a dumb T-shirt to a fashion show. On Monday, both West and conservative commentator Candace Owens wore shirts reading “White Lives Matter” to West’s fashion show in Paris. The shirt, which also featured a large photograph of Pope John Paul II for some reason, was part of West’s latest collection—which, according to the New York Times, he introduced with a “rambling speech about critics who complained about his shows being late; … the pain of being called ‘crazy’; critics who complained that his clothes might not be well made,” and many other things. Classic Fashion Week drama!
Tucker Carlson, of course, lives for Fashion Week drama, and so he had West on his show to discuss how unfair it was that nobody liked his ugly, antagonistic shirt. “The response from the fashion industry and the international media was instantaneous and uniform: shock, horror, rage,” said Carlson at the outset of the hour-long discussion. In it, West rambled about his parents, announced that he chose to wear a “White Lives Matter” shirt “because they do [matter],” and spoke about how political forces had attempted to manipulate him back when he was married to Kim Kardashian. “We’ve rarely heard a man speak so honestly and so movingly about what he believes,” Carlson said. I skipped the first quarter of Thursday Night Football to watch this.
Carlson presented the fact that West’s shirt received almost uniform scorn as evidence that the left was once again seeking to destroy West for thinking for himself. He noted that West’s “free-form social media posts” are often “used as ammunition against him in the battle for influence over the minds of America’s young people,” and interjected at appropriate moments to underscore his contention that West is being silenced. “I’m starting to see why they want to make you be quiet,” Carlson said after West spoke out against abortion and claimed that “I perform for an audience of one and that is God.”
There’s nothing like hearing Tucker Carlson announce that Kanye West’s voice is being suppressed while he is literally interviewing him in primetime on cable’s most popular news network about something that happened when West was debuting his new clothing line at Paris Fashion Week. The interview was perhaps the ultimate example of what I’ve come to call the Tucker Carlson Grievance Interview: a recurring feature of Carlson’s show in which the host lends a prim, sympathetic ear and a hugely influential platform to various trollish dipshits, generally of the “liberal or recovering liberal” variety, who have faced criticism and occasional consequences for saying, doing, and/or wearing ugly, antagonistic things. And West, who famously once said George W. Bush “doesn’t care about Black people” live on TV, makes for a particularly appealing apostate to book on Fox.
By now, though, West has been dallying with right-wing politics for years, from his ballyhooed visit to Trump Tower in 2016—according to Donald Trump, the two men “discussed life”—to occasionally accessorizing his wardrobe with a MAGA hat, to his announcement that both he and Trump shared a certain “dragon energy.” In 2020, with the help and encouragement of Republican aides, West announced that he would run for president that year as an independent, with the overarching strategic goal of his candidacy—for the Republican aides, at least—clearly being to siphon votes from Democratic candidate Joe Biden.
Part and parcel with West’s whole Trump thing have always been his claims that he just doesn’t like people telling him what to do, or say, or think, and that he is sick of people trying to ostracize or suppress him for his truly held (?) beliefs. Call it principle, call it oppositional defiance, call it mental illness (as some have), or just call it being a huge jerk: It doesn’t really matter why West is like this. It’s America, man, and he can say and think whatever he wants, even if what he wants to say and think is that he is being prevented somehow from saying or thinking whatever he wants.
But is West actually being prevented from saying or thinking what he wants? Have he or any of Carlson’s Grievance Guests really faced organized, overwhelming cancellation from elite media commissars? Or are they simply upset that their actions, ideas, and opinions have faced strong pushback from people who don’t see the humor in dallying with malignant Trumpist ideologies? Are these people being canceled, or are they being criticized?
If Project Runway has taught me anything, other than the meaning of the word “serging,” it is that designers can control what they put into their collection, but they cannot control the response their collection receives. And the response that West’s “White Lives Matter” shirt received was, um, pretty negative. Some people walked out of the show as it was happening; many more people subsequently registered their disapproval in the media and online. Comes with the territory! If your whole thing is being an artist-provocateur, then it should come as no surprise that the public will not always appreciate your artistic provocations, especially when said provocations are issued alongside Candace Owens and co-opt language used almost exclusively by right-wing figures attempting to deny the existence of systemic racism.
But feigning surprise over objectively unsurprising things, and then incorporating that feigned surprise into an ongoing narrative of liberal intolerance and elitist suppression, is very much Tucker Carlson’s thing. Over the past few years, in a sleight-of-hand maneuver meant to deflect attention from their own whacks at this country’s democratic foundations, the Trumpist right has worked overtime to convince low-information voters that woke college kids, Twitter scolds, and the amorphous phenomenon known as “cancel culture” are the greatest threat that America has faced since the St. Louis Rams drafted Michael Sam. (The culture wars themselves are not new, of course.) Carlson is currently right-wing media’s most able and prominent exponent of this dumb theory, both in his contemptuous opening monologues on Tucker Carlson Tonight—in which he often advances ideas in broad alignment with the message on West’s T-shirt—and in his frequent Grievance Interviews with political pariahs and elite media apostates such as Glenn Greenwald and Alex Berenson, who tout their liberal origins as a means of supporting Carlson’s underlying point that liberals are terrible now.
The inevitable message of these interviews is that the suppressive left has conspired to silence the interviewees because they dared to express social or political sentiments that deviate from woke orthodoxy. This premise—that there is but a narrow band of acceptable opinion in elite circles today, and that those who stray outside the lines risk serious personal and professional consequences—is sometimes validated by certain centrist figures who are preoccupied with left-wing censoriousness. The irony, again, is that these cases are inevitably made on platforms—Fox News, prominent books from major publishers, the letters section of Harper’s—that would not be available to people who were actually canceled. This irony is particularly strong when it comes to Kanye West, who is one of the most famous men in America, who is in no danger of anything approaching cancellation, and who has a long history of doing or saying provocative things which then win him much publicity and increase his fame.
The premise of West’s Tucker Carlson Tonight interview, as stated by Carlson at the beginning of the program, was that no one had bothered to reach out to West to ask him why he’d worn the T-shirt, or what he’d meant by it. Carlson’s implication was that the mainstream media had once again fallen down on the job, so eager were they to reflexively bash West without even attempting to understand him. That’s just silly. For one thing, Kanye West is entirely capable of explaining himself. For another thing, it’s extremely irritating when right-wing grievance merchants will on one hand attempt to ban every single library book that even implies that homosexuals exist, while whining on the other about how the media isn’t looking deeply enough into the true meaning and message of a shirt that says “White Lives Matter.” The T-shirt itself is the message, and everyone—Tucker Carlson included—knows what it means.