Being a fan of Kanye West has long required some level of engagement—or willing disengagement—with the question of how to square the misbehaving artist with his art. After all, as Barack Obama famously put it, Kanye can be kind of a jackass. But he’s also an extraordinarily talented and generous artist, which has always outweighed both his mischief (his antics with Taylor Swift, being late to concerts) and his more questionable choices (tweeting “BILL COSBY INNOCENT!!!!!”). But now we live in explosive, polarized, Trumpian times, so his latest move—to express his support for the president, his “Make America Great Again” ethos, and the general concept of “free thought” in an ongoing, multiday tweetstorm—has probably surpassed all previous instances of Kanye Kanye-ing.
Reactions have varied but can be broadly summed up as stunned frustration and horror from the left and wild enthusiasm on the right. It’s not like anyone should have been surprised by this rightward turn, if that’s what it is—Kanye was one of the first and most prominent celebrities to show up at Trump Tower in the weeks after Trump won the 2016 election, after all. But still, coming from the guy who once made headlines by proclaiming that George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people, the outburst is surprising in a year when surprise is increasingly elusive. As my colleague Osita Nwanevu wrote earlier this week, the rapper’s newfound ability to find allies on a political side he previously railed against is “yet another example of how far we are through the looking glass.” But even when reality goes topsy-turvy, we’re tempted to make sense of it, and some of the first questions that inevitably surface are some version of: Is Kanye … OK? Is this all just another example of his vague, poorly understood mental health “issues”? Is he shouting “MAGA” because he’s lost it?
But this isn’t about mental illness, and trying to make it so doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding what’s going on. Instead, let’s consider why Kanye would go Trump. Once you get your bearings on this side of the looking glass, it’s not so hard to understand why Kanye would feel kinship—or rather, “dragon energy“—with the president. Right after West’s Trump Tower visit, in December 2016, Katy Waldman smartly explored the expansive similarities between the two men, writing:
Both men are improvisational, controversial performers with megalomaniacal dreams and a history of rebuking the “politically correct.” Both have made inflammatory nods to white supremacy, whether by inciting Twitter’s “alt-right” or wearing (however ironically) Confederate arm patches. As Amy Zimmerman at the Daily Beast points out, both have vacillated between bankruptcy and astronomical wealth; both married conspicuously sexy wives; both complain that the press is out to get them. Furthermore, both have been criticized as egomaniacal man-children even as they relish playing the misunderstood outsider.
Waldman went on to argue that both are susceptible to the allure of fascism in part thanks to their grandiose ideas about themselves and their place in the world. (It’s easy to like to fantasize about autocracy when you’re the one who’d be on top, after all.) These characteristics help explain why they both fit so neatly into the current caricature of the right, which has taken its historic beliefs in the power of the individual to an unbelievable extreme. It also is no coincidence that Kanye’s current stream-of-consciousness tweeting has oscillated between a bizarre strain of self-help advice—“Your conscience should allow a physical manifestation of your subconscious but right now most peoples conscious is too affected by other people’s thoughts”—and MAGA-esque commentary—”The thought police want to suppress freedom of thought.” When it is the individual, and the individual alone, who is responsible for pulling himself up by his bootstraps, a door swings open for hucksters who peddle faux scientific scams. In this land, the kind of hollow advice Kanye is shilling seems profound rather than empty. It’s another similarity the rapper has with Trump, whose snake-oil salesmanship explains a good deal of his ascent to the presidency.
The only real question that remains is why it took so long for us to realize this was Kanye’s destination. I suspect the reason why this latest rightward turn shocked more than it should have is because the December 2016 meeting took place right around the time that Kanye was suffering a somewhat public mental health crisis that caused him to cancel his tour and check into a medical facility. And this, as with many of his other dramatic turns, allowed us to vaguely dismiss it all as just another symptom of Kanye being “crazy.”
This is a gross tendency, whether we’re talking about actual mental illness or just a penchant for the irrational. In the case of actual mental illness, it’s an aggressive, likely inaccurate, and certainly offensive way to dismiss someone. Despite oblique references in his music, whatever mental illness diagnoses Kanye West has are still very much unknown to most people, and even if they were public, it would still be a mistake to attribute his opinions to whatever they were. Categorizing bad opinions under a simple header of probably mental illness simply serves to bolster the stigma against the disease. It also makes no sense. A person can have a mental illness and also have bad or good opinions. And it’s fine to critique a person’s opinions regardless of whether the person has mental illness. (Kanye’s opinions are bad!)
One person to correctly point out the grossness of the this-must-be-mental-illness tendency was Kanye’s wife, and noted social media expert, Kim Kardashian:
Kardashian went on in a similar vein for several tweets before concluding, “Mental Health is no joke and the media needs to stop spitting that out so casually. Bottom line.” She is right to denounce the tendency to delegitimize Kanye’s ideas by attributing them to mental illness.
She also pointed to something else that makes the reaction to Kanye’s tweetstorm so strange: He’s basically always been like this. He’s a person who thrives in chaos, another thing that is abundantly clear to anyone who has observed a tiny sliver of either his public persona or his art. He always goes toward the controversial, even toward the intentionally unpalatable. In fact, it’s entirely possible this is all just a hyped-up “soon as they like you, make ’em unlike you” album(s?) release strategy—he’s married to one of the savviest self-promoters in the world, remember?
The wonder of Kanye has always been the extent to which he gets away with it. This, in fact, is another similarity West shares with the president, a free pass that has everything to do with each man’s place in society. Indeed, their biggest similarity is probably simply that they’re both narcissists who have been disturbingly empowered by their immense privilege (and to be perfectly clear, this is garden-variety narcissism, not clinical narcissism). Of course, Kanye’s privilege is largely the product of talent and hard work, while Trump’s has been driven primarily by inherited white male wealth. But either way, it’s easier to advocate for “get[ting] past the past,” as Kanye did, when you’re a wealthy artist with an immense platform.
Still, even with all these similarities, there is a clear and obvious difference between the two: Donald Trump is the president of the United States, and Kanye West is a rapper who makes sneakers. Also, as Kanye himself points out, his opinions aren’t identical to Trump’s. In fact, I’m not even sure we have any real idea what he thinks about … any actual policies at all.
That’s not to say that none of this matters. Of course it matters that an extremely famous person is publicly flirting with toxic ideologies. And of course fans should feel free to call it out and criticize him for it, and not excuse him for it because he’s good at clothes or music or might have a mental illness. Kanye won’t take kindly to it. But that’s fine. In the end, his continued insistence that he’s being treated unfairly is just another thing he shares with Trump—they’re both experts at making themselves the victim. Maybe that’s inevitable when you have all that power.