Kanye West makes his first presidential campaign appearance July 19 in North Charleston, S.C. | Lauren Petracca Ipetracca/The Post And Courier via AP
Kanye West’s quixotic presidential bid has been roundly dismissed as a publicity stunt. A caper. Just Kanye being Kanye.
But there’s no question it has already revealed something about American politics in 2020: The reality show President Donald Trump imported from the New York tabloids to the Oval Office is losing some of its stars.
Just over 100 days from the November election, West, a one-time Trump supporter, is spinning up a whirlwind of attention with his own Trumpian display amid the conflagration of a life-altering pandemic and a historic resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. He has questioned vaccines, demonized abortion, said Harriet Tubman “never actually freed the slaves,” proselytized for more religion in public life and proposed a radical albeit confusing restructuring of government.
And for a certain brand of political wanderers — conservatives appalled by Trump’s authoritarian tendencies but turned off by Joe Biden’s decades in Washington, libertarians growing nihilistic about the state of the world — West’s display is working. To them, West is a postmodern outlet for their frustrations with society; one who won’t win, but is saying something at a national level that resonates.
“I love the fact that he’s doing it, right?” said Zuby Udezue, a British musician, podcaster and artist with an influential conservative following in the U.S. — 300,000 followers on Twitter and frequently cited by libertarian and conservative figures like Joe Rogan, Tucker Carlson and Ann Coulter.
“I look at things like this on a more cultural level, and even a spiritual level to a degree, because I think that there's a lot of spiritual warfare going on,” added Udezue, a fan of West’s music since 2003, referring to West’s religious evangelism. “And it might sound like mumbo jumbo to a lot of people who don't understand that language, but I think it’s very real.”
West’s political moment is interwoven with several factors. No one interviewed for this story, even those drawn to West, believes he poses a serious threat to Trump or Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee. They also expressed concern for West’s ongoing mental health issues — West has said he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2017. West’s wife, Kim Kardashian-West, issued a statement on Wednesday addressing the issue, calling West “brilliant but complicated” and asking the media for “compassion and empathy” during this period. She added: “Living with bipolar disorder does not diminish or invalidate his dreams and his creative ideas, no matter how big or unobtainable they may feel to some.”
Indeed, some of the ideas West has been promoting, his begrudging right-wing admirers say, ring true to them.
“The independent minded nature of Kanye’s messages, to the extent that you can discern his messages, is bound to attract libertarian support,” said a conservative political operative with a decade of work in the Republican Party and libertarian-leaning views, although the person expressed skepticism about West as a candidate.
“Libertarians are those who buck the status quo, are not interested in our two-party system and want new voices brought into the fold,” the person added. “They’re looking for political innovation, and some might argue that Kanye represents that.”
West’s political confidants insist the musician’s views are sincere, regardless of the stigma of mental illness. “Let ’Ye be ’Ye,” said Ali Alexander, one of the few GOP operatives who both talks politics with West and has also met with Trump.
West initially tweeted that he was running for president on July 4, generating the internet buzz and panoply of think pieces that only the rapper’s intermittent bursts into the public spotlight can. West then filed a statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission, listing “BDY” — the Birthday Party — as his party affiliation. He later held a rally in South Carolina this past weekend but missed the state’s deadline to submit paperwork to appear on the state's ballot. He did qualify to appear on the ballot in Oklahoma.
No one can truly place West’s scattershot political views in a comfortable place on the ideological spectrum, though West said recently that if Trump were not the GOP nominee, he would run as a Republican.
West is pro-Black Lives Matter, but called assumptions that he should lean Democratic “a form of racism and white supremacy.” He is pro-LGBTQ rights, but said Planned Parenthood was “placed inside cities by white supremacists to do the Devil’s work.” Hovering over all of it is his intense Christianity.
West also offers effusive praise for China, a stance anathema to current Republican orthodoxy, and said Black History Month is “torture porn,” a view that left many aghast.
Over the past several days, West’s own seriousness in his political endeavor has been thrown into doubt. His campaign apparatus is nonexistent, and he himself has said he doesn’t want to put together a policy platform: “I don’t know if I would use the word ‘policy’ for the way I would approach things.”
West’s time in the political spotlight traces back to his 2005 declaration on live TV: “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”
While the proclamation won him liberal praise at the time, West’s reputation has been marked by his flirtation with Trumpism in 2018 and right-wing ideology. He started tweeting his approval of the president and of controversial conservative pundit Candace Owens, and made an appearance in the Oval Office, where he wore a MAGA hat as he spoke to a captive audience, Trump included, for a full, freewheeling hour.
Trump himself seems unsure about West, previously thanking him after West claimed the two shared “dragon energy,” then later dismissing a potential 2020 challenge from West. "If he did it, he would have to view this as a trial run for what's going to happen in four years,” Trump told reporters earlier this month.
West’s views, the conservative operative said, are hardly going to siphon liberal support from Biden. But West’s views are likely to attract some nonestablishment Trump fans who were once key in generating cultural chatter around the future president but have now soured on him.
“He is just not respecting the rules of political correctness,” the operative said. “[And] from what you can discern, there's strong themes of Christian messaging and bringing God back into our schools. And I don't think that all is gonna play well on the left.”
Take, for instance, West’s controversial comments about famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman at his South Carolina event, which featured West giving an impromptu speech to a few hundred attendees. Udezue said liberals were decontextualizing West’s conservative message, even as the remarks caused some people in the room to groan and walk out.
“Actually, if you listen to the whole context, and what he's trying to say about the importance of family and property and passing on wealth to future generations, and valuing life and taking care of your children, all these things,” Udezue said. “This is what people need to hear. These are actual values that lead to individuals and communities becoming successful. But people just get stuck on the stupid part.”
Kmele Foster, host of the libertarian-leaning podcast “The Fifth Column” and a professed West fan, said he could understand a conservative’s attraction to West as a leader — increasingly religious and standing in opposition to the authoritarian Trump. Foster also emphasized that his first concern was for West’s mental health.
“It's hard to imagine President Kanye dispatching federal law enforcement officers to go and try to quell the concern that is manifesting itself off in the streets of Portland,” Foster said, referencing Trump’s recent decision to send unmarked officers to Portland, Ore., where videos showed them detaining protesters in unmarked cars.
“President Kanye flies in and he gets into the street himself in an appeal to people,” Foster added. “He's giving a Kanye speech. And at a minimum, it mystifies everyone on all sides. But maybe it brings people together and calms the storm. And maybe he puts on a show? Who knows.”
In some ways, Foster said, Kanye’s disavowal of any policy platform plays into “the libertarian conception of the presidency is chief administrator. It's not supposed to be a guy who has a tremendous amount of unilateral authority. He's kind of constrained in important ways. And that's not how it is. But that's certainly the ideal.”
Ultimately, conservatives and libertarians acknowledge that the surreal concept of a President Yeezy is most likely a pipe dream. But in an already surreal world — where a pandemic has seized entire countries and devastated industries, political parties fight over wearing masks and Donald Trump is already president — it’s a pipe dream that can almost, just almost, exist.
“There are people right now, myself included, who are just politically homeless,” said the operative. “And they're just interested in anything that’s not this.”