Kanye West, Political Pawn

The rapper is pitching his presidential run as a way of disrupting the two-party system. But his bid is caught in the same fights that characterize any election year in America.

To teach someone is to influence them, and nothing interests Kanye West more than influence. (Shutterstock / Getty / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic)

Underlying Kanye West’s confusing run for president may be the simple impulse that has driven much of his career: the impulse to teach. His first album, 2004’s The College Dropout, kicked off with a skit in which West was asked to give a school’s commencement speech. The rapping that unfolded on the album had a tutorial-like quality whether addressing matters serious or silly. On “We Don’t Care,” he patiently diagrammed the socioeconomic incentives for drug dealing; on “The New Workout Plan,” he barked exercise commands like a horny Crunch instructor. In the years since, he has guest lectured in college classrooms and released a book of life advice. When 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy culminated in a raunchy riff on the phrase “Yeezy taught me,” West was again signaling what might be his highest ambition—to change how people think and act.

Teaching is widely thought to be altruistic, but for West, it can also be self-aggrandizing. To teach someone is to influence them, and nothing interests West more than influence. As he loves to brag, society today might not look or feel the same way were it not for him. His many musical breakthroughs over the years have echoed across the sound of pop. His clothing designs have seeped into the way people dress. But being a musical innovator or a fashion plate—someone whose self-expression inspires others—is not quite teaching. Teaching is about transferring information and models of thinking; it’s about internal change. It can reshape the world to fit an ideology, and it can confer power upon the teacher. West has tried and tried to claim such power, but has attained it only fitfully.

West’s early-career lyrics cannily described American racial inequality, and him blurting “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” during a 2005 telethon for Hurricane Katrina relief became a defining political moment. By the 2010s, his work tended to focus more on psychic strife, relationship drama, and faith in God: personal matters made public. All along, his work has espoused thinking for oneself and stepping outside of proscribed roles. But since 2016—as he has flirted with, bonded with, and then kinda-sorta broken up with President Donald Trump—he has returned to trying to reprogram society in a more specific fashion. Speeches, songs, and tweets by West have bustled with ideas about American history and alternate universes. Now he is pursuing a presidential campaign using the slogan #2020Vision, which touts a new and better way of seeing things.

Discussing that vision is tricky because the fervor with which he has preached in recent years, combined with his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, has raised serious concerns for his well-being. After West tweeted on July 4 that he’d run for the White House, many observers counseled against taking seriously what might be a publicity stunt, a trolling effort, or a result of mental illness. A kickoff rally in South Carolina at which West screamed and sobbed did not steady his image, nor did West’s tweets indicating that his wife, Kim Kardashian, and his mother-in-law were trying to hospitalize him against his will. He’s since made up with his family members on a vacation during which political discussions were reportedly verboten.

Yet whatever West’s emotional or mental status is from moment to moment, his campaign must, on some level, be thought of as real. He’s been talking about running in 2020 since 2015. Even despite a rash of missed deadlines and accusations of forged signatures, canvassing efforts have resulted in him getting onto the ballot in at least four states thus far, with more potentially to come. He’s currently polling at 2 percent nationally, and although he may have little chance of victory, he could have an impact on which major-party candidate is elected in November, given how slim the margins can be in crucial swing states. The vote differential between Trump and Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin in 2016, for example, was slightly smaller than the number of write-in ballots cast there, and much smaller than the total number of votes for third-party candidates.

Indeed, West’s constituency so far appears to largely consist of people rooting for him to cause chaos in November. Jared Kushner met with West in private last weekend, and veteran GOP operatives have been helping him organize and petition. The Billings Gazette reported that one of West’s signature gatherers was yelling out to passersby in Montana, “You want to help Trump? … We’re trying to take votes away from creepy Uncle Joe.” The assumption that West will help Trump appears to rest on the idea that Black people will vote for a Black celebrity with his own take on Black political advancement, but thus far West is polling at only 2 percent among Black voters. One survey suggests that Trump, more than Biden, stands to lose votes with West in the race.

The question of which candidate a West run “hurts” is in fact at the core of West’s bid—not because of the electoral math, but because of West’s stated ideology. If he has had a consistent message in the past four years, it’s that Black people should not vote for Democrats in the overwhelming numbers that they have historically. The party of Biden and Barack Obama, he’s said over and over, has a “plantation” mentality and hasn’t delivered on promises of racial justice. Yet to assume that Black people will flock to West is to assume that Black people are as unthinking as West claims Black Democrats to be. In 2018, he said that 400 years of slavery sounded like a “choice.” At his South Carolina rally last month, he yelled that Harriet Tubman did not actually free slaves so much as hand them off to different white masters. Such comments have received fierce condemnation as ahistorical and offensive. They demonstrate a fundamentally conservative outlook that implies defeating racism is a matter of individual mindset.

In fact, a quick scan of West’s campaign site gives a rather Republican impression. His 10-point policy agenda is listed under the headline “Creating a Culture of Life,” and it features a Bible verse for each item. The No. 1 priority is restoring school prayer, and other ideas include supporting faith-based groups, a strong national defense, and “America First” diplomacy. Also mentioned, however, are seemingly progressive goals: equitable policing, funding the arts, protecting the environment. To put much stock into any of these thinly sketched bullet points would be naive, especially given that West recently told Forbes he’s ignorant on issues such as taxes and foreign policy. But the list does feel in line with his creative sensibility and teacherly aspirations over the years. He wants to “break the simulation” and help the people see the world anew. Or maybe not anew, exactly. He wants to help people see the world the way Kanye sees it.

There is, of course, a group of people already accustomed to seeing the world how Kanye sees it—his fans. But even with them, it’s not clear how much political clout he has. When West put on a Make America Great Again hat in 2018, it was natural to wonder what would happen to his supporters, many of whom are young, extremely online men, a demographic especially prone to right-wing radicalization. At one point, West shouted out the so-called “alt-right” pundit Candace Owens, a Black woman who argues that the Black Lives Matter movement is filled with “losers.” She then saw a sudden influx of followers on social media. As I wrote back then, “it’s not unreasonable to think that [West’s] tweet may well have a measurable effect on this country’s politics.”

Owens and West eventually fell out, and West said he’s “taking the red hat off” (reason: “I don’t like that I caught wind that [Trump] hid in the bunker”). But how many of West’s followers absorbed his pro-Trump messages? Has Kanye red-pilled rap fans? And what effect did West’s 2019 dive into evangelical Christianity—expressed in roving church services, gospel albums, and a movie—have on the beliefs of his listeners? Answering those questions is tough, but to browse Kanye West fan forums lately is to notice a distinct lack of ideological consensus among his followers. There are pro-West social-media accounts that also use QAnon tags. There are also West-obsessed people who mostly broadcast Black Lives Matter content. KTT2, an influential message board inspired by West, is not rife with Bible talk; discussions about West’s gospel-rap album, Jesus Is King, tend to focus more on how the music sounds than on what he preaches.

“I’ve never heard a story of anybody saying Kanye turned them into a Christian, or turned them into a Trump supporter,” Brandon Gastinell, a 27-year-old artist who co-hosts the podcast YeezusTalks, told me. “He doesn’t have the power.” Gastinell and his co-host, Austin Segovia, have followed West since they were kids, and their podcast has the amusing, rowdy vibe of two friends yelling at each other over video games. When I spoke with them on Zoom, Gastinell was wearing a Yeezus sweatshirt and Segovia had set his background to be a meme of West and Kardashian as normies. Both were exasperated by West in 2020. “I go from being a fan to not a fan, depending on the week,” Gastinell said.

Trump and West during a meeting at the White House on October 11, 2018  (Oliver Contreras / Getty Images)

To hear them tell it, West’s run for president is serious in the way that Trump’s pre-2016 presidential runs were: as a way to test the waters and build a movement that could eventually pay off. They also peg West’s run, and his anti-Democratic bent, to him taking offense at Obama calling him a “jackass” when he was in office, thereby sending the rapper into a contrarianism spiral. “He’s always looking for the next challenge,” Gastinell said. “He conquered music, fashion—what’s next? Politics. He’s always the person who tries to do what people tell him he cannot do, and now he’s just moving on to the next thing that people say he cannot do.”

The two podcasters said they weren’t going to vote for West unless he paid them in sneakers. But they did see some support for the presidential bid among West’s other fans, who can be “cult-like,” and they didn’t think it was impossible that West could convert followers to new beliefs. “He’s such a big person that it goes beyond the music at this point—they’re fans of him as a person, which you could argue is even more dangerous,” Segovia said. Even the two of them, who groan and giggle through many of West’s political antics, often find themselves contorting to justify the things he says. “Because we’ve known him for so long, we know there’s good in him,” Segovia said. “He’s just not the best at expressing his views.”

Gastinell broke in with a laugh. “We literally sound like Trump supporters right now!” he said. “We don’t agree with everything he does, blah, blah, blah. We sound terrible! Kanye is ruining us.”

West wouldn’t be surprised by comparisons to Trump. When the rapper praised the president’s “very futuristic” “nonpolitical methods to speaking” back in 2016, he was noting the similarities with his own speaking style—a style that will be both an asset and a liability in his campaign.

Take for example the footage of West’s South Carolina rally, which is both difficult to sit through—it reignited questions about West’s mental health—and strangely transfixing. West stands eye-level with the crowd, and he spends a lot of time managing their behavior by asking them to quiet down or stop recording, creating a feeling of tension and brewing conflict. Discussing reproductive rights, West wails and cries at the memory of Kardashian and him discussing whether to abort their first pregnancy. He also says he thinks abortion should be legal and that the government should heavily subsidize childbirth. The topic is excruciatingly sensitive and West is fuzzy on policy details, and yet there is a horror-film intensity—Should I be watching this?—as he works out his logic on camera. (Kardashian was reportedly furious with him for sharing her story without permission.)

West last month at his first rally for his presidential bid in North Charleston, South Carolina (Reuters)

The process of coming to understand West’s thinking, whether he’s expressing himself in lyrics, speeches, or other forms, is part of what binds fans to him in the first place. It is perhaps similar to the process by which Trump’s followers feel as though the president is articulating their thoughts. But by this point, Trump has a party and a media apparatus that translate his operatics into a political agenda. Pundits and publications spin his every gaffe and backfill the specifics that their leader seems to have no time for. West does not have this. Online, you can find scattered defenses from West’s fans attempting to explain his more explosive or confusing statements. But many in the public, sympathizers and skeptics alike, prefer changing the subject to West’s music, mental health, and family.

Which is why West’s campaign feels like a mere proxy war. He may authentically be seeking to spread whatever political gospel is in his head. But in the place of many true believers, he has hacks sympathetic to Trump. Democrats have responded with allegations that West’s campaign is committing voter fraud by, for example, turning in a petition that included a signature from “Mickey Mouse.” The partisan dimensions of such skirmishes point to a sad irony. West’s platform, such as it is, defines itself by refusing to fit any ideological side. His pitch to the public is to create a third way to disrupt the two-party system. But his campaign is caught amid the same old fights that characterize any election year in America, making him a pawn of a system he rails against.

Meanwhile, West stays West. He’s still tweeting out clothing concepts and hints about a forthcoming album, all of which serve as a reminder that he is foremost a pop star and a cultural influencer. That means he has a cult full of people who may well testify that he has changed how they see the world. But this base of support is shaky by design and will be tough to harness for whatever ideological awakening West seeks. I asked Segovia and Gastinell how West had influenced their lives. “The lesson he taught me was to be yourself,” Segovia said. “Whether people like it or not, that’s the truest thing you can do, is be yourself.” He’s articulating West’s core teaching, which, when embraced in earnest, is exactly the sort of philosophy upon which political movements cannot be built.