Who Is to Blame for Kanye West’s MAGA Hat?

The celebrity-media feedback loop? Or the rapper himself?

An attendee of the Made in America festival wears a Kanye West shirt
Mark Makela / Reuters

It may seem to some as though Kanye West’s recent Donald Trump rally on Twitter is comeuppance for fans and critics who gassed him up as a genius over the years. This is the wrong take. Almost from the start, the Kanye West conversation, among all but the most slavering fanboys, has been critical of West the man even as it has praised West the musician. The people who have hated him have been louder than the people who have loved him, and among the people who loved him it was largely love marbled with ambivalence. The only near-universally held opinion is Barack Obama’s: “He is a jackass. But he’s talented.”

It’s exactly this lack of unanimous acclaim that leads West to troll. He really does think he deserves worship. And most everyone else thinks that’s bonkers. Which creates a feedback loop of controversy—which is different from hype—that’s hard to imagine ever derailing.

The truth is his extra-musical activity has always been reliably interesting, and has been treated as so. I mean interesting in a variety of senses, including the euphemistic dis. Sometimes, his comments have been defended by music critics because his “rants” were almost never, as kneejerk coverage had it, total nonsense. West usually had a point. It often was a bad point. It almost always was a variant of this: “Can’t tell me nothing.” He’ll do what he wants.

This was again his point Wednesday afternoon when he showed off a “Make America Great Again” hat signed by Donald Trump. He has not given any substantive reasons for supporting Trump. He has given aesthetic and emotional ones—“We are both dragon energy,” he tweeted. Most of his statements on the topic have been, rather, bland aphorisms about independence: “The mob can’t make me not love [Trump].” “Free thinkers don’t fear retaliation for your thoughts.” “I’m used to the heat of independent thoughts.” It’s his core message, still. You really can’t tell him nothing.

Media reaction is thus just not all that relevant to what Kanye does—or rather, the criticism only fuels him. This applies even to commentators who raise concerns about his mental health, which ends up only driving him (and his wife) to adopt more of a persecution pose. Maddeningly, his “free thinking” talk is exactly the kind of empty rhetoric that closes itself off to critique. Folks are mad because of what West is saying, not the mere fact that he’s saying it. But in his impenetrable worldview, it is tantamount to censorship to point out, for example, that West is effectively cheering efforts to make it harder for people of color to vote.

Now, were his tweets to go ignored in the press they, indeed, would hold less power. But they do hold power, already. (Yes, this parallels the logic around the media’s coverage of Trump’s provocations during the 2016 election.) West saying, “I love the way Candace Owens thinks,” has likely already sent a lot of his followers, many young and impressionable, to the conservative pundit’s YouTube channel where she rails against the “losers” in Black Lives Matter. It’s not unreasonable to think that his tweet may well have a measurable effect on this country’s politics.

It certainly has an effect on West’s own fame. Tweeting about Trump and Trump’s supporters has won the rapper a payload of new attention, much of it from folks in the right-wing online ecosystem that previously had little use for him other than as a bogeyman of “Hollyweird.” It’s convenient timing. He is supposedly about to release some albums. He’s also talking about a presidential run with a level of sincerity that remains unknown, perhaps even to himself.

When I wrote about his Candace Owens tweet on Monday, I pointed out that it showed some of the perils of pop culture colliding with politics. Namely: Pop culture is a realm of aesthetics for their own sake, while politics is a realm of aesthetics for the sake of selling policies that can improve or destroy lives. Some readers took the article as hypocritical, given the enthusiasm with which the media seemed to spotlight pop stars who spoke up for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But the distinction is that when, say, Beyoncé supported Clinton, she connected that support with her music’s messages about gender equality and racial justice. Jay-Z’s friendship with Obama, too, has been leveraged for advocacy around the drug war and incarceration.

West, meanwhile, has rapped against private prisons and the way the rich degrade the poor, and riffed on the Black Lives Matter slogan, “don’t shoot,” on his most recent album. Donald Trump, though, has obviously governed in a way that’s at odds with the political views represented in Kanye’s music. It could be that West has changed those views; in 2016, on stage, he told people to stop focusing on racism. But the only things he clearly shares with the president are a trollish style and an unfailing self-regard that he’ll indulge regardless of the wider cost.

Any of West’s followers who buy his blather about “the thought police” are naive enough to be considered one of his marks, rather than one of his enablers. Blaming fans, the media, or even the president absolves the person who’s actually responsible for all this confusion. After all, West tweeted that he doesn’t agree with everything Trump does—but added, “I don’t agree 100 percent with anyone but myself.”