As Donald Trump’s approval ratings hover around 40 percent, two glimmering celebrity names appeared to come to his defense this weekend. Shania Twain, the Canadian country-pop pioneer, told The Guardian that if she could have participated in the U.S. election, she would have voted for Trump because “even though he was offensive, he seemed honest.” Kanye West, the rap institution who paid a controversial visit to Trump before his inauguration, tweeted about his fandom for Candace Owens, a conservative commentator who thinks Trump is the “savior” of Western civilization.
Both statements led to a predictable cyclone: liberals howling that musicians they once loved were “canceled,” and conservatives who’d shown little interest in these stars showering praise on them as brave truth-tellers. Twain apologized; West kept tweeting. Taken together, the two episodes lay bare the seductive danger of treating politics as entertainment, and politicians as entertainers.
Prior to this, West already stood among the most potently political—and progressive—musicians ever. “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” was a pivotal moment of public dissent; his lyrics have vividly described racial inequality and screamed against private prisons. Outside of music, West works to freight his every move, from his marriage to his celebrity feuds, as socially significant. He’s made noise about running for president, and he has the rare distinction of being referred to as a “jackass” by Barack Obama.
So it was a shock to fans that after the 2016 election, West visited with Trump. He explained himself on Twitter by saying, “It is important to have a direct line of communication with our future President if we truly want change.” He also said he and Trump had talked over “multicultural issues,” including “bullying, supporting teachers, modernizing curriculums, and violence in Chicago.”
But what’s clear is that for West, political allegiance flows from style first, not substance. “That don’t mean that I don’t think that black lives matter,” he said on tour, explaining why he would have voted for Trump. “That don’t mean I don’t think that I’m a believer in women’s rights. That don’t mean I don’t believe in gay marriage.” What attracted him, instead, were Trump’s “nonpolitical methods to speaking” that were “very futuristic.” In other words, he was interested in Trump as an aesthetic innovator—and even, perhaps, as an artist.
West’s notion of politics as an artform explains his latest controversy, too. In his recent return to Twitter (he’d left a few months after his 2016 hospitalization for exhaustion) he’s announced an astonishing slew of back-to-back release dates for albums by himself and by his famous friends, including Nas, Kid Cudi, and Pusha T. He’s also been tweeting about philosophy and style. “Everything is so planned these days,” he wrote. “People appreciate spontaneity and honesty.” Shortly after, he tweeted this: “I love the way Candace Owens thinks.”
Owens is a rising pundit in the right-leaning media ecosystem, having used public-speaking gigs and her YouTube channel to criticize Black Lives Matter and praise Trump. Her big idea appears to be that for African Americans to focus too much on racism will consign them to remain “victims.” In a widely shared clip, she said, “There’s an ideological civil war happening [between] black people that are focused on their past and shouting about slavery and black people that are focused on their futures.”
Future—that, right there, may well be Kanye West’s favorite word. As I type this, he’s tweeting out videos by Scott Adams, the Dilbert creator who in recent years has built a following as a right-leaning guru. Adams stands in front of a white board, explaining that West “just altered reality” by endorsing Owens. “Forget about whether you think Candace has everything right or everything wrong,” Adams says. “That’s not the story. The story is that these two people that shouldn’t be in the same conversation, in seven words, Kanye just changed that.”
This thrill, a shock of disruption that opens new possibilities, is what West continually chases as an artist. As he rapped in 2013, “Soon as they like you make ‘em unlike you.” As he tweeted last week, “Trend is always late.” Owens may play a familiar role as a black pundit who, to the glee of a conservative white audience, tells black people not to complain too much. But she has found a way to update that role for the YouTube era, and West, who fetishizes the notion of influence for its own sake, must see that as a breakthough, too. “Self victimization is a disease,” he tweeted, swiping Owens’s rhetoric. “It’s no more [barring] people because they have different ideas,” he also wrote.
But in politics, unlike music or fashion, the ideas have life-and-death consequences. West has deleted most of his tweets predating this latest burst of activity, save one: a message from Russell Simmons in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, saying, “Police sensitivity training, diversity initiatives, body cameras for police and a fucking arrest would be a good start.” It’s a reminder that Black Lives Matter is not, as critics often make it seem, simply venting emotion. And it’s a reminder that West, at least theoretically, supports the movement’s policy goals.
Yet since January 2017, Trump’s administration has signaled support of police officers who act with brutal force. It has also pushed policies that may undercount minorities in the next census, advocated harsher drug sentencing, and ordered the transfer of inmates to private prisons. If these things concern West, he hasn’t said. He’s just here to cheer the show, regardless of what’s happening backstage.
Shania Twain’s Trump-related drama offers an even starker portrait of politics rendered purely as style. “Do you want straight or polite?” she told The Guardian recently, explaining why she’d have voted for the current president. “Not that you shouldn’t be able to have both. If I were voting, I just don’t want bullshit. I would have voted for a feeling that it was transparent. And politics has a reputation of not being that, right?”
Within hours of the publication of the statement, following outcry spotlighting how Trump’s politics and persona conflict with Twain’s reputation as a feminist and LGBTQ ally, Twain tweeted an apology. “The question caught me off guard,” she wrote:
I am passionately against discrimination of any kind and hope it’s clear from the choices I have made, and the people I stand with, that I do not hold any common moral beliefs with the current President … I was trying to explain, in response to a question about the election, that my limited understanding was that the President talked to a portion of America like an accessible person they could relate to, as he was NOT a politician.
Setting aside the mystery of how a question about the No. 1 topic in the country caught her “off-guard,” both Twain’s statement and apology suggest she approaches politicians as if they’re entertainers—as if they, like Twain, exist to make people feel good. But in the case of pop stars who sing songs that people relate to, most everyone understands that the lyrics aren’t necessarily rooted in the singer’s real life. The cynical line on politicians is that they’re always lying, too. When Twain praises Trump for not seeming like a politician, what she’s saying is that she’s bought his act—which is all the more remarkable given that the man she believes doesn’t “bullshit” has fudged the truth a historic number of times.
On some level, then, Twain and West appear intrigued by Trump for exactly the same reason: the way his rhetorical crudity innovates on previous political styles. Much has been written about how Trump’s rise conceptually recalls previous times when some new, norm-upending musical force—like, say, punk rock—arrived on the scene. As artists, recognizing the power of such performances is West and Twain’s specialty. Evaluating the ideology underneath? Less so.
Yet what’s most eerie is that they speak not just as artists but as news consumers like anyone else. And theirs is a story that’s been told time and again in relation to the 2016 election. People really might vote for a guy because he doesn’t seem like a politician. But that’s still, in the end, a vote for his policies.