The fiendish kinship between Donald Trump and Kanye West is not a new development. The Chicago-born rapper has been outspoken about his support for the president for nearly two years. West, a narcissist whose commitment to bolstering his own celebrity is eclipsed only by a paradoxical obsession with the ideal of nonconformity, has fashioned the red Make America Great Again hat into something of an intellectual helmet.
Thursday afternoon, a MAGA hat–clad West arrived at the White House for a working lunch with the president. Along with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the pair was set to discuss a number of topics that the rapper has identified as his areas of expertise: criminal-justice reform, job creation in Chicago, and gang violence in the city. Despite West’s belief that he can inspire “dialogue” between Trump and racial-justice activists like Colin Kaepernick, there was no reason to believe this meeting of minds would result in much beyond what Trump and West’s union has already created: chaotic news cycles and the spread of harmful misinformation.
As usual, West stole the show. In a circuitous 10-minute soliloquy, the rapper opined on the slated subjects, as well as a host of other concerns, including the obsolescence of Air Force One. His remarks were disjointed, often nonsensical. But in one particularly telling segment of his iconoclastic tirade, West zeroed in on one of the primary motivations for his long-running support of Trump:
You know they tried to scare me to not wear this hat, my own friends. But this hat, it gives me—it gives me power in a way. You know, my dad and my mom separated. So I didn’t have a lot of male energy in my home, and also I’m married to a family that um, you know, not a lot of male energy going on.
This was not West’s first time alluding to the potency of Trump’s masculinity. The rapper has said he is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but he has also taken multiple opportunities to deride liberals and the Democratic party for their alleged attacks on the black family. During a guest appearance on Saturday Night Live in September, West regurgitated talking points from the 1960s and posited himself as a neutral conduit of information: “Actually blacks weren’t always Democrats. It’s like a plan they did to take the fathers out of the home and promote welfare,” he said. “Does anybody know about that? That’s the Democratic plan.”
Though they are demonstrably inaccurate, West’s comments do reveal a peculiar anxiety about the role of men—particularly black men—as the head of their households. He refers to Trump’s tenure in the White House as his “hero’s journey,” language that evokes the unassailable mantle of masculine achievement. West’s affinity for Trump, who said last week that he believes the reactions to sexual-assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh suggest it’s a “very scary time for young men in America,” is hardly surprising. In West’s world, as well as Trump’s, criticisms of men’s wrongdoing constitute attacks on both those specific men and manhood writ large. Including in his SNL speech, West has referred to critiques of his political views—especially those that suggest he is complicit in Trump’s racism by supporting the president—as silencing campaigns. It’s eerily familiar language.
For West, Trumpian masculinity—that which nakedly pursues power and evades all consequences in the process—is a kind of superpower. The men who wield it need to look the part, not just for themselves but also for those they lead. “If he don’t look good, we don’t look good. This is our president,” West said. “He has to be the freshest, the flyest, [have] the flyest planes, the flyest factories.” During their Thursday meeting, Trump reciprocated the rapper’s affections with a mix of enthusiasm and condescension, calling West “a smart cookie” who can “speak for me anytime.”
But West is less interested in the idea of being Trump’s spokesperson, among black voters in particular, and more concerned with being the president’s buddy. “I love Hillary, I love everyone, right? But the campaign ‘I’m With Her’ just didn’t make me feel, as a guy that didn’t get to see my dad all the time, like a guy that could play catch with his son,” West continued. “It was something about when I put this hat on, it made me feel like Superman.”
In many ways, attempting to graph the convolutions of Kanye West’s political leanings is a futile endeavor. There are few consistencies in his logic beyond the persistence of self-aggrandizement. Earlier this week, meanwhile, a host of celebrities (including West’s uncanny rival, Taylor Swift) used their platforms both at the American Music Awards and on social media to underscore the importance of voting in the upcoming midterm elections. But however ill-advised the conflation of celebrity and political power, it is still jarring to witness West squander his opportunity to sway the status-obsessed president on issues that West’s wife, Kim Kardashian West, has lobbied far more persuasively—and humanely. There are also numerous organizations and collectives in Chicago doing the very work West usurped to no avail.
The rapper’s rise to prominence came largely as a result of how thoroughly the city of Chicago—and his late mother, Donda West, a professor and activist—influenced his work. But in his meeting with Trump, as has become his pattern, the rapper turned his back on both the city and the woman who molded him.