Kanye West was having a great weekend, until he wasn’t. One moment, the rapper-producer-entrepreneur was dispensing pearls of pseudo-philosophy on Twitter to the retweets of adoring observers. The next, many of those same admirers had turned to denouncing him instead. Oh, and he had become an alt-right darling. Whatever West is going through at the moment, the response to his Twitter spree reveals more about the people who have fled from him — and those who’ve flocked to him, too.
West’s fortunes reversed when he expressed his admiration on Saturday for red-pill YouTuber Candace Owens, an African American Donald Trump supporter known for, among other things, referring to Black Lives Matter protesters as “whiny toddlers, pretending to be oppressed for attention.” The following day, he tweeted nine videos from Scott Adams, who gained his fame first for creating the cartoon “Dilbert” and second for proclaiming that rape is a “natural instinct” of men and society a “virtual prison for men’s natural desires.”
It’s easy to cast West as just another lost man seduced by the far right’s promise to provide a sense of purpose. All that pseudo-philosophy does suggest a preoccupation with the sort of existential problems figures such as psychologist Jordan Peterson, who has become a surprise lifestyle guru, claim they can solve. It’s also possible to connect West’s eccentric behavior on Twitter — this isn’t the first time his forays into politics have discomfited some fans — to the mental-health struggles that led to his 2017 hospitalization.
Or it could just be that West is cloistered in a world of wealth, away from the realities of racism that motivated incidents like his declaration on live television after Hurricane Katrina that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He may be too preoccupied with his image of himself as a truth-teller to recognize that the unconventional communication style he finds so attractive in Trump is just a way to cover up lies.
In any case, ascertaining why West thinks what he thinks is probably as fruitless as finding meaning in the bromides he’s been offering up the past few days: “all you have to be is yourself” (108,000 retweets, 237,000 likes), “the beauty is in the imperfection(s)” (54,000 retweets, 139,000 likes), “everything you do in life stems from either fear or love” (105,000 retweets, 245,000 likes). It might be more useful to examine what the reaction to West’s provocative tweets reveals about the left and right alike.
Progressives, West’s more typical fan base, greeted his return to Twitter with breathless engagement. (Apparently, they’d forgotten about West’s onstage announcement last summer that he’d have voted for Trump had he voted at all, and his post-election visit to Trump Tower.) But the moment West expressed his approval of Owens, liberals recoiled. Eager to signal their lefty credentials, they withdrew their support the moment West went against the party line.
Then there’s the right, alt and otherwise. Most conservatives had less interest in West’s work, and they certainly didn’t like it when he condemned Bush. But now, a lineup of luminaries on the right has assembled to defend West against the liberal hordes. Where Alex Jones once called West “a microcosm of America’s degeneration,” he now praises his “bold moves against the thought police.” Where Bill O’Reilly once described West as a “disease,” the former Fox host on Sunday decried the “attack” against him by “American Stalinists.”
These reactions typify the left and right’s relationship to celebrities. Progressives can easily pivot away from any public figure who makes him or herself toxic, like West and country artist Shania Twain. After all, plenty of other popular personalities do align with their politics. It’s not as if progressives are wanting for representatives among the culturally influential.
The roster of pro-Trump celebrities in 2016, on the other hand, would hardly sell out a festival. When Roseanne Barr is your headliner, you have a serious PR problem. It’s no wonder the prospect of signing a star as big as Kanye West led so many former foes to forget they’d spent years disdaining him. In short, the right is desperate for an avatar, and West seems like a good get – especially given his popularity among black audiences.
In the end, the weekend’s West affair was a very public display of people using other people. West has hyped up his announced album even further with the publicity he gained from courting controversy. Liberals have shown off their willingness to enforce ideological purity, no matter who the offender is. And the far right has demonstrated, once again, that they’re willing to flip-flop at the slightest sign that they might be able to land a mainstream celebrity recruit. “Don’t trade your authenticity for approval,” West tweeted last week, to the tune of 170,000 retweets and 344,000 likes. Too late.