The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kanye West is just the latest black celebrity to be wooed by Republicans

The GOP has long tried to undermine activists and protesters by courting black elites.

Kanye West met with Donald Trump in the Oval Office on Oct. 11. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

Kanye West met with President Trump in the Oval Office on Thursday, continuing a relationship that started nearly two years ago when West showed up at Trump Tower to meet with the president-elect. During a long monologue to reporters who wanted to know why he supports Trump, West, proudly wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, talked about Trump being like a father figure to him. He said the MAGA hat “gives me power” and makes him “feel like Superman.” Shortly after, West continued to urge abolishing the 13th Amendment and bringing back jobs to the United States.

What makes West’s MAGA metamorphosis strange is that, just a few months before the Trump Tower meeting, he rapped about police brutality toward black people — an issue on which he and Trump clearly are at odds. A few years before that, he released a song called “Power,” in which he said: “No one man should have all that power. . . . The system broken, the school is closed, the prison’s open.”

West’s views don’t align him with Democrats or Republicans. He has made it clear over the years that he believes neither party really looks out for the rights of black people. If anything, his views, along with his talk of independence and self-reliance, should leave him in search of an alternative, left-leaning party that shares his values, particularly his interest in black liberation.

So how on Earth did his views lead him to find common cause with Trump, who has been accused of leading a racist and regressive administration? It’s simple: By endorsing Trump, West gains a platform and a chance to have political power, something he has always longed for. West has openly talked several times about running for president in 2020 or 2024. By aligning himself with the person with the most power — and a man who leveraged his celebrity to win the presidency — West hopes to have a better chance to advance his own political ambitions.

This is not the first time a black public figure has turned to a Republican president. Dangling political power in front of black militants in exchange for complicity is something Republican presidents have done with black activists for decades. West’s words sound almost exactly like the words of James Brown and other Black Power activists who abandoned the movement in favor of the Nixon administration, exchanging their activism for federal funding, political positions or simply a chance to align with power.

Such alliances were hardly natural. Like Trump, Nixon loathed protesters. But in addition to bitterly denouncing them, President Richard Nixon also tried to co-opt activists, to take the steam out of their movements.

Nixon promised black protesters attention, money, power and political positions, in exchange for the demise of black militancy, or what he called “racial rioting.” He aired a public radio broadcast after the 1968 uprisings demanding “law and order.” But he also explained that he wanted to initiate a truce with black militants who were willing to turn to black capitalism to solve the “urban crisis.” He claimed that black militants should be “oriented more toward black ownership, from this can flow the rest: black pride, black jobs and yes, black power — in the sense of that often misapplied term.”

The Nixon administration aimed to persuade the black population to take responsibility for their own jobs and opportunities. Nixon believed he could leverage black militants’ desire for independence. Instead of welfare programs, they wanted black private enterprise — which Nixon purported to offer them. In a news conference in May 1968, he claimed that to stop dependence on government handouts, he would provide the black population with job training, loan guarantees, new capital sources and incentives to build industry to redevelop their neighborhoods.

He called this idea of a separate black economy a “bridge to human dignity.” But really, it was an opportunity for Nixon to avoid desegregation initiatives. And the only “bridge” he meant to create was one between the Republican Party and black elites who wanted to take advantage of the free enterprise system.

Although Nixon and black activists agreed on the goal — black economic independence — they disagreed on how to make it work. Nixon’s idea of jump-starting the black economy was offering federal funding through loans and sometimes even direct cash payments, not training or staff to help with urban projects. That limited vision set the stage for failure.

Floyd McKissick, who became president of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in 1968, had been a lifelong member of the Democratic Party and had sterling labor union credentials. As president, he transformed CORE into a Black Power organization.

But only a year later, McKissick left to take an opportunity funded by Nixon to create a city in North Carolina called “Soul City,” intended to help the black population take charge of their economic and political decisions. But without any training, McKissick was doomed to fail. Funding ran out, and McKissick had to sell the program to private interests. Meanwhile, he still had to keep his promise to support the Republican Party for years to come as the Department of Housing and Urban Development paid off $10 million in loans.

Some black elites endorsed Republicans not because of a promise of federal grants, but simply for proximity to power. In the summer of 1968, a defining time for the Black Power movement, music legend Brown released the song “Say It Loud,” which would be an anthem for black activists nationwide. It hyped the idea of black self-determination and identity, while calling out the exploitative nature of the white population, which inevitably enraged many conservatives.

Yet just a year later, Brown accepted Nixon’s invitation to perform at the Inaugural Ball. In 1972, he publicly endorsed Nixon for a second term. This both confused and outraged black Americans, who couldn’t understand Brown’s shifting politics. Black protesters demonstrated outside Brown’s concerts with signs reading, “James Brown, Nixon’s Clown” and “James Brown, a Bought Brother.”

But Brown stood his ground. He responded to these signs by saying: “I’m not selling out — I’m selling in. Dig it?” He went on to say that there was a better chance of Nixon bolstering black economic opportunities, including historically black colleges and universities and research on sickle cell anemia if he received black votes.

The moment Brown performed at the Inaugural Ball, he sealed his approval for black capitalism and the end of black militancy. Brown did not personally receive any benefits from this except attention from the Republican Party. Nixon did, however, increase funding for HBCUs and signed the National Sickle Cell Anemia Control Act in 1972 to raise money for research.

Like Brown and Nixon, Trump and West have benefited from their alliance. West gets proximity to power and attention. And Trump gets legitimacy and cover against charges of racism. Since publicly endorsing Trump, West has spoken out against welfare and told black people to “stop focusing on racism.” This rhetoric boosts the Republican cause, giving Republicans cover, even as their actions fundamentally harm the black community.

As long as wealthy Republicans have power, they will do everything they can to silence any black activists unwilling to be complicit in a racist, capitalist, patriarchal structure. West proved that again today, as he donned his MAGA cap and embraced a president who has promised much to black Americans, but has delivered vanishingly little.