Kanye West’s politics are political, not electoral. He’s made contributions to political campaigns occasionally — $2,000 to Barack Obama in 2012, $15,000 to the Democratic Party in 2014, $2,700 to Hillary Clinton in 2015. It’s not clear, though, that he has ever voted. The only person named Kanye West registered to vote in California (where he lives) or Illinois (where he’s from) is a 35-year-old woman who lives in Chicago.
West famously announced that he hadn’t voted in the 2016 election during an election stop in San Jose a few weeks after Donald Trump won that contest.
“If I would have voted, I would have voted on Trump,” West said. “That don’t mean that I don’t think that black lives matter. That don’t mean I don’t believe in women’s rights. I wanted to say that before the election, but they told me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t say that out loud.’ Not only did I not vote, but there were a lot of things I actually liked about Trump’s campaign. His approach was . . . genius — because it worked.”
The subtext to that comment explains a lot about why West has increasingly embraced the controversial president, including in a speech after his appearance on “Saturday Night Live” this weekend.
West repeated the idea he’s offered before about how he wants to break the long-standing link between black voters and the Democratic Party. He claimed that people backstage at the show had tried to bully him into not coming out onstage wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.
“Follow your heart, and stop following your mind. That’s how we’re controlled. That’s how we’re programmed,” he said. He then went on to criticize cultural forces that tend to be more liberal.
“I think the universe has balance,” he said. “Ninety percent of news are liberal. Ninety percent of TV, L.A., New York, writers, rappers, musicians — so it’s easy to make it seem like it’s so, so, so one-sided.”
West, who now prefers to go by Ye, has a years-long friendship with Trump, as Trump mentioned in an interview with Howard Stern in 2014. When West made an appearance at Trump Tower the month after Trump won the election, the president-elect noted that the two had “been friends for a long time.” The meeting included discussions of “bullying, supporting teachers, modernizing curriculums, and violence in Chicago,” according to West. Earlier this year, West tweeted a criticism of President Obama’s handling of violence in Chicago.
Some part of West’s political stance, clearly, is intentionally contrarian. His fame was elevated in 2005 with his critique of former president George W. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. By criticizing Obama and Democratic politics, West is both separating himself from expectations and earning praise from a different subset of the electorate.
“I wanted to say that before the election, but they told me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t say that out loud,’ ” he said in San Jose.
“They bullied me backstage,” he said this weekend. Whether or not it’s his intent, West embraces the idea that his embrace of Trump makes him something of a martyr in his social circles. Trump’s approach was “genius,” West said, “because it worked.” That approach was to shove a finger in the eye of the establishment.
A CNN poll in May found that most Americans thought West’s comments praising Trump were specifically an effort to seek publicity. Many Trump supporters, though, thought he was being sincere in expressing his beliefs.
That’s where West becomes useful to Trump. On Sunday, the president praised West’s post-SNL speech (while swiping at the show itself).
Since West came out in support of Trump (personally, if not politically) earlier this year, Trump has held up the musician as an example of his own appeal to black Americans. Trump has repeatedly claimed that West’s embrace led to a spike in his popularity with black Americans, which didn’t happen. Trump has also said (as he implied this weekend) that West’s support of him is linked to lower unemployment rates among African Americans, something that West has never mentioned.
The idea, for Trump, is simple: A high-profile black musician offers his praise and becomes a way of demonstrating that Trump’s support among black Americans is more robust than is normally presented. It becomes a touchstone for talking about Trump’s appeal to black Americans, however tangential the issue. But, perhaps more importantly, West also stands as a demonstration that Trump doesn’t have issues with race. How could Trump be racist, the implication goes, if the guy who called out Bush for being racist actually supports Trump’s presidency?
That point is undercut a bit by another comment West made Saturday: “There’s so many times I talk to, like, a white person about this, and they say: ‘How could you like Trump? He’s racist.’ Well, if I was concerned about racism, I would’ve moved out of America a long time ago.” Not a strong endorsement of Trump’s racial views. That CNN poll, though, suggests that Trump’s embrace of West works: Trump supporters generally see West as reinforcing Trump’s views.
Both West and Trump find their alliance useful. For West, it reinforces his position as a cultural independent. For Trump, it lets him argue that he has more black support than is often understood.
West’s contribution to Hillary Clinton, coupled with a photograph of Clinton, Kim Kardashian and himself taken on the campaign trail, would seem to have established his political views in 2016 in a way that a vote wouldn’t have. His actions since the election have distanced him from what that donation and that photo might suggest. It’s a reminder of another way in which the Trump-West relationship does something potentially useful for each.
It expands their fan bases.