The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What Kanye West and Tucker Carlson reveal about the struggle for power

Rapper Kanye West meets with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Oct. 11, 2018. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
6 min

As far as I can tell, Fox News host Tucker Carlson had never interviewed Ye, the musician born Kanye West, before Thursday. Carlson has hyped West’s politics in the past; the musician’s slow shift into Donald Trump’s broader orbit has been hailed by many on the right. But it wasn’t until this week, it seems, that Carlson granted Ye airtime for an extended conversation.

This is also the week in which Ye made an international splash while wearing a T-shirt to Paris Fashion Week that proclaimed, in large block letters, “WHITE LIVES MATTER.” And Carlson reached out.

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As he opened his show, Carlson framed the interview around the shirt and its message. Ye, Carlson said, had become “a kind of Christian evangelist” whose embrace of the “obviously true” phrase had infuriated the left, to Carlson’s glee. And, speaking to Carlson, Ye hit the notes that you might expect from a Carlson guest: Trump was great, the left is toxic, etc.

We’ll get back to Carlson’s interest in the news of the week, but we should start by explaining the ways in which Ye’s commentary was unintentionally revealing. He conveyed a consistent sense of betrayal — by his mother, by his ex-wife Kim Kardashian, by her family and allies — that was conflated with politics.

For example, Ye went on an extended riff about the ownership stakes of Skims, Kardashian’s shapewear line, and how he learned that Jared Kushner’s brother Josh had an unexpectedly large stake in the product. The average Tucker Carlson viewer is probably not intimately familiar with the celebrity world Ye inhabits; casual references to Kris Jenner’s boyfriend may not have landed. But once Ye’s presentation is disentangled, the story about the Kushners is a very old-fashioned one overlapping jealousy and the tensions of going into business together. An old-fashioned story Ye then extrapolates out to suggest that Jared Kushner’s effort to craft a peace deal in the Middle East was about enriching himself — and that Kushner wasn’t primarily “serving my boy Trump.”

There’s no question that Ye is deeply religious and religious in a way that aligns with conservative politics at the moment. His articulation of his frustrations with liberals, though, are almost uniformly expressed as frustrations with people who happen to be liberals. Anti-elitism is a powerful conduit to a political worldview, as Trump himself realized. The elite against whom Ye and Trump are rebelling are ones who are also Democrats. The line between person and politics is certainly not always bright, but if Ye were surrounded by wealthy, famous people who he felt had wronged him and who were also staunchly conservative — there are certainly many such people — it would be interesting to see whether his politics were affected.

“When Trump was running for office and I liked him and every single person in Hollywood, from my ex-wife to my mother in law, to my manager at that time, to, you know, my so-called friends-slash-handlers around me, told me, like, if I said that I like Trump, that my career will be over, that my life would be over,” Ye claimed. But, he said, “God builds warriors in a different way. … He made me for such a time like this.” He then compared himself to the biblical David, the shepherd who killed Goliath.

Grandiosity aside, Ye articulated a dichotomy that’s central to the presentation Carlson likes to make. There are the “elites” themselves — a nebulously defined group that expands and contracts conveniently — who are an easy foil and an increasingly left-leaning one (particularly once it expands and contracts). Then there are systems that hold power in the United States, systems that are facially controlled by the elite but are themselves deeply conservative (in the nonpolitical sense). Carlson is a fan of the systems; he fights every night to maintain the status quo in which a particular iteration of American benefits. His most-discussed view in the past year or two is the idea that Democrats are importing new, non-White voters to reshape America — in other words, he is rising to the defense of the way America is now because he understands, if only intuitively, how it is weighted in his favor and in the favor of his allies.

Carlson liked Ye’s “White lives matter” T-shirt because it’s useful as a tool for protecting that system. We’re a few steps down the line here, so let’s work backward. “White lives matter” is a rejection of “Black lives matter,” a more forceful rejection, even, than “all lives matter.” It’s not just an effort to dilute the “Black lives matter” phrase but to suggest that saying “Black lives matter” suggests that White ones don’t. The point of the “Black lives matter” movement, though, was to call attention to ways in which Black people were systematically disadvantaged, particularly in the criminal justice system. It was saying that Black people deserved not to be unfairly targeted, not that they deserved special accommodation.

But Carlson is one of the leading voices in the right’s robust sense of victimization. As Black and Hispanic Americans and gay and transgender Americans have been increasingly able to advocate for themselves or point out biases (in part a function of how technology allows people to capture events and helps people organize), the right has interpreted calls for leveling the playing field as demands for preference. All of this gets blurry at the edges, too, of course, but polling has repeatedly shown that White Republicans view themselves as targets of discrimination equivalent to non-majority groups. Carlson and Trump, sharing that sense, highlight anecdotes that reinforce that sense and push back against the group that’s most forcefully calling for the playing field to be leveled.

The left. The new elite.

So Carlson sees Ye wearing a shirt that explicitly casts Whites as victims and understands the opportunity. Here’s a member of the inner circle of the elite — a Black man — who’s willing to elevate the idea that White lives are disadvantaged in a way equivalent to Black lives. To validate the victimization and discomfort. Let’s set up an interview.

At one point in the discussion, Ye praised right-wing voices such as the commentator Candace Owens (who joined him at the Fashion Week event) for being willing to challenge the dominant voices within the celebrity ecosystem. The problem, he said, was that those elite were too scared to be honest.

“They have people that are around them at all times telling them what to be afraid of,” Ye said. “It’s like not what to do or say specifically, it’s what to be afraid of.”

Neither the show’s host nor his audience probably caught the irony of Ye saying that on Carlson’s program.