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The GOP’s bet on Kanye West has gone very bad

In this file photo taken on October 11, 2018 Kanye West meets with US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC. (Saul Loeb / AFP)

It’s not hard to understand why the rapper Ye — born Kanye West — signaling his support for Donald Trump would be so appealing to Republicans. For years, the party has struggled to bolster its standing with Black voters and its position in popular culture. Here was one of the most popular musicians in the world, first appearing with president-elect Trump in Trump Tower and, in 2018, with Trump in the Oval Office. A beachhead, at long last, had been established.

At best it augured a potential new political landscape; at worst, it gave the party a way to deflect questions about the palatability of Trump’s and the party’s positions on issues related to race. After Ye explicitly embraced Trump’s presidency, Trump repeatedly claimed that his standing with Black voters had surged, which it hadn’t. But instead of having to pick out individual Black attendees at his events, the president who relied on cherry-picking as a rhetorical tool now had an ally everyone would recognize — an ally a lot of people liked.

Over the past few weeks, that has changed. Ye’s increasingly vocal espousal of anti-Jewish rhetoric has triggered a scramble within the GOP, exacerbated by Ye’s palling around with virulent antisemite Nick Fuentes which culminated in his bringing Fuentes to a much-discussed dinner with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. Much of the attention from that dinner focused on Fuentes, helping delay the party’s reckoning with what Ye himself had said.

Then Ye went on Alex Jones’s radio show (oof) with Fuentes (ouch) and proceeded to praise both Nazis in general and Hitler specifically (a yike of world-historic proportions). And with that, Ye went from shaky asset to obvious liability.

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The Republican Jewish Coalition released a statement even as the Jones interview was still underway.

“Conservatives who have mistakenly indulged Kanye West must make it clear that he is a pariah,” it read in part. “Enough is enough.”

As if to reinforce that point, the Twitter account of the House Judiciary Committee’s Republican caucus — an account weirdly focused on engaging in culture war fights — quietly deleted the tweet it had offered in October praising three men then seen as important anchors of the political right.

“Kanye. Elon. Trump,” that tweet said, referring to Ye, the then-new owner of Twitter and the former president. The goal of the tweet, very obviously, was to claim the popularity of those individuals as their own. You can see that in the mention of Elon Musk, who was just beginning his rocky overhaul of the social-media company. This was not only someone challenging the perceived hegemony of the liberal elites — the eternal enemy — but someone who was popular in his own right, a pop-culture figure in a different (though similarly structured) space as Trump.

And then there was Ye, who’d a few days earlier cemented his alliance with the political right by appearing with the high priest of right-wing media: Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. In a multi-part interview, the two wealthy, famous men had commiserated over the plight of average White Americans. There were some raised eyebrows about comments from Ye that brushed against antisemitism, but Carlson was pointed and explicit in insisting to his viewers that there was nothing weird or irrational about Ye’s views and commentary.

That was in large part because Carlson’s team had edited the interview to exclude explicitly antisemitic comments and other bizarre statements from Ye that would have poisoned that goal. Carlson aimed to present Ye as a Black man, a member of the elite, who through careful consideration of the world in front of him had reached the same conclusions as Republican voters. To do so, he had to trim away Ye’s real positions and views, only to have Vice News inconveniently discover them. Things have only gotten worse since.

What Carlson did with his edits, of course, was just a microcosm of how the right has dealt with Ye all along.

The rapper has always been unique — in both the complimentary and pejorative senses of that word — which is what made him an exceptional artist. He and Trump reached a symbiosis, in which Ye got to enjoy the contrarianism of supporting a president hated by many of those in his social circles and in which Trump got to pretend that Ye validated his approach to politics.

“Kanye West gets it,” Trump said at a rally in April 2018. “... When he sees that African-American unemployment is the lowest in history, you know, people are watching. That’s a very important thing he has done for his legacy, it’s a very important thing.” This was Trump attributing his own talking point about why Black voters should like him to Ye as a way of implying an endorsement. This was the value to Trump and the GOP.

But Ye’s uniqueness always meant that his vocal embrace of the right was tinged with static. Ye was open about his struggles with bipolar disorder, which is certainly a reason that Carlson felt the need to present him as entirely rational. His support of Trump was porous, as when ABC host Jimmy Kimmel challenged him on Trump’s approach to race, earning only silence as a response. And then there was Ye’s weird 2020 presidential campaign, one that seemed at least in part to be an effort by Trump allies to split the Black vote. It certainly didn’t indicate strong support for Trump, though.

All of that could be ignored, and was. Ye was a Black member of the elite who agreed with the MAGA agenda. Ye was a Black member of the elite who wore a MAGA hat. Ye was a Black member of the elite who said the things about the left that any Trump ally in good standing would say. So the right held him tight even as his endless repositioning threatened to see him slip their grasp.

And now, it seems safe to assume, he’s gone.

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