Kanye West seen out and about in Manhattan in February 2020. (Photo by Robert Kamau/GC Images)
On Independence Day, Kanye West announced a last-minute bid for the Oval Office, setting up the rapper, sneaker mogul, and Kardashian-by-marriage to square off against Trump and Biden as an independent. While it may sound like a joke (or the kind of publicity stunt that West has been known to pull in the past) the announcement quickly drew support from a few significant public figures: his wife Kim, Elon Musk, and Mark Cuban.
These endorsements are noteworthy because they come from some of the few A-listers who have at one time supported Trump—though Cuban had already jumped off the Trump train by election day 2016. Across the aisle, Kanye’s announcement has sparked concerns that a young black rapper—one of the most popular artists of all time—might pull key demographics away from the doddering, septuagenarian nominee of the self-anointed party of the future. West’s transpartisan appeal and the exceptional confusion of the current moment make a Kanye presidency…well, maybe not likely, but surprisingly possible.
Unfortunately for West, he has already missed the deadline to file as an independent in multiple states, so the logistics of victory would be difficult, to say the least. More fundamentally: he’s Kanye West. He’s a pop-culture celebrity whose presidential aspirations—if they are even real—are obviously tied up in his ego and his flair for the dramatic. There’s no way he can win against serious politicians, and no reason he should. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
In fact, just about every conceivable argument that might be brought against Kanye’s candidacy from the right could have been leveled against Trump in 2016, and was. He has absolutely no relevant experience. His public statements have often bordered on the genuinely insane. His past actions might raise serious concerns about his character. He has displayed no broad or consistent fidelity to mainstream conservative principles. His chances at winning are minuscule. We have heard all these things before, and answered them at the ballot box.
But it became evident fairly early on that Trump would be, in the best case, our Julius Caesar: a catalyst for radical change who—despite seeming at first like a savior in himself—would merely prepare the way for a leader and an age to come. What was not evident—what seems, even now, fairly ridiculous—was that our Octavian might be a bombastic rapper from the South Side of Chicago. There had been, until the fourth of July, only two likely scenarios for the conservative succession to Trump.
The first was grim: Joe Biden wins in November. Quick on the heels of loss come the inevitable evaluations of where we went wrong, and the powers that were will insist that our fatal error was the abandonment of the old consensus. Trump’s defeat will reopen the Republican power vacuum, and the old guard will quietly slink back in. We will watch a few more decades of bargain-bin Reagan clones score a string of pyrrhic victories. The Trump moment will be dismissed as a minor aberration until a moment like it inevitably comes again. The day of reckoning will be all the more difficult for the time we held it off.
The second is, at this point, wishful thinking: after a 2020 victory and four more years of Trump leadership, the reins of the party are handed over seamlessly to someone who can put a more positive spin on the populism Trump has tapped into. Senators Hawley, Rubio, and Cotton are the obvious contenders. Under this new generation of leadership, a pro-family, pro-labor, pro-American party offers a serious, earthbound answer to the Left’s apocalyptic vision. We get the realignment we hoped for four years ago. What’s more, we manage to free it of any unpleasant Trumpian entanglements.
This was probably the best argument for reelecting Trump in 2020. He would serve as a placeholder for four years, and we might even get another justice on the Supreme Court in the meantime. But a seamless transition from Trump to a renewed GOP is no longer plausible. This is in part because Trump has not been the disruptor we expected. Despite some intense rhetoric and a few outlying policies, this has been a fairly standard Republican administration. We cannot reasonably expect any seismic shifts in the party platform, and we certainly can’t expect any mass migrations into its electoral base. While the administration bears some blame for this latter fact, there are also unavoidable complications of this particular moment at play: any hope of electoral windfall from the once-booming economy, for instance, has been buried by the COVID crisis. Even if he scrapes out a victory in November, the possibility that Trump might, like Nixon, usher in decades of Republican dominance has vanished into thin air. The party and the movement will merely find themselves limping along the scenic route to the same long-term result as scenario number one.
Kanye’s entry into the race presents us with a third way. The controversial rapper, who has drawn sharp criticism for his past support of Trump, has a few defining qualities that may make him the best available successor to the current commander-in-chief. He may be our only hope to actually force the realignment we expected from Trump, and avoid a backslide into the GOPs old losing strategy.
The first point in West’s favor is actually rather practical—and timely. It is clear now more than ever that any conservative coalition that hopes for lasting success in American politics must involve the millions of socially conservative black Americans who have been abandoned to the Democratic machine by an apathetic Republican establishment. Trump is obviously not the person to bridge that gap—to incite one of those electoral mass migrations that would be vital to sustained political success. Kanye may well be, and not just because of the color of his skin—though the electoral benefits of shared identity should not be underestimated. West is at his most coherent (and his most insightful) when he talks about the troubles plaguing black communities: violence, addiction, “welfare mentality”, single motherhood, birth control, abortion. West recognizes the roots of the problem—and the solutions in policy and practice that support family and enterprise—with a clarity and a conviction that neither the left nor the mainstream right approaches by a mile.
The benefit of West’s insight would not be limited to black America, either. The social and economic solutions to these problems are consistent over nearly all of our nation’s divisions: strong families plus a people-centered economy is a winning formula across the board, not to mention a morally sound one. West has even waded into policy domains that have been untouched by conservatives for decades, but deserve and desperately need our attention: land reform, contraception, school prayer, and more.
Trump, at his best, showed no resistance to these things: he was willing to ride populist and reactionary waves, but he was never particularly invested in the ideas that drove them. Meanwhile, for all the outrageousness of both Kanye himself and his equally famous relatives (his wife, Kim Kardashian; his father-in-law, Caitlyn Jenner), nobody who has been paying attention could honestly deny that West is passionately devoted to strong family—both on the personal and the societal level. Some may question the sanity of his somewhat heterodox Christianity, but nobody doubts its sincerity. We may likewise lament the lack of nuance and erudition in Kanye’s platform while appreciating the general direction of his vision, and the energy with which he pursues it.
That energy is another of West’s defining traits, and it actually parallels one of Trump’s. Both possess an undeniable explosive power. Trump’s is corporate: when supporters said in 2016 that they wanted Trump to run the government like a business, they meant specifically one of his businesses. Whether the moribund GOP went the way of Trump Steaks or the Grand Hyatt Hotel didn’t make much of a difference. They simply wanted the disruption that Trump had been peddling for decades in the public sphere.
But the New York businessman, expected by his supporters to be immune to the forces of the swamp, turned out to be overcome by them with remarkably little resistance. Not only are we not experiencing the positive realignment which Trump supporters hoped for, we aren’t even really seeing the intermediate disruptive stage—the swamp-draining, in Trump-speak—that should have been our consolation prize. If anyone can actually deliver the disruption—and thus force the renewal—that Trump had promised, it’s sure to be Kanye West. This is in part because West’s energy and genius, as an artist, is of an entirely different kind from Trump’s, and far less easily reined in.
More importantly, however, in the wake of his recent conversion to a zealous (if nebulous) Christianity, West’s energy is actually aimed in a clear and positive direction. Trump was always merely a disruptor, but West’s combination of chaotic potential and moral vision positions him perfectly as a transitional figure between the old age and the new. The Art of the Deal has done all it can to cure mainstream conservatism’s many ills. It’s time to take Jesus is King for a spin.
Declan Leary is TAC’s Collegiate Network Fellow and a graduate of John Carroll University.
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