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Playing Kanye as a Black Voter Trump Card Is Betting on a Losing Hand

The GOP’s new, politically expedient, and very cynical coziness with Kanye.
August 21, 2020
Playing Kanye as a Black Voter Trump Card Is Betting on a Losing Hand
Rapper Kanye West speaks during his meeting with US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on October 11, 2018. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

“No one man should have all that power. The clock’s tickin’, I just count the hours. Stop trippin’ I’m trippin’ off the power.”
–Kanye West, “Power”

I really don’t want to speak about Kanye West. My desire to opine on his antics passed many moons ago. I’m also not a person who believes in “cancel culture”—but I’m a huge proponent of “consequence culture,” and I long ago moved Kanye into the “thank you, next” column.

So why break my self-imposed moratorium? Because no matter how much of a hot mess I believe Kanye is today, I couldn’t sit idly by while political powers-that-be attempt to commodify him purely for their political gains while simultaneously insulting black voters.

By now it’s no secret that Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, and an assortment of C-list Roger Stone wannabes are working with Kanye’s cabal to help ensure that he is on the ballot in several key swing states for November’s election. The most accurate way to describe this in my view: pimping a man in the midst of a mental-health crisis to try and help secure a second Trump term. They say that politics makes strange bedfellows and you might think that the people snuggling up in the California king with Kanye are definitely strange—until you look at the nation and the Trump family’s track record of commodifying black people for social, economic, and political gain.

Racial capitalism—deriving social or economic value from the racial identity of other people, and specifically here, black people—is a tale as old as American time. It started with slavery, continued through minstrel shows and hip-hop culture, and we can see it still today in the exploitation of college athletes. It is by no means the exclusive terrain of Republicans, but Donald Trump has been particularly persistent in attempting to use blacks for profit. Trump once suggested a blacks vs. whites season of his reality show The Apprentice, and during the 2016 campaign wasn’t afraid to do the quiet part of tokenizing out loud telling people to “look at my African American over here.”

And what of Kanye West? What is the politically expedient purpose behind the GOP’s newfound coziness with him? Securing the black vote, or at least swinging some black voters away from Biden, of course. Or giving those unicorn black voters who are still on the fence between Biden and Trump a third way. Spoiler: this ain’t it.

We shouldn’t be surprised that a person who thought Race War Thunderdome would make good TV and that his evangelical supporters would like it if he gassed some protesters to hold up a Bible and not read from it would think that all he needs to do to peel off some of Biden’s black support is to get a rapper on the ballot.

But let’s talk about actual black voters for a minute. Many efforts to secure the votes of black Americans evince a deep misunderstanding of what motivates blacks to keep on showing up in voting booths, even when that may mean many hours in lines (looking at you, secretaries of state closing many polling places specifically in places where people of color vote). And these misguided efforts are not divided by a red or blue color line. To be sure, Republicans tokenize blacks but so do Democrats. During the 2020 primary season, there was a lot of talk on the left about the sophistication, or lack thereof, of black voters. It was as patronizing and insulting then as Republicans’ sudden burst of love for Kanye is now. Black voters are not dumb.

So will pimping Kanye “work”? I’m not Miss Cleo, but here’s my sense of things: No. The answer is no. Black voters are nothing if not pragmatic and acutely aware that there is no political messiah who is going to save us. We vote to save ourselves. Self-preservation is the reason that so many blacks stormed the primary polls to vote for Joe Biden, some with their noses plugged to ensure that Dems did not doom us to a disastrous Bernie Sanders nomination. Those same voters, who fully recognize the existential threat that a continued Trump presidency poses to our existence, are not going to throw away their vote.

To believe that black voters, in a time in which we are fighting for our lives—both literally, due to the systemic structural inequality that renders us subject to disproportionate racial violence and poor health outcomes, as COVID-19 has shined a light on, and figuratively as we try to advance this nation towards a reckoning that will lead to liberty and justice for all—persist in showing up so that we can engage in performative political theater is to operate from a place of privilege that is divorced from the reality that black Americans live. Generally speaking, we simply don’t have the luxury of “Jill Steining” votes on principle, as some did in 2016.

Contrary to the seemingly prevailing political perspective, black people do not automatically offer full-throated support to any person deemed to have the right amount of melanin. Exhibit A: John James, a candidate who by all accounts should have a bright political future but who is currently way down in the polls in his race for the Senate. Or, for that matter, Exhibit B: the fates of Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Deval Patrick during the Democratic primaries.

Undeniably, Kanye West remains a celebrity who does what is necessary to remain on the public’s radar.

But the attention Kanye receives is comparable to the grotesque curiosity that causes people to slow down to watch a car accident or train wreck. That does not make him a relevant black thought-leader.

It does give Kanye some appeal to the type of voter of any race who thinks the whole system is corrupt. The type of voter who is happy to take a flier on a famous person whom they think has a less than zero chance of winning but who is going to shake up the system.

Now, who do you think that type of voter went for in the last election?

Setting aside the question of qualification for the presidency and looking just at the question of electability, there was a point at which Kanye may have actually been a viable political alternative for the non-nihilists who are disillusioned and discontented with the kinds of political candidates the two dominant parties usually select—candidates who often trade empty promises to people of color for votes. This would have been back when Kanye was a populist, outsider voice of black America.

But that’s not the Kanye of 2020. The Kanye who scythed the Bush administration for its Katrina response is now running cover for an administration that has so mangled its response to the COVID-19 pandemic that is disproportionately delivering its pain on the black community.

When he made the choice to stand with the Donald and don a red MAGA hat, to many he may as well have transformed into Clayton Bigsby, the iconic Dave Chappelle character who was a white supremacist but because of his blindness could not see that he was actually a black man.

In the same way that Donald Trump thought Jared Kushner could solve Middle East Peace because he’s the Jewish in-law, Jared thinks Kanye can solve their black voter problem.

That’s not how this works.

People are not simply political pawns to be used, abused, and discarded for the purpose of white-knuckling one’s tenuous grasp on political power. It’s my beautiful dark twisted fantasy that folks would ante up and stop seeing blacks as chips to be played but instead equal players in the game.

We know when people are trying to use us because we’ve seen it. Repeatedly. And not even for the love of Yeezus are we here for it happening one more time at the hands of Donald J. Trump.

Lindsey Appiah

Lindsey Appiah is a lawyer and writer in Washington, D.C.