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The outcome of the US Presidential election is still in the balance, but one thing is already clear. A showbusiness maverick with a reputation for saying the unsayable has performed far better than predicted. His impact on the American political landscape in the years ahead could be significant.
The outsider is, of course, Kanye West, the rapper widely regarded as having flushed away his music career through an increasingly bizarre series of public pronouncements about slavery and in support of Donald Trump (to say nothing of bum-rushing Taylor Swift at a 2009 awards ceremony).
His Presidential run has been dismissed as an unhinged vanity project. Yet for all the ridicule, “Ye” – as West, 43, styles himself – has secured upwards of 60,000 votes. He received 10,000 in Tennessee alone, ahead of candidates from the Constitution Party, the Green Party, and the Socialism and Liberation Party. In the run-up to the election, he was polling at two per cent: not nearly enough to win but perhaps sufficient to tilt the balance for either Trump or Biden as the result goes to the wire.
With counting continuing West’s final tally could be significantly higher than that 60,000. And he has already indicated he plans to run again 2024. He has presumably learned a great deal from the 2020 campaign on which he spent over $5 million (including paying a reported $1.5 million to what CNN has described as a “secretive consulting firm in Arizona” with Republican party connections). Is it time to take his political ambitions seriously?
Kanye’s candidacy has been treated as a joke by the media since it kicked off with a shambolic rally in South Carolina in July, at which West broke down crying on several occasions. But given the anti-establishment forces rumbling through American politics is it truly unthinkable that he might be a force with which to reckon four years hence?
What’s undeniable is that Donald Trump has reshaped American politics. The idea of a celebrity parlaying their profile into a plausible White House run is no longer absurd. If not West, then it could be somebody else. And they could gain momentum with a speed that blindsides the establishment.
Think back to Donald Trump’s early Presidential ambitions, laughed off as a joke by everyone apart from the US electorate. It's been a mere nine years since Barack Obama revelled in humiliating Trump at the White House Correspondents dinner by contrasting the responsibilities of high office with Trump’s day job hosting The Apprentice.
The room shook with laughter. The only one not chuckling was Trump, who had publicly flirted with running for the White House and had given his support to the “Birther” conspiracy that Obama was born in Kenya.
“This is literally Trump’s villain origin story,” goes one perceptive comment beneath the YouTube clip of Obama demeaning Trump. “This is the moment Walter White became Heisenberg,” notes another, referring to Breaking Bad and the transformation of its lead character from everyman teacher to terrifying agent of chaos.
Just five years later Trump had defeated Hillary Clinton and claimed the Presidency. In so doing he confirmed American politics is now merely an extension of showbusiness. And if a cheesy reality host can gain the Oval Office, why not one of the most influential rappers of his generation?
West certainly knows how to make himself the centre of conversation. He generated huge controversy with his support of Trump (which he rescinded this year, claiming the President was hiding from the pandemic) and visiting the West Wing wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat. The rapper further put a rocket under social media by describing 400 years of African American slavery as “a choice” (he later apologised).
He has a savvy ally in wife, Kim Kardashian-West, too. The Keeping Up With The Kardashians star is studying to be a lawyer and has become a vocal advocate for reform of America’s punitive criminal justice system. She has the ear of the White House, and in March convinced the President to cut short the jail sentences of three women imprisoned for drug-related and white collar crimes and who had young children when jailed.
West’s own policies are esoteric. A born-again Christian, he has put his beliefs at the centre of his politics. That may induce titters on left-leaning Twitter. But as we can currently see, there is more to America than left-leaning twitter. West’s journey to God has potential to play well across vast swathes of the country.
“We must now realise the promise of America by trusting God, unifying our vision and building our future. I am running for president of the United States!,” he tweeted at the start of his 2020 campaign. Had Donald Trump sent that very message would anyone have shrugged?
West proceeded to unveil a 10-item policy agenda headlined “Creating A Culture of Life”, each point accompanied by a Bible verse. His top priority was to restore school prayer. West also advocates for strong national defence and an “America First” foreign policy. However, there is a progressive side to his agenda: he favours “equitable” policing, protection of the environment and funding for the arts. It’s a hodge-podge but is it any more so than the one that has made Trump President?
“Kanye’s got an incredibly forensic mind,” someone who knows the rapper told me once. “If you say something and he disagrees with it, he won’t let it go. He’ll take you up on it and drill into the detail. He isn’t like other musicians.”
West has had his issues. He has been diagnosed as bipolar and early in his Presidential run had a public falling out with his wife and inlaws (whom he claimed were flying to his Wyoming compound to have him committed).
Yet for all that he has put in a respectable showing in the election. President Kanye West? As American politics is demonstrating day by day and hour by hour, stranger things have happened.