'A self-centered publicity stunt': just how serious is Kanye West's presidential bid?

Peter Lawrence Kane
<span>Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA</span>
Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

Once the strangest of bedfellows, Kanye West and Donald Trump are now officially rivals.

On the Fourth of July, the California-based rapper and entrepreneur tweeted that he was running for president, citing his belief in God and immediately winning the “full support” of his fellow billionaire Elon Musk – who, per the candidate himself, will head up America’s space program under a West administration.

West’s latest move is a continuation of his storied career, with its chameleon-like musical style, collaborations with venerable fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton, and self-aggrandizing, gnomic and problematic pronouncements – such as a casual assertion that enslavement is a “choice” or his professed admiration for Donald Trump’s “dragon energy”. West arguably broke with Trump in 2018, and in his 2019 Coachella performance and the release of his album Jesus Is King, it seemed that he was moving in an overtly spiritual direction.

Related: Kanye West takes anti-vaccine, anti-abortion stance in US presidential bid

The armchair political pundits and celebrity news site TMZ have been quick to suggest West is in a manic phase; he has been candid about his bipolar disorder. But in a long interview with Forbes, he appears to be sincere. Sincerity doesn’t necessarily mean seriousness, though, as he caused a stir at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards with a similar pronouncement. This time, though, he’d be running as the nominee for the previously nonexistent Birthday party. (“Because when we win, it’s everybody’s birthday,” he said.)

The timing is the most dubious facet. The 2020 US presidential race – which essentially started the moment the networks called the last election for Donald Trump – has seen its fair share of billionaire candidates, from the former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to the former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to the environmental and impeachment advocate Tom Steyer. Those candidacies largely met with skepticism, and they all fizzled. Further, as West raps on 2010’s Power (“No one man should have all that power / The clock’s ticking, I just count the hours”), time is of the essence – or at least, it was. The window for obtaining ballot access for the Birthday party has closed in virtually every state, meaning West would have to run as a long-shot write-in.

Independents and third-party candidates are a quirky but common feature of American presidential elections, in which each state can set its own eligibility requirements. In 1992, the independent Ross Perot won almost 20% of the vote against Bill Clinton and George HW Bush, while in 2016, Gary Johnson (running as a Libertarian) and Jill Stein (a Green) ran against Trump and Hillary Clinton – as did dozens of others, including one Rod Silva, who nabbed 751 votes as the candidate of the Nutrition party.

West “would have to run as an independent and get the necessary signatures to be on the ballot, and the deadline has already passed”, says Lala Wu, co-founder of the Sister District Project, a grassroots organization that redirects money and resources to under-the-radar legislative races. “He could be written in, but it would be very surprising if this went anywhere. I think it’s good to watch – because stranger things have happened.”

<span class="element-image__caption">Kanye West performs in Las Vegas in 2015.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images</span>
Kanye West performs in Las Vegas in 2015. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Fellow celebrities including Jamie Foxx and Tiffany Haddish savaged or mocked West’s declaration, but the president, who is normally hypersensitive to criticism, seems to have taken it in stride, calling it “very interesting”. Still, reaction has been less than favorable.

“It’s self-centered and a publicity stunt,” says the California music journalist Adrian Spinelli. There may be an impending record release or some other marketing tie-in, he adds.

“In the upper echelons of celebrity, their reality is totally different from ours, so the idea of ‘I’m gonna run for president’ – especially when you’re hanging out with Elon Musk, who’s on the same spectrum – is a great way to draw attention to yourself. But at the end of the day I think he’s self-centered and needs help.”

West claims to have virtually no campaign advisers except his equally famous wife. Kevin Kopjak, vice-president of public relations and marketing for Charles Zukow Associates in San Francisco, says that if he were advising West, he would encourage him to focus on what he’s clearly more qualified to do.

“Whether you like him or not, there’s some kind of creative brilliance there,” Kopjak says, adding that West’s Yeezy brand of apparel “just signed a 10-year contract with Gap. There’s so much more that he could do with that, and absolutely if he wants to get involved in politics, let’s find a way – without possibly altering the course of democracy in the United States.”

This week, the Yeezy brand was criticized for winning a $2m to $5m loan under the payroll protection program, as part of the federal Covid-19 stimulus.

Related: Kanye West for president? Realities and rules say White House run unlikely

There is some indication that, for West, the allure lies in a musical fusion of spiritual authority, political power and merchandising to achieve a previously unreached pedestal of hyper-celebrity. But mapping his politics on an ideological spectrum poses challenges. While Kim Kardashian West successfully lobbied Trump to commute the sentence of 63-year-old Alice Marie Johnson, a grandmother imprisoned on a first-time drug offense, Kanye West has seldom displayed much interest in the specifics of public policy. He’s an anti-choice anti-vaxxer who is opposed to capital punishment and even more so to police violence. And his year-long dalliance with the Republican party seems motivated in part by a bewildered disgust for Black Americans’ loyalty to the Democrats.

Running for high office is something of a California tradition for the famous and the famous-for-being-famous, from actors such as Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Diff’rent Strokes star Gary Coleman to Angelyne, an enigmatic model and Los Angeles-area icon famous for her provocative billboards. (She threw her hat into the 2003 California gubernatorial recall, and placed 28th out of 135 candidates.)

“My gut reaction is that this is a publicity stunt,” says Wu of the Sister District Project. “I wouldn’t say I’m taking it seriously, but I would be pretty concerned with him getting too much traction and undoing some of the really good work that progressive grassroots have been doing since Trump got elected in 2016.”

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