Kanye West and the Ambassador to Malta

Kanye West at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards in New York City (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
Little apostasies should be expected in our politics — the desire to move is inflamed by the structure of our two-party system.

Kanye West reminds me of America’s former ambassador to Malta. That may take some explanation. Hang tight.

For those who are blessed to have enough duties in life to pull them away from the the Internet and from the faked panic attack of cable news, Kanye West is one of the most acclaimed rappers of the last 20 years. His most famous political statement until recently was “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” More recently he caused some controversy by venturing in a few tweets that he respected President Trump. He showed the world his Make America Great Again hat, and told his followers that he and Trump shared the quality of “dragon energy.”

Kanye’s tweets were, like much of what Trump says, an incoherent ramble that succeeded only in communicating his self-regard. And like much of what Trump says, Kanye’s words became the basis for a great many essays and responses from across pop culture and the class of lettered persons. Soon Kanye West was defensively telling us that he was trying to think for himself. Another rapper ventured “Black people don’t have to be Democrats.” Kanye West has since ventured some crazier ideas about American history.

The latest reaction comes from Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates’s essay goes through many interesting detours, including his own struggles with a certain kind of celebrity and notoriety. When he is being fêted by the great and good, Coates is astonished at the reaction closer to home. He is bothered by criticism that he believed wasn’t as much about what he had written “as how it had been received.” I confess after reading this much, and being prepared by the title “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye West,” I thought Coates was going to show a little mercy to West. No, not one bit.

Instead, Coates delineates a special burden that black performers have. They have to be mindful of who they “are taking along for the ride.” In fact, this responsibility to the black community is only just because no person’s talents are singular. Black music is the product of a long history of suffering, and “the gift [for music] is no more solely theirs than the suffering that produced it.” In a way this is Coates reminding Kanye, “You didn’t build that.” It is not my place to quarrel with this much. Where I object is Coates holding that by tweeting somewhat incoherently, and showing up to shake hands with the president, West’s “very presence endorsed the agenda of Donald Trump.”

There is a viciousness to Coates’s treatment that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. If West is to be held in some way as responsible for contributing to every injustice under Trump (real or posited), does the same hold true for other presidents and those that in some way wish them well? Did Coates in some way become responsible for the consequences of a misbegotten regime change in Libya, one that predictably resulted in genocidal violence against migrant workers from Mali? I do not think so. And I was surprised at how smoothly — even obliviously — Coates could move from complaining of people misunderstanding his own work, based on how it was received, to giving West such a tendentious reading.

I can’t speak to the duties Coates would enjoin on West. But West reminds me of a much less famous figure who crossed social and party lines in 2008. Douglas Kmiec was a scholar of law, and had worked for two Republican administrations. He was preceded by Samuel Alito as U.S. deputy assistant attorney general in the Reagan years. He was well known as a pro-lifer, and someone opposed to the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples. Nevertheless, in 2008, he came to endorse Back Obama. For this he was temporarily threatened with the denial of Holy Communion in his Catholic faith. His reasoning was held up for ridicule just about everywhere, including in National Review. Instead of a mere photo-op in Trump tower, Kmiec was awarded an ambassadorship to the heavily Catholic Mediterranean country Malta.

Kmiec would have to endure the opprobrium of his co-religionists as, later, Barack Obama skillfully used the powers of the state and popular prejudice against Catholic doctrines on contraception to divide Republicans from moderates, and cause an enormous amount of legal trouble for a Church that had nurtured his career as a social activist.

Black voters and pro-lifers have something in common with each other and with many other groups of Americans, at least politically.

I always felt bad for Kmiec. But let’s be clear: Kmiec’s pro-life case for Obama, while it pretended to have a great deal of substance behind it, had relatively little political or logical coherence. Both Kmiec and West were working towards their respective presidents through emotional affiliation.

The Republican party was becoming more Evangelical, and more radical in foreign policy. This personality as much as anything put off men like Kmiec. And Obama offered something to them. One of the complaints about Obama from the left was that he was an Eisenhower Republican, a man seeking the middle ground and a great consensus. This is what Kmiec seems to have wanted in a president, someone who “wants to move the nation beyond its religious and racial divides.”

Kanye West seems to relate to something more base: Trump’s narcissism, Trump’s willfulness, and Trump’s skill at branding. Perhaps Trump’s behavior toward women. West’s lyrics about the other sex offer some thrills, but they don’t exactly ring with knightly chivalry.

But these little apostasies should be expected in our politics. They are born of a perfectly understandable frustration. The emotional affiliation is how these men brought themselves over to these presidents. But the desire to move is inflamed by the structure of our two-party system.

Black voters and pro-lifers have something in common with each other and with many other groups of Americans, at least politically. Each look out on the scene and see that one political party has largely written off their concerns and stopped competing for them. Perhaps that party has started campaigning against them, defining their ambitions as treasonous in some way, or looking for ways to use the law to restrict their influence. The result is that the party that does try to turn them out never fears a price of failure. And what you see in West, and in others figures such as Chance the Rapper, is this frustration boiling over in different ways.

The fact that Republicans at the national level largely do not compete for voters in urban areas, and largely do not compete for black voters, makes the Democratic party worse at representing voters in cities and black voters in particular. Just as the Democrats’ commitment to widely available and common legal abortion takes away some of the pressure on Republicans to achieve more for their pro-life voters.

I’ve seen this frustration firsthand. Ahead of the 2012 election, I was asked to join two other conservatives and three liberals for a panel at the Apollo in Harlem leading up to the second debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. The audience gave conservative Armstrong Williams a hard time, the way a family gives their table-side contrarian a hard time. But I was unknown to them. I decided to forgo any positive case for Mitt Romney, whom I knew offered this community rather little in desired policy. I didn’t like him much either. Instead I focused on the gap between the great feeling of progress on the night of Barack Obama’s election and the lack of results for the black community, whose economic recovery had been even slower than that of the rest of America. I emphasized Obama’s distance from Harlem, now that he was in the White House and encouraged the audience to continue holding his “feet to the fire.” The response I got was enthusiastic.

I walked out of the room with a great deal of respect because I didn’t pander fearfully, or try to slide by with the normal partisan bullspit that can satisfy as political entertainment. When it came to question time, many were directed at me, and they reflected the usually submerged political diversity of Harlem. One woman wanted prayer in schools, a cause I considered to be an antique conservative one. Another man expressed the view that Obama was the Establishment’s tool for suppressing real change for “the community.” (A view I admit I sometimes shared.) Afterwards, the organizers talked to me about the social conservatism of the black community. Of course. This is a churched people who have been a part of this land for centuries more than mine.

This is all a way of saying that I don’t think we should make too much or too little of Kanye West’s gesture. We should not take his slightly rambling explanations as representative of a full-scale endorsement of Trumpism and whatever enormities are entailed therein. But nor should we dismiss it all out of hand either. West represents millions of Americans who have only the haziest ideas about history or politics. And in his confusion he represents millions of people who are frustrated by the feeling that they really have political duties as citizens, but in an electoral booth or as a matter of symbolism, they have no political choices.