“This is so depressing. I mean, Kanye used to be fun crazy. Now he’s like Hitler,” Howard Stern recently said. To be sure, no one knows the game of using mentally ill people for entertainment better than Stern. He once devoted great swaths of national airtime to fringe bigots and his long-disbanded Wack Pack to build the mass audience for his shock-talk radio show before he moved on to the calmer medium of satellite broadcasting.
It’s also true that celebrity meltdowns have long been a staple entertainment for social media, but Kanye West, now known as Ye, has moved into a new, darker area of celebrity self-immolation. It’s been almost a month since Ye wore a White Lives Matter shirt at a Paris fashion show, aired conspiracy theories that Jews control the media and fed him drugs to make him incoherent, and said George Floyd was not murdered but died of a fentanyl overdose. As a Rolling Stone headline recently put it, “Kanye Is Never Coming Back From This.”
“Fun crazy”—no, Ye isn’t fun anymore. He got a pass for a long time. He scored many points in 2005 on the telethon for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, going off on President George W. Bush and our shameful national response to the flood. “I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a Black family, it says, ‘They’re looting.’ You see a white family, it says, ‘They’re looking for food,’” said Kanye. “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”
Where’s the lie? In 2009, Kanye disrupted Taylor Swift’s Grammy Awards acceptance speech to point out that “Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time!” “Imma let you finish!”—the line he used to introduce his outburst—became its own catchphrase, but his uglier narcissistic side came out as he eclipsed Swift’s moment. Even President Obama called him a “jackass,” but at the end of the day, it was just an awards show.
It’s not hard to pinpoint the moment when Ye stopped being fun: May 2018. That’s when he said, “When you hear about slavery for 400 years…. For 400 years? That sounds like a choice.”
You can still hear the needle scratch on that one. It’s a line a keynote speaker at CPAC might drop, not the man who lashed out at the Bush administration for its indifference to Black life. Calling slavery voluntary, a choice, is on a par with Holocaust denial. Ye’s lie was met with appropriate derision and outrage—but that was quickly muted after the revelation on his 2018 album, Ye, that he suffers from bipolar disorder.
Was his comment a delusional moment? At the time, who could say? Then in October 2018, he met with President Donald Trump at the White House and praised him excessively. In 2020, Ye fronted a presidential campaign heavily coordinated by right-wing Trump activists—a stunt seemingly designed to siphon off votes from Biden to aid Trump. At a small rally, he broke down on camera as he talked about his absentee father. In contrast to other celebrities who meet with constant pushback for their views—Susan Sarandon, Eric Clapton, J.K. Rowling, Dave Chappelle—criticism of Ye was tempered because his tirades were often bound up with deeply emotional mood swings over his marriage and childhood.
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“I’m really tired of people excusing his behavior, by saying, ‘Well, he’s just mentally ill,’” Howard Stern added. “If he’s so mentally ill, why don’t they appoint a conservator over his money like they did with the poor Britney Spears?” Well, in a way Ye did find a conservator. Unfortunately, her name is Candace Owens—the right-wing pundit-provocateur who reportedly arranged the sale of her husband’s flailing right-wing social media platform, Parler, to West. Maybe Ye’s mental health plays a hand in his hateful comments, but it seems far from coincidental that the worst public statements in his life—which now have him banned on several mainstream social media platforms—and now the worst business decisions (auf Wiedersehen, Adidas) have come as he surrounds himself with the worst grifters in American politics.
Your move, Jamie Spears. Beyond the sheer scale of Ye’s incendiary scorched-career policy, none of this is especially new. Owens stood alongside Ye in Paris as he brandished his White Lives Matter shirt on the red carpet—and Ye’s delusional account of Floyd’s death came straight from Owens’s own documentary. No doubt Ye believes all of it, but it’s also garden-variety “Blue Lives Matter” sloganeering. Then came Ye’s pathetic plunge into anti-Semitic conspiracy-mongering, with him and his career portrayed as a principal target of the nefarious plotting of Jewish cabals.
Still, nothing new here: If you closed your eyes, you might think he was a Republican Senate candidate. Kanye’s anti-Semitism shows an especially strong affinity with the increasingly militant corps of Christian nationalists who vent their hatred of Jews in America as “secular” (in the standard right-wing argot of liberal-elite stereotyping) while maintaining their ardent scriptural support of Israel as key in ushering in the end times and their place alongside Jesus.
“No President has done more for Israel than I have,” former president Trump wrote recently on his own flailing social media platform, Truth Social. “Somewhat surprisingly, however, our wonderful Evangelicals are far more appreciative of this than the people of the Jewish faith, especially those living in the U.S.” In Pennsylvania, State Senator Doug Mastriano and his strategist Jenna Ellis accused their opponent of not being truly Jewish: “Josh Shapiro is at best a secular Jew in the same way Joe Biden is a secular Catholic,” the non-Jewish, non-Catholic Ellis explained. Mastriano, like Kanye, also gets his talking points from extreme social media. He paid the hard-right site Gab—recently rebranded as a Christian nationalist outlet—$5,000 to consult on his campaign. And like the Christian nationalists, Kanye seeks to discredit liberal Jews by denying that they are true Jews: “The funny thing is I actually can’t be Anti Semitic because black people are actually Jew also.”
Republicans often invoke the term “Judeo-Christian tradition,” but they don’t mean Jewish people. “Judeo” now serves as a narrow political term meant only for conservative Jews who share their cultural conservatism. For Christian nationalists, there are good Jews and bad Jews, and this gives them permission to hate the “bad” ones (i.e., the ones who don’t vote for them).
If “cancel culture” applied to millionaires, we’d never hear from Kanye West again. He’s no Hitler, but he’s still dangerous as an easily manipulated celebrity whose words influence people—and who looks poised to preside over a global social media platform for right-wing political hacks and bigots.