It was June 2015. Bill Maher was holding court with assorted journalists to discuss the 2016 race. The Republican field back then was attracting all kinds of ridiculous monikers — it was apparently the most plausible, most qualified field in history. Maher asked Ann Coulter who had the best chance in the general election.
She didn’t say John Kasich. She didn’t fancy Jeb’s chances. Three days earlier, Donald Trump had announced his candidacy in Manhattan, cutting the ribbon on a festival of media bafflement, disgust, and ridicule. Coulter made her prediction: ‘Of the declared ones, right now, Donald Trump.’
The studio audience hooted. The other panelists did a good impression of being horrified.
It’s worth remembering that moment when you read about Kanye West’s apparent decision to run for the presidency this year. West’s July 4 announcement tweet was greeted in exactly the same way as Coulter’s June 2015 prediction. Laughter. Mockery. Revulsion.
West is promoting a new album, and could be having a bipolar episode. His vision for the presidency, elaborated in a lengthy interview with Forbes, is arrant nonsense, wildly irresponsible and weirdly compelling, all at once.
The rapper first toyed with becoming leader of the free world in 2015. At the MTV Video Music Awards, he said, ‘I have decided in 2020 to run for president.’ Last year, he sat down at one of those annoying TED-like ideas pageants and said he would run in 2024 under the name ‘Christian Genius Billionaire Kanye West’.
The audience, as it did in Maher’s studio in 2015, laughed.
‘What y’all laughing at?’ West said. ‘When I run for president in 2024 we would have created so many jobs I’m not going to run, I’m going to walk.’
All the laughter and all the memes generated by Kanye’s oddball pronouncements are instructive. Nobody has learned any lessons from the last five years. I only wish sometimes that Kanye’s run was serious. Perhaps then they’d get it.
Frankly, if Donald Trump can become president, Kanye West can.
Discussions about what comes after Trump complacently and smugly assume a reversion to normal — normal being that spectrum between Barack Obama on the center-left, and George Bush or his father on the center-right. Joe Biden’s campaign, even if it has moved to the left in recent weeks, is largely about restoring business as usual.
Elsewhere in the tournament of competing visions for a post-Trump America, we have Bernie Sanders’s ‘political revolution’ or ‘let’s become Denmark’. Then there is AOC’s histrionic Brooklyn socialism, Andrew Yang’s nerdy solutionism, and Josh Hawley’s neo-Rooseveltian bluster. Tom Cotton, and maybe Tucker Carlson, are poised to pick up elements of Trumpism — that body of strident attitudes towards trade, immigration, foreign wars and China — in the future.
With a few exceptions, these are political visions with their own accompanying policy platforms, media cheerleaders and special interests to cater for. Even with a space carved out for Trump-like policies on the right, this future assumes that nobody like Kanye West will come along and stroll through the door Trump opened in 2016.
Intelligent people on all sides of politics have missed the point of the Trump era. Liberals like Yale’s Timothy Snyder have ransacked history to build ever more elaborate theories about fascism, white supremacy and malevolent Russian psychological operations. Conservatives like Princeton’s Yoram Hazrony have seen in Trump the return of nationalist conservatism and the right of free people to rule themselves.
But Trump wasn’t a fascist, and he wasn’t exactly a paragon of conservatism either. It seems far more likely that Trump’s legacy will be to cement a uniquely American blend of politics, style, technology and entertainment into a winning approach for future presidential aspirants. There were prefigurations of this approach to politics in Kennedy’s optimistic (and cynical) 1960 campaign, and during the dreamy fantasies of the Reagan era. Ultimately, Trump — more than any candidate before him ever dared to — entertained his way to the White House.
Ideologues will continue to traffic in accusations of socialism and fascism. Real problems will remain unresolved by a gridlocked Congress. In the meantime, a population ever more estranged from its earthy democratic heritage will continue to participate in a virtual, artificial presidential politics every four years. Given the choice between some air-dried off-the-peg politician, or Kanye West, the freewheeling, motormouth winner of 21 Grammy Awards, who do you think they will pick?