Written by Chris Black
Super Tuesday, 2020. Kanye West is a handful of delegates away from clinching the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of The United States. Hillary Clinton dropped out of the race weeks ago. Bernie Sanders is hanging in there, like he did four years ago, hoping that policy will trump personality. Way back in 2015 Kanye made a promise to run for President and here he is—the hot favourite to sit in the Oval Office come January. No other candidate can compete with the pop-cultural political juggernaut of his campaign. It feels preordained, a prophesy being fulfilled, a prophesy of Kanye’s own making to be precise.
How is this possible? How can one man, maligned by so many, be so close to the world’s most powerful elected office, all thanks to his own self-belief (and millions in campaign funds)? Just ask the man he will face at the general election—The Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, sitting President Donald Trump.
[Editor's note: given recent developments, it now seems most likely Kanye will be battling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2020. The Republicans will almost certainly counter this with a Clint Eastwood-Empty Chair ticket.]
This future may seem as unpalatable, even as apocalyptic to some, as the prospect of yet another Hunger Games rip-off being spun out into yet another cinematic trilogy of four instalments. This future may seem unlikely, yet it is not wholly unbelievable. This 2020 is just the next chapter in the story Kanye and Trump are telling themselves, and we’re reading it. They have created autobiographies based on overwhelming self-confidence and a liberal dollop of the ridiculous—messianic egos of the absurd.
I’m going to sketch out the stories of Kanye and Trump: two men who have become virtual mononyms, by looking at the means for the promulgation of their autobiographies and the two key elements that separate them from their pop and political peers. Autobiography is nothing new, human nature seems to demand that we tell our story to others and even to ourselves. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was talking himself up in Confessions over two hundred years ago. The difference today is the array of tools the digital world gives us to constantly create and update our stories and present them to a vast audience. On a small scale it is the meticulous maintenance of a Facebook page or an Instagram feed, choosing exactly which ‘us’ we present to the world. The same principal applies to Kanye and Trump and their millions of social media followers. But they are by no means unique in this, almost every public figure engages with social media. Kanye lags far behind Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift in followers for example. And Bernie Sanders has seen much of his current support come about through social media in a similar way to Trump. What separates Kanye and Trump from the rest is the story they tell.
The convergence of self-belief and the ridiculous in the autobiographies of the two men can be illustrated through the work of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard formulated three ‘stages of life’, the final and most important being ‘the religious stage’. No amount of simple good behaviour or following the rules allows one to achieve this stage, it requires a leap of faith based on the absurd (Kierkegaard’s example was Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s behest). It is only through this absurd leap that the individual can know the universal—God for Kierkegaard. Using this concept, I’ll show how Kanye and Trump reach for their own universal truth, through the absurd, with their work and public personae.
KANYE WEST (D)
As a rapper, Kanye’s work is perfectly suited to telling his story. Rap has heavy focus on lyrical content, the tropes of aggrandisement and braggadocio, and stereotypically tells the rags to riches story of the hustler working his way up from the streets to the good life. This is a variation on the American Dream, but more. Jay Z provides a good example of the standard trajectory, graduating from a slinging yay on the streets of Brooklyn to life with Beyoncé and the problems one faces when one just has too much expensive modern art. There is no real middle ground, from the relatable to the aspirational. Kanye’s work follows the same trajectory, but from a different starting point to a radically different end. Kanye came from a middle class background, and thus has no “authentic” struggle as a starting point. So everything has been augmented, his end point is not aspirational like Jay Z, it is transcendental. An early track, ‘Jesus Walks’ provides an example of this; it’s a sermon, at once advancing the cause of religion and at the same time advancing the cause of Kanye for daring to preach where mainstream rap is more concerned with money and violence.
As Kanye’s career progressed, the self-belief became more apparent, and the absurdity began to show up more and more often. He bragged that ‘I made Jesus Walk / I’m never going to Hell’, he posed on the cover of Rolling Stone as a messiah figure, complete with a crown of thorns. He even said that if the Bible were written today, he would be a central figure. The apotheosis of this was Kanye’s album Yeezus featuring the track ‘I Am A God’ which consisted of Kanye repeating the titular mantra, yet at the same time asking a waiter to hurry up with his damn croissant.
Kanye supplements the story of his work with his public statements, through traditional and social media—everything from calling George W Bush a racist during a Hurricane Katrina telethon to tweeting about the water bottle he woke up next to on a flight, and the huge responsibility thrust upon him to care for that bottle. Kanye’s social media is a mix of the profound and the ridiculous; it’s hard to say what is genuine and what is calculated, but the release of his latest album, The Life of Pablo, provides an interesting microcosm of Kanye’s social media career and how he has used it to further his work and his story.
The album was largely marketed through Kanye’s own twitter account. He posted tracks and snippets, changed the name of the album, changed the track list, all with increasing frequency as the release date approached. The “release” was really more of a listening party, albeit one designed to accompany the launch of Kanye’s latest fashion collection at Madison Square Gardens that was simulcast to cinemas around the world and watched by over twenty million people online. Even the cover art was designed to make a marketing tool of social media. Designed by Belgian artist Peter de Potter, famous for his work on Tumblr, the cover was a collection of repeated words and a pair of images on a stark orange background. It looks like someone made it on Microsoft Paint; looks like anyone could do better, or funnier. And that’s what they did, quickly turning it into a meme, knowingly or unknowingly plastering the internet with alternate or comedic versions.
The huge hype that Kanye built around the album seemed to work, it went to number one despite only being available to stream initially. It also contains perhaps the clearest example of Kanye’s self-belief leading him to reach for the universal through the absurd. Although for Kanye, the individual reaches the universal not through God, but through Kanye himself. The track is aptly, and probably unsurprisingly, called ‘I Love Kanye’. The rapper reminisces about his early days and his own creation of “Kanye” and the proliferation of imitators, before wondering, ‘what if Kanye made a song about Kanye?’ This bizarre self-referential track is Kanye reaching for something divine, through himself with his tongue (probably) in cheek and his ego (probably) not in check. The closing line, obnoxious/endearing (take your pick) is Kanye telling the listener, or maybe himself, that ‘I love you like Kanye loves Kanye’.
DONALD J TRUMP (R)
Donald Trump might love you like Trump loves Trump; it’s too early to tell. But he is a man fond of his own name—so much so that his business is largely that of actually putting his name on things. Trump’s work, at first glance, seems more concrete than that of Kanye, concrete and girders if you will. Ostensibly a property developer and builder, Trump’s contribution to the world would seem to be of a more practical nature and less self-serving, less prone to the autobiographical mythologising of Kanye. But for Trump, putting up towers is just a starting point—his real work is the development of his name, the building of his brand. Indeed, the brash New Yorker has even said that he prefers to licence his name to something than build it himself. Trump’s own “rags to riches” story is where the absurdity begins to kick in. His is the classic tale of a young man whose father gives him little more than a million dollars and connections in the property development industry, with which he triumphantly builds a multi-million-dollar property development company. The rags to riches might be more accurately applied to the multiple bankruptcies Trump has been involved with.
The character of the successful businessman is Trump’s public persona, the star of his story. He has developed this over the years through work such as his show The Apprentice, a cameo in Home Alone 2, even as a character in professional wrestling. It is this character, this association between the name Trump and success, which gave him the platform to run for president, and is making that run so successful. Trump supporters like him because of his perceived commercial success, and because he ‘says what he wants’, because he’s ‘not a politician’. This maverick persona is where the absurd separates Trump from his presidential rivals, both for supporters and critics. Trump boasts about his education by saying that ‘I’m like, a really smart person’ and that ‘I know words, I have the best words’. His response to criticisms of misogyny was a series of tweets pointing to vague unsubstantiated evidence and ending with an assertion that ‘nobody has more respect for women than Donald Trump’. For Trump’s critics these kinds of statements make him easy to dismiss on the one hand, and distract from any policies he may have. For his supporters they only increase the perception that he is his own man, not following focus group approved talking points and, likewise, distracting from the details of his policy.
The extent of Trump’s self-belief was well illustrated by late-night talk show host John Oliver. Watching clips of Trump saying he’d turned down an invitation to be on Oliver’s show, the host found himself almost believing it, despite knowing and checking that such invitations had never been given. This extreme self-belief is what resonates with voters, about as far from a Bill Shorten figure as politics could get. The absurd for Trump perhaps doesn’t get any better than his assertion that he could shoot someone in the middle of New York City and not lose a single voter—the scary thing is he’s probably right. Like Kanye, Trump wants his autobiography to grasp for the universal through himself. But Trump’s motivations are more unclear. Kanye wants us all to love him, and because he loves himself he’ll love us too. The stakes are different too, unlike the far-flung future of 2020, where Kanye might beat Trump in a landslide as The New Yorker magazine ‘predicted’. Right now he’s just making music, and clothes sometimes. But Trump is running for president now—the next chapter of his story is called ‘Trump Makes America Great Again’, and we have to decide if we want to keep reading.