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Kanye West and the end of “wink-nudge” antisemitism

What Kanye West really told us.

Kanye West meeting with then-President Trump in the Oval Office.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

On Thursday afternoon, rapper Kanye West appeared on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s show to discuss the former’s theories about Jews. Jones is no stranger to peddling antisemitic tropes — in the interview, he expresses belief in a nefarious “Jewish mafia” — but West went further than even Jones likely imagined.

“You’re not a Nazi. You don’t deserve to be called that,” Jones says.

“Well, I see good things about Hitler,” Kanye replied.

In the interview, Jones tries to do damage control, telling West that “I’m not on that whole Jew thing” and cutting to a commercial just after West once again affirms, “I like Hitler.” But he couldn’t unring the bell. West, whom Jones was trying to stand up as a kind of free speech martyr, had expressed his support for Hitler. The effort to claim his celebrity for Jones’s cause had blown up in his face. (Jones has disavowed antisemitism in the past.)

What West says in this interview is despicable. His evolution into America’s most famous antisemite has almost certainly emboldened the antisemitic fringe — perhaps even endangering Jews.

In the process, West has also inadvertently exposed people like Jones for what they really are: wink-nudge enablers of antisemitism.

Since Donald Trump brought the far right into the GOP mainstream back in 2015, it has become increasingly common to hear coded language about Jews: attacks on “globalists” or “George Soros” that provide the speaker plausible deniability while signaling to antisemites that they’re on their side.

When Jews and anti-hate groups criticize these dog whistles, the people deploying them act shocked. “How dare you call us antisemitic! Why are you trying to shut down open discussion about the liberal agenda? Cancel culture!”

In the past few weeks, as West has drifted toward fringe conspiracy theories, many of these same actors have courted him as a potential ally. Donald Trump had dinner with him, Tucker Carlson had him on his show, and an official GOP Twitter account celebrated him. They all seemed to assume that West knew how to play the game — sell the anti-woke message, maybe even broadcast some dog whistles to the fringe, without actually crossing the line into out-and-out hate speech.

They were wrong.

How Kanye West killed the GOP’s plausible deniability

The current controversy started in early October. On the night of October 8, Kanye West tweeted that he planned to go “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE.” Two days prior to that tweet, which came on the heels of another controversy about the rapper wearing a “white lives matter” T-shirt at a fashion show, Carlson had aired an interview with West claiming that he was being silenced for being a free thinker.

“Crazy? That was not our conclusion. We’ve rarely heard a man speak so honestly and so movingly about what he believes,” Carlson told his audience.

In the interview, West went in on many of Carlson’s favorite topics. He railed against the alleged “genocide of the Black race” being perpetrated by Planned Parenthood and accuses “liberal Nazis” of trying to silence him (at this point, West still seemed to understand you should say that Nazis are bad).

After the interview aired, Vice acquired some of the footage that Carlson had cut from the conversation. In the clips, West expresses some paranoid beliefs — like that “fake children” and “professional actors” had been placed in his home to “sexualize [his] kids” — and made a series of strange and/or bigoted comments about Jews. “I prefer my kids knew Hanukkah than Kwanzaa. At least it will come with some financial engineering,” West told Carlson.

Of course, editing out those parts made sense from Carlson’s perspective. These clips showed the lie in Carlson’s claim that Kanye did not appear “crazy” in the interview. He knew what West had really said, how bizarre and offensive the uncut interview was. By cutting the (relatively) unhinged portions, Carlson could present a (relatively) mainstream West as a martyr for the conservative cause — and save West from his own blatantly antisemitic remarks.

Carlson is, of course, fluent in dog whistle. When he wants to blame immigration on a globe-spanning conspiracy, he singles out George Soros — a Holocaust survivor and billionaire funder of liberal causes — rather than pointing at Jews per se. You can’t prove that he really meant Jews, but the fringe right knows what they’re hearing (as some Jewish observers have repeatedly noted).

“Tucker is ultimately on our side,” Scott Greer, a former employee of the Carlson-founded Daily Caller who was revealed to have written for a white nationalist website under a pseudonym, said in a 2021 podcast.

“He can get millions and millions of boomers to nod along with talking points that would have only been seen on [white nationalist websites] VDare or American Renaissance a few years ago.”

For years, anti-hate groups like the Anti-Defamation League have warned about this tactic: about how attacks on Soros or uses of terms like “globalist,” now mainstream on the right, emerged out of the fever swamp and now serve to embolden its denizens. But they have largely been ignored and dismissed on the Republican side — which has been busy, in the past several weeks, claiming West as one of theirs.

The same day as Carlson’s interview, an official House GOP Twitter account claimed West as part of a new Republican pantheon (alongside Trump and Elon Musk):

The tweet stayed up after West’s tweet and the revelations about what he really said on Carlson’s show. It took his descent into outright Nazi admiration on Thursday for the GOP to finally decide that enough was enough and delete the tweet.

Over the holiday weekend, well after West’s views on Jews were clear, Donald Trump sat down for dinner with him (and infamous white nationalist Nick Fuentes, also present at the Jones interview). Afterward, Trump defended his decision to meet with Kanye — a longtime supporter of his — by saying West “asked to see me for advice.” As open as West had been about his antisemitism at this point, it still wasn’t bad enough for Trump to cut ties with him.

It is likely, after the Jones interview, that West will become a full pariah. Praising Hitler is pretty much the one universally accepted cancelable offense.

But in doing so, West revealed what lurks behind the kind of rhetoric that mainstream conservatives are willing to employ and the sorts of forces they’re willing to ally themselves with when it’s deemed politically convenient. We know what some part of their audience hears when they blame “George Soros” for migrant caravans and rail against “globalist” plots against America.

Kanye West has bombed his career. The right’s plausible deniability is collateral damage.

Correction, December 2, 10:15 am ET: An earlier version of this article misstated the air date of Tucker Carlson’s interview with Kanye West. It aired on October 6.

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