Kanye West and President Donald Trump sat down together on Thursday for a conversation in the Oval Office. They were reportedly expected to discuss prison reform, gang violence, crime in Chicago, and American manufacturing, but instead Kanye delivered a lengthy speech on mental health and job growth, while Trump periodically interjected, “That was quite something!” It was the unlikely pair’s second official meeting since Trump was elected president, with their first meeting taking place at New York’s Trump Tower in December of 2016.
But Trump and Kanye’s relationship stretches back long before the election. Even before Trump entered politics and Kanye veered to the right in his rhetoric, the two men have been drawn to each other. Kanye rapped repeatedly about Trump; Trump name-dropped Kanye in interviews. For years, they’ve seemed to understand each other as fellow practitioners of fame — not just fame as a tool for increased wealth, but fame as an ideology, an end in and of itself.
And when Trump and Kanye talk about fame, they seem to instinctively understand that each of them can use the other to shore up a vulnerability in their own personas. Before the Trump presidency, Trump offered Kanye access to the kind of hard power that is historically forbidden to black men, and Kanye offered Trump access to the cultural capital that he has never quite managed to acquire on his own.
But since Trump took office, the balance has shifted. Trump can still offer Kanye access to power, even more than ever before — but what Kanye offers Trump has changed. Kanye no longer gives Trump the flattering light of beloved and famous attention. Now he gives him grievance capital.
Kanye and Trump use each other as symbols
Kanye referenced Trump three times in his lyrics before the 2016 election, primarily as a shorthand for the idea of wealth, luxury, and the ability to fire people. The first reference came in 2005 when Kanye freestyled on the YouTube channel Tim Westwood TV (“I ain't no clown like Ronald / Uh, more like Donald / Trump, with the way I get it crunk”), then in 2009’s “Flashing Lights (Remix)” (“You fired mothafucka Donald Trump ni**a”), and then in 2010’s “So Appalled” (“Balding Donald Trump taking dollars from y'all / Baby, you're fired, your girlfriend hired”). He also featured a naked depiction of Trump in the bed tableau that appears in the video for his 2016 song “Famous.”
All of that added up to four Trump references in seven years. (For comparison’s sake, that’s more than Kanye has referenced, say, Givenchy, but less than the 12 times he’s mentioned Gucci in his lyrics.) In Kanye’s songs, Trump is a symbol of the kind of wealth and power that American culture generally withholds from black men: He has the kind of decadent wealth that you can use to party with, but he can also control other people’s employment, hiring and firing them at will.
Trump, meanwhile, has long taken every opportunity to work himself into the Kanye West narrative.
In 2009, Trump inserted himself into the Kanye/Taylor Swift scandal that unfolded at the MTV Video Music Awards, calling for a boycott of Kanye and declaring (hilariously, given the source), “[Kanye] couldn't care less about Beyoncé. It was grandstanding to get attention."
But if they were enemies then, Trump had upgraded their relationship status to “cordial acquaintances” by 2014, when he told Mario Lopez there was no reason he’d be invited to Kanye’s wedding to Kim Kardashian but that he thought both Kanye and Kim were very nice people and that he wished them both the best of luck.
In 2015, the narrative changed again, and Trump began to talk about Kanye as a close and longtime friend of his — making sure to tell everyone that the feeling was mutual.
When Kanye teased a 2020 presidential run at the VMAs in 2015, Trump credited himself as the inspiration for Kanye’s decision. “I was actually watching, I saw him [announce his candidacy on the VMAs], and I said, 'That's very interesting. I wonder who gave him that idea?'" Trump told Rolling Stone, adding, “He's actually a different kind of person than people think. He's a nice guy. I hope to run against him someday."
Later, Trump reconsidered the idea of a campaign against Kanye, saying, “I'll never say bad about Kanye West. I love him. But maybe in a few years I'll have to run against him and take that back." Still, Trump maintained, he would hate to say anything bad about Kanye “because he says such nice things about me." For Trump, Kanye has become a useful shorthand for the idea that he still has wealthy, famous, well-liked friends in a time when much of liberal Hollywood has denounced him.
Kanye and Trump each serve a need for the other, filling a void in each other’s public personas. Kanye uses Trump in his lyrics to signal the idea that he has access to wealth and power. Trump mentions Kanye in his interviews to signal the idea that famous people like him.
In 2016, Kanye’s support of Trump came as a shock
Before the 2016 election, it wasn’t clear that Kanye was actually saying nice things about Trump. Kanye spent most of 2015 appearing to quietly support Hillary Clinton, or at least supporting his wife’s support of Hillary Clinton.
I got my selfie!!! I really loved hearing her speak & hearing her goals for our country! #HillaryForPresident pic.twitter.com/zGpdcGSZBD— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) August 7, 2015
He donated thousands to the Democratic National Committee and to Clinton’s campaign. He didn’t speak publicly about the election prior to November, but few people believed that the guy who famously said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on national television would go on to support Trump, who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. Trump’s claims of friendship with Kanye, it seemed clear, were the same kind of baseless name-dropping Trump had leaned on all through election season; there was no evidence they were based in fact.
But then the election happened, and Kanye revealed during a concert that he greatly admires Trump. “If I would’ve voted, I would’ve voted on Trump,” he told a booing crowd that November.
He clarified that he doesn’t agree with Trump on everything. “That don’t mean that I don’t think that black lives matter,” he said. “That don’t mean I don’t think that I’m a believer in women’s rights, that … I don’t believe in gay marriage.”
But he nonetheless admired Trump’s style. “There’s nonpolitical methods to speaking that I like, that I feel were very futuristic,” he said. “And that style, and that method of communication, has proven that it can beat a politically correct way of communication.”
It’s a style that Kanye shares. For a long time, Kanye was considered a master of getting people to take him “seriously, but not literally,” the way many of Trump’s supporters seem to think about him. For proof, let’s turn to Kanye’s pro-Trump commentary at that November 2016 concert, which prompted the LA Times to wonder if the whole thing “wasn’t just stream-of-consciousness trolling his fans from atop a floating light platform.” Or his Twitter feed, on which he tends to free-associate about how he can’t be managed and how he and Trump share “dragon energy,” and has prompted a series of earnest debates as to whether it can legitimately be called performance art.
Trump and Kanye both built their careers on the power of saying something outrageous and then watching everyone else scramble to figure out if they truly mean what they say. And as Kanye pointed out at that November 2016 concert, that style is a powerful means of communication: It can help forge a media empire. It can win elections.
At Saturday Night Live in September, Kanye took that argument a step farther. “I’ma break it down to you right now,” he said: “If someone inspires me and I connect with them, I don’t have to believe in all they policies.” The style is what matters here; the content is secondary. You need to be provocative, and what you’re provocative about doesn’t matter.
Of course, the key difference between Kanye and Trump is that Kanye is a musician, and when he’s provocative, he’s being artistic, or at worst eccentric. And when people get tired of his empty provocations — as they by and large seem to have done by now — they can ignore him. Trump is America’s president. When he’s provocative, there are major consequences.
Trump and Kanye’s 2018 meeting fits the pattern the two have established
Regardless of how Trump and Kanye actually feel about one another, their latest meeting is a continuation of their mutually beneficial relationship.
But when Kanye visits Trump now, he’s no longer arriving as a beloved rapper at the top of his career. Now, he’s the butt of SNL jokes and the recipient of earnest texts from John Legend begging him to reconsider his stance. He’s the guy who showed up at TMZ and said things so over-the-top outrageous that the staffers of TMZ looked like the reasonable ones.
All of this means that Kanye can no longer offer Trump the flattering belief that the famous and beloved institutions of Hollywood adore him. Instead, he can offer him something almost better: He can offer Trump the chance to be aggrieved and defensive about someone who he believes to be on “his team,” and who is being attacked by the liberal elitists of Hollywood for daring to be there.
Like many, I don’t watch Saturday Night Live (even though I past hosted it) - no longer funny, no talent or charm. It is just a political ad for the Dems. Word is that Kanye West, who put on a MAGA hat after the show (despite being told “no”), was great. He’s leading the charge!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2018
So at Thursday’s meeting, Kanye got to be photographed with the president of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, and hence remind everyone that he has connections with legitimate hard power, and that he is therefore a winner. In his comments, Kanye lauded Trump for the masculine MAGA hat that makes him feel “like Superman,” as opposed to the effeminate Hillary and her “I’m with her” slogan. What Kanye seemed to want out of the meeting was to affirm his connection with Trump’s masculine-coding power, and he got it.
And Trump got to be photographed with someone famous who has stayed on his team despite outrage from the left, and hence remind everyone that he, Trump, is someone with a team and the means to defend it, and that he is therefore a winner.
What they were talking about did not matter, and in fact they discussed almost no political matters of substance. What mattered for their purposes is that they were both provocative.
And Trump and Kanye can continue to reinforce each other’s beliefs in their great success, their winningness, on and on. But whether they believe in them seriously or literally remains an open question.
Update: This article was originally published after Trump and Kanye’s December 2016 meeting. It has been updated to discuss their October 2018 meeting.