When mercurial Gemini Kanye West walked into the gilded halls of Trump Tower on December 13, he lit a fire of surprise around the country. The rapper, known for his unpredictable and volatile outbursts, his songs about race, his post–Hurricane Katrina declaration about then-President George W. Bush not caring about black people, his Yeezy fashion line, and his uber-famous wife, Kim Kardashian, was meeting with a man who ran a successful presidential campaign supported by the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis.
If you look at the incident from the Trump side of the spectrum, West’s visit is a public relations victory. The president-elect benefits from a high-profile, grab-your-attention-by-the-throat visit from a megawatt pop culture superstar. To Trump’s supporters, it’s proof that this man’s business acumen is so potent it turns superstars into subordinates.
But West’s visit is also a poetic reminder that the future president of the United States does business in a very similar fashion to the first family of entertainment: the Kardashians, and more specifically Kim Kardashian.
Trump and Kardashian have plenty in common, even without their respective connections to West. They’ve each been in situations where potentially career-ending private moments (at least for other celebrities) were leaked to the public — a brag about sexual assault for him, a sex tape for her. They’ve both had multiple marriages (including Kardashian’s to West) that have been scrutinized and examined. And both Trump and Kardashian (as well as her sisters) owe a lot of their fortune to a parent.
But what they’ve both perfected (Kim and the Kardashians more so than Trump) so incisively is monetizing and capitalizing on their fame. Trump and Kardashian are keenly aware that celebrity isn’t always a luxury or a reward for possessing an extreme amount of talent; it’s often a business and a hustle. Their existence is their business model, and they use their fame to promote themselves at every opportunity.
Then they trade — whether in the form of profitable video games or fancy hotels — on that name.
Kim Kardashian understands that celebrity can be a business
In the past two years, Kardashian’s bottom line has greatly benefited from a terrifyingly simple video game for mobile phones called Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. Since its debut in 2014, the game has netted more than $157 million in sales, with Kardashian reportedly taking home 45 percent of the profits.
The mega-popular game is a simulation of Kim’s life — a quest for fame by means of publicity and keeping yourself in the public eye. But the idea to create a video game about her quest for fame wasn’t even hers; she just brilliantly licensed her name.
A man named Niccolo de Masi, the chief executive at a company called Glu Mobile, had the idea in 2014 and tried to sell it to Kardashian, who initially didn’t bite. "It took six months to go from the first conversation to a signed contract. There were many stages of her and I chatting by phone," he told Inc. this summer.
Masi and Glu have also partnered with other celebrities to make games — including some “big” names like Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Nicki Minaj — but those games haven’t enjoyed the same level of fanfare or breakout success that Kardashian’s has. And its success has everything to do with Kardashian.
For Spears, Perry, and Minaj, their music is their business; it’s what they’re known for, and licensing their image for stuff like video games is just a side gig. For Kardashian, her existence is her business, and licensing her image is everything.
She has learned to monetize oversharing. And the success of Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is dependent on giving fans access to a sliver of her existence. As she told Recode in 2014, the game’s breakthrough came when it included a secret vacation to Mexico, a nod to a real-life secret vacation that Kardashian took (those who play the game knew about Mexico before the paparazzi did).
Kardashian’s fans aren’t unlike those of Spears, Perry, or Minaj. But what they’re buying and what they expect from Kardashian isn’t something she creates — it’s her living, breathing existence.
“I think that no matter what, even though some of the things we [the Kardashian family] go through seem pretty crazy and intensified, we’re real and somewhat normal, and at least you feel you can relate,” Kardashian told Recode in 2014. “Or maybe want to vicariously live through what they see the lives to be. And then they feel this strong closeness. We’re so open — so I think there’s some kind of connection.”
Trump isn’t that stellar of a businessman, but he plays one on TV
Trump, of course, doesn’t have a mobile video game like Kardashian, nor does he use social media in the same way that Kardashian does, but they achieve the same result — a reinforcement of their brand. Kim shares photographs, videos, and glimpses into her luxurious personal life on Instagram and Snapchat. Trump tweets bombastic messages, proving that he speaks his un-PC mind.
They both understand the idea of people who want to see their personal lives match up with what they’ve been selling the public.
Donald Trump is excellent at selling himself, much more so than he is at actually creating any other self-sustaining business. His name is his greatest asset.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of his career has been convincing people that he’s extremely successful in business with an overwhelmingly positive track record, even though that hasn’t always been the case.
Even with a dazzling array of failed business ventures to his name (including Trump-branded steaks, bottled water, casinos, a magazine, and wine), Trump still projects this idea that he’s a fantastic business shark. His reality show, The Apprentice (and its various permutations, including the more recent Celebrity Apprentice), offers a polished, stylized, and simplified “real” glimpse of what people think successful businesspeople do. Through the show, Trump has turned the act of firing people into a tagline. And his aesthetic, an orgy of gold and mirrors, is how his fans believe rich men live.
“He’s a poor person’s idea of a rich person. They see him. They think, ‘If I were rich, I’d have a fabulous tie like that. … All that stuff he shows you in his house — the gold faucets — if you won the lottery, that’s what you’d buy,” contributing Vanity Fair editor Fran Lebowitz said in an interview in October.
What Lebowitz said is an open insult (she has also said some unkind things about the Kardashian family), but it’s also a testament to Trump’s success. And that success has allowed Trump to license his name and aesthetic to his buildings, hotels, and golf courses, the last of which tout an “incomparable touch of Trump.”
“People love the Trump brand, which they know from visiting New York City and Miami,” Felipe Yaryura, chair of a development company that paid Trump to use his name, told the Washington Post in 2015. “It gives them a warranty that this will be a high-quality project.”
The Post added:
A one-page financial summary he issued when he launched his campaign last month valued his “real estate licensing deal, brand and branded developments” at more than $3.3 billion, which would make it the largest single source of Trump’s claimed $8.7 billion total net worth as of 2014.
Trump’s hotels aren’t unlike Kardashian’s video game. Trump doesn’t break the ground or construct the edifice, just like Kardashian doesn’t design or code. Trump and Kardashian don’t create; they make deals and add finishing touches. But in the end, they both profit immensely from their names.
Trump and Kim Kardashian’s haters will always exist, and so will their fans
Trump and the Kardashian family also share the ability to generate anger and befuddlement among their skeptics and haters. The Kardashians are often labeled as a pox on society; many have equated their cultural prominence and profitability with the downfall of humanity. Meanwhile, Trump’s presidential campaign and subsequent victory has set in motion a perpetual loop of shrugs from political pundits, who continue to spout exasperated declarations that the man doesn’t act like any politician ever, followed by frustration over their inability to understand him and his next moves.
Making a show of not understanding the appeal of Trump or Kim Kardashian (or the rest of Kardashian’s sisters) has become a badge of courage of sorts, in that their critics can cobble together a public personality by rejecting these figures.
Performatively disliking Kardashian sends the message that you aren’t vapid, that you reserve your cultural praise for figures and works that showcase artistic skill. Vocally disavowing Trump says, among other things (being “woke” is certainly one of them), that you don’t agree with his politics or the incendiary stuff he tweets and shouts.
But that just plays into their game, doesn’t it? The images that Trump and Kardashian craft and curate are meant to be polarizing, to evoke strong feelings. Everything they do — activities with Kanye West included — is one more piece of an image-building puzzle that’s continually under construction.
Figuring out how to feel about Kardashian’s masterful image control, and knowing that she’s playing to an audience that gobbles up her vapidity, is more complicated. The same is true of Trump’s appeal (or lack thereof) — what if his fans don’t see him as a politician they voted for but rather as a celebrity they’re a fan of?
“Tax returns, sexual abuse allegations, leaked tapes, wide-scale investigations that illuminate the hollowness of his philanthropy — none of it worked [to hurt his chances of winning the election],” Anne Helen Petersen writes at BuzzFeed. “While it convinced those who’d already rejected his image, for those convinced of his other meanings, it was as effective as calling him a name in the schoolyard.”
Trump and Kim Kardashian have figured out how to create an image to sell to America. Determining why so many Americans buy what they’re selling, especially if you’re not among them, is crucial, and perhaps more vexing.
Voicing a dislike for Trump or Kardashian doesn’t make their millions of fans disappear. Kardashian’s horde of followers will continue to exist regardless of whether you buy her video game or refuse to watch her reality television show. Ditto for President-elect Donald Trump.