Understanding Them (24 Days)

You probably heard that a well-known musician visited the monster in the White House this week and spoke to the viewers of cable TV for 10 minutes. I don’t know what he said, but Charlie Warzel of Buzz Feed News explains why it all made perfect sense (in a nonsensical kind of way):

How’d this happen? Is this real? Do we even care? West’s embrace of the MAGA life is, at this point, unsurprising. But his journey — from a politically disinterested nonvoter in 2016 to the giver of a prolonged pro-Trump speech onstage at Saturday Night Live a couple weeks ago — is crucial to understanding the enduring appeal of Trumpism and the MAGA movement.

Trump’s MAGA hat–wearing, “lock her up”–chanting crowd is often described as his political base, but even that doesn’t quite do justice to the intensity of devotion the Trump coalition feels for the president. #MAGA is the 20–30% who’ll never leave, regardless of the political effects a Trump presidency might have on them personally. It doesn’t matter if Trump’s tax cuts never really trickle down or if the administration’s tariffs put a hurt on the agricultural communities that show up to his rallies in dizzying numbers, clad in the red hats. Because, for many who show up, MAGA is about a sense of community over all else.

Whether it’s a Trump rally or the toxic /r/The_Donald subreddit, MAGA communities coalesce around the idea of being proud to be an outsider. It’s why Hillary Clinton’s “deplorable” remark became a rallying cry during the election. It’s a movement that relishes turning criticism from ideological opponents into a badge of honor. Similarly, those who inhabit the MAGA world simply view confrontation and people taking offense to their actions as a byproduct of being right. It’s like driving 90 mph the wrong way down a one-way street and interpreting the honking and flailing arms of the other drivers as proof that they’re all just jealous you found the best route. This mindset allows for a particular brand of freedom: freedom from introspection, from ever having to say you’re wrong, and from ever admitting defeat.

It’s not surprising, then, that West, a lifelong contrarian, provocateur, and relentless self-promoter, found acceptance in this world. Despite being one of the most famous, sought-after people on the planet for the better part of two decades, West has always positioned himself as an outsider — for being unafraid to flaunt his ego or to call himself “the nucleus” of culture. Though Kanye has been at the center of modern popular culture, he’s frequently bemoaned a lack of acceptance — an inferiority complex that has strong Trumpian echoes…. 

Trump and the MAGA lifestyle also seem to offer a safe haven to some who’re reflexively distrustful of establishment politics. Infowars creator Alex Jones, for example, dedicated his career to a conspiratorial, nonpartisan distrust of every president from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama. It wasn’t until Donald Trump that Jones endorsed a mainstream presidential candidate — similarly, no mainstream presidential candidate until Trump gave Jones or the Infowars audience the time of day. Kanye, while no Alex Jones, has been similarly outspoken and has publicly expressed his displeasure with commanders in chief during his infamous post-Katrina telethon speech and through a long-simmering feud with Obama. As with Jones, the always available Trump gave Kanye what he truly desired when he posed with him at Trump Tower as president-elect in 2016.

So it makes perfect sense that a person, who was once compelled to pen the line “They say I was the abomination of Obama’s nation” would not just feel comfortable among “the deplorables,” but at home. Because as with Trump, the MAGA appeal for West appears to really be about identifying with and revering an unapologetic outsider.

A movement organized around building a community of contrarians — those who feel aggrieved and disenfranchised, and who prioritize conflict and winning over all else — is quite literally tailor-made for the internet….[His] transformation helps explain why the internet has been such a powerful force for Trumpism. Kanye is, among other things, a creature of the modern internet. His penchant for sensationalism and reactionary commentary suggests he instinctively understands how algorithms and virality work; he’s a genius at igniting and sustaining news cycles. In other words, he’s an excellent troll with respect for others like him — and he has a mindset primed for tumbling down a rabbit hole of reactionary thought.

It’s unsurprising … that West would be more concerned with the “intellectual dark web–esque” culture war elements of Trumpism than Trump’s policies. West has suggested he doesn’t agree with the administration on everything, and some reports suggest there’s plenty he doesn’t know: A May piece from the Atlantic recalls an anecdote from the rapper T.I., who “was stunned to find that West, despite his endorsement of Trump, had never heard of the travel ban.”

But while Kanye’s political blind spots might be glaring, the notion that policy comes second to the culture war is shared by a number of people in the pro-Trump media. “It gets tiresome,” one popular pro-Trump media personality texted me after watching the mainstream media’s reaction to West’s Oval Office visit today. “What are MY POLITICS? I don’t have any! There’s a large side of MAGA like that. It’s more a cultural thing. The media treats MAGA as angry and missed the real story. MAGA is fun.”

For some pro-Trump pundits, the “fun” isn’t in building the wall or tariffs or tax cuts but in Trump’s positioning of the mainstream media as the opposition and fake news. For others, it’s Trump’s ability to anger both establishment conservatives and liberals. And for many in the fever swamps, the fun is in belonging to something, no matter how toxic or anonymous it might be. At a recent conference, a researcher told me the story of a polite confrontation she had had with a member of the alt-right. He had just heard her talk and wanted to clarify a point she’d made about 4chan trolls, and why they came out in force for Trump during the 2016 election. The man said he wasn’t a particular fan of Trump or his politics, but was drawn to posting memes extolling Trump as “God Emperor” because the notion that they “could meme a president into office” felt exciting, empowering, and something akin to belonging.

Connecting people and providing that belonging — whether it’s on Facebook or 4chan — is what the internet does best. And few movements have harnessed it quite like the MAGA crowd. Trumpism aligns with the internet because it shares the same mechanics as all the algorithms and recommendation engines: It favors the sensational over the factual, the emotional over the rational. It finds out what you want, no matter how bad it ultimately makes you feel, and it serves it to you again and again and again. The red-pilling process isn’t meant to be subtle, but thrilling. Again: “MAGA is fun.”

Sitting there in the Oval Office, Kanye rattled off ideas on everything from criminal justice reform to an Apple-designed hydrogen plane that should replace Air Force One. The president, who might be looking for new opportunities for ratings gold, gave Kanye what he truly desired, 10 minutes of unfettered attention and validation. For that, Trump got a news cycle devoid of stories about his taxes, murdered journalists, or Supreme Court Justice [and noted liar Bart O’Kavanaugh]. It was a perfectly symbiotic attention grab and not unlike two reactionary YouTubers agreeing to appear on each other’s channels to discuss toxic groupthink or trigger warnings going too far. Like any good YouTube shock jock, they knew we couldn’t help but click. And further down the rabbit hole we go.

Of course, not all of us clicked. And there are plenty of the monster’s supporters who love his dangerous, idiotic policies and proclivities, not the feeling of being in a gang. But understanding what motivates some of his supporters is a good thing. The knowledge may help the rest of us deal with the monster and his deplorable supporters.

Speaking of dealing with his supporters, some of whom are in Congress and statehouse, it’s encouraging to see all the interest on our side this year. I’ve never seen such interest in a midterm election. I hope that translates into excellent turnout, even better than the polls predict. We owe it to each other and the rest of the world.

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