Whether Kanye West’s presidential campaign is real, a distraction, or something more sinister, it is already a complex story of race, mental health, political tricks, and personal ambition.
Last week, news broke that at least six Republican operatives in several states are helping musical icon Kanye West get on November’s presidential ballot. The potential of another candidate on the ballot is sparking fears of a repeat of 2016, when narrow margins fueled by third-party candidates in swing states helped contribute to President Donald Trump’s electoral-college victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
It is also raising questions about race and mental health in an election year where both of those issues are on people’s minds as they consider who they will elect president in November.
With GOP help, West has qualified for ballots in some states.
West qualified for Colorado’s ballot last Thursday, with the help of at least one Republican official, and the billionaire rapper has also received help from GOP lawyers or activists in Arkansas, Ohio, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
It’s unclear whether West will qualify to appear on the ballot in those states—there are reports that the GOP official working for him in Wisconsin was late in filing the necessary paperwork, for example—but he is now on the ballot in nine states and the presence of West as a potential spoiler has led to concern among some Democrats and activists.
West has repeatedly praised President Donald Trump in recent years, fueling further suspicions that his candidacy is a coordinated effort. Trump’s reelection campaign has denied involvement, with spokesman Tim Murtaugh telling the Associated Press, “We have no knowledge of what Kanye West is doing or who is doing it for him.”
Trump has also denied any coordination. “I like Kanye very much,” Trump said at the White House on Wednesday evening. “I have nothing to do with him being on the ballot. I’m not involved.” Questions about that persist, though, as GOP operative Lane Ruhland has been aiding West in Wisconsin. Ruhland, an attorney, is actively representing the Trump campaign in a campaign advertising case in the same state.
Is West’s campaign distracting from this year’s most important issues?
Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes called it a “circus” and a desperate “distraction.” Barnes isn’t the only one who feels that way: Renee Bracey Sherman, a Black activist and writer, said West’s campaign represented the elevation of someone with anti-Black and misogynistic views and threatened the futures of Black women.
“Black women have been working overtime to build a progressive infrastructure and shift the Democratic Party leftward, toward more equitable positions,” she wrote in a recent op-ed for COURIER. “Of course, it’s not there yet, but throwing a vote away on a rapper with no true political stances only hurts those who are most marginalized—Black and brown cis and trans women.”
In an interview by text message with Forbes last week, West all but confirmed that he was playing spoiler and openly admitted he was comfortable with running to harm Biden’s chances. “I’m not denying it; I just told you,” West reportedly said.
West later contradicted himself in a tweet, saying “THE GOAL IS TO WIN.”
There does not appear to be any official West campaign apparatus to reach for comment. The Intelligencer reported that Gregg Keller, a conservative operative based in Missouri, signed on to be the West campaign’s point of contact when the musician filed to appear on the ballot in Arkansas, but Keller did not respond to COURIER’s request for comment.
West’s mental health has raised concerns among Trump’s own advisers as Trump voiced support for West’s candidacy.
Underscoring the spectacle of West’s campaign is the disturbing notion that the Republican Party might be exploiting a man who has mental health issues—a point some of Trump’s own advisers privately acknowledged to The Daily Beast.
West was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2016 and has long struggled with his fame, the racism he’s experienced, and his belief that he’s to blame for his mother’s death in 2007. In recent years, he has experienced several public outbursts and breakdowns, prompting endless speculation about his mental health.
In his own music and on Twitter, West has admitted to struggling with medication adherence and has even, at times (and in the presence of Donald Trump), said that he was misdiagnosed. Recently, speculation has reached a fever pitch, prompting his wife, Kim Kardashian West, to speak out publicly for the first time and ask the public to show him “compassion and empathy.”
“Those who are close with Kanye know his heart and understand his words some times do not align with his intentions,” Kardashian posted on her Instagram Live feed last month.
Some Democratic politicians, like Cavalier Johnson—president of the Common Council in Milwaukee—agree with the internal GOP assessment that Republicans may be taking advantage of West.
Activists and others see racism in the GOP’s potential interference.
Whether the Trump team is involved or not, the effort to pull votes from Biden does resemble the campaign’s 2016 strategy to depress turnout among Black voters by running negative advertisements highlighting Hillary Clinton’s past comments on race. Such an effort, while unquestionably cynical, is driven by the stark reality that Biden currently enjoys a huge lead over Trump with Black voters. A CNN analysis of 10 recent polls found Biden leading among Black voters 83% to 8%, a 75-point margin.
Angela Lang, executive director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC), addressed this very cynicism in an opinion piece for sister site Up North News. “It is racist to think our political analysis is this superficial,” Lang wrote about Black voters. “It’s racist to think that we only vote based on if someone looks like us. It’s not only offensive but flat out racist to think our community can be easily fooled by this tactic.” Lang places the spectacle of a West candidacy directly at the feet of the GOP and insists that West is not “running because he has ideas or plans for our community.”
Despite these concerns, there’s currently little evidence to suggest that placing West on the ballot would actually pull Black voters away from Biden. Trump advisers privately admitted to the Daily Beast that there is little to no data to suggest that getting West on enough ballots would take significant support away from Biden. In fact, West being on the ballot might even backfire for Trump, according to the president’s own pollster. A national poll released last month found West gaining 2% of votes, with his support siphoning votes from Trump, not Biden.
This underscores a reality that the Republican machine appears to be ignoring: Black voters are not a monolith and the strategy to place West on ballots makes a lazy assumption that Black voters will shift their support from Biden to West solely because of his skin color and celebrity status. When speaking to Forbes last week, West himself made this point while addressing his past choice to wear Trump’s signature red baseball hat. “One of the main reasons I wore the red hat [was] as a protest to the segregation of votes in the Black community,” West said.
Black people don’t only vote for candidates solely because they are Black, and West’s status with Americans age 18-29 is actually more unfavorable than favorable, according to David Jackson, a political science professor at Bowling Green State University.
“It proves that people from the opposite party really know nothing about the appeal of the other party,” Jackson told the AP.