On Tuesday morning, Kanye West became the latest eminence to cross the marble floors of the Trump Tower lobby. He wore a black sweatshirt and a slender gold chain, and arrived with a small entourage. “We’ve been friends for a long time,” Trump told reporters after their meeting while West stood silent and unsmiling at his side. “We discussed life,” he added. West, pressed to say something—anything—about his conversation with the world’s most powerful man, shook his head. “I just wanted to take a picture right now,” he mumbled.
Whatever else it was—E! News reports that West and Trump convened “to discuss a potential role for the rapper” in the administration; Trump communications director Jason Miller hedged that the PEOTUS simply hoped to “reach out to people from traditional and nontraditional political viewpoints”—the Donye caucus made for a strange tableau. True, Trump has recently been on a minitear of summoning black people to the palace; he also met with Jim Brown and Ray Lewis. But West is a hip-hop luminary, and a noted critic of presidents. Furthermore, though West’s subdued affect bore some resemblance to the scowling Kanye we’ve come to expect, it felt more hesitant than bratty, a timid garbling of his grandiose persona. There was Trump, glad-handing, vigorous, very much himself. And there was Kanye, looking lost, looking like someone else.
When two stars swing close together, it’s interesting to see whose light bends first. This meeting, taking place on Trump’s home turf, cast West as a character in someone else’s pageant. For the transition team, Kanye served as a useful provocation and a distraction from Trump’s Cabinet controversies, unkosher business dealings, and alarming links to Moscow. West is also a prominent black artist who supports the Republican president-elect. That makes him at once a prop and, because Trump’s political calculations can’t be unsnarled from the narcissistic Trump Show playing in his mind, a bauble for the kingpin to gloat over.
“You take care of yourself,” Trump said to West at the end of their photo shoot, as if he cared.
But even before they cohabited a camera frame, the gravity of Trump’s star was pulling on the light from Kanye’s. The rapper was recently hospitalized for a “temporary psychosis” that some have connected to incoherent stage banter about Trump in the preceding few days. During the second leg of his Saint Pablo Tour, West insisted that he would have voted for Trump and reaffirmed his plans to run for president.
There’s something queasy-making about such ardent political rhetoric followed by hospitalization, and all from an artist who regularly speaks out against bigotry and donated thousands of dollars to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2015. Trump’s use of West on Tuesday morning didn’t just feel indelicate, given that the rapper had just been released from psychiatric care. It seemed like a cosmic sign that insanity is baked into this transition—that in Trump’s America, the loss of contact with reality that is a hallmark of psychosis is indistinguishable from political strategy.
For his part, Trump, with his finely tuned antennae for praise, noticed he had a fan in West back in 2015. During a campaign rally, he offered a solipsistic thank you, boasting, “[Kanye] loves Trump. He goes around saying ‘Trump is my all-time hero.’ He says it to everybody. So to Kanye West, I love him. … I would never say bad about him because he says such nice things about me.”
Whether Trump himself has a personality disorder—and whether experts are in a position to diagnose him from afar—has been endlessly litigated. I’ll say instead that it may not be shocking that Kanye, whose visionary tirades about the potential of the artist have a fascist undertone, gravitates toward a bully like Trump. Mussolini’s favorite thinkers exalted the heroic, and curiously amoral, promise of man hurtling toward perfection; West speaks in similarly bombastic terms when he declares that, as a musician, “I can do whatever I want to do. … If I’m gonna take a stage and like, open up a motherfucking mountain I can do that.” (Of course, West’s life is nothing if not monumental, which can make even his true statements hard to separate from delusions: On the tour where he said this, he really did literally split apart a mountain, of his own design, night after night.) West and Trump’s dynamic—the artist and the strongman—evokes a traditional symbiosis between aestheticism and fascism. In the visually ravishing films of Leni Riefenstahl, the crisp goose-stepping of smartly uniformed troops, the propulsive fervor of futurism, we’ve seen politics married to the pursuit of the beautiful before.
But there are other reasons that Trump might appeal to West. Both men are improvisational, controversial performers with megalomaniacal dreams and a history of rebuking the “politically correct.” Both have made inflammatory nods to white supremacy, whether by inciting Twitter’s “alt-right” or wearing (however ironically) Confederate arm patches. As Amy Zimmerman at the Daily Beast points out, both have vacillated between bankruptcy and astronomical wealth; both married conspicuously sexy wives; both complain that the press is out to get them. Furthermore, both have been criticized as egomaniacal man-children even as they relish playing the misunderstood outsider.
Trump and West share an aesthetic, too, one that transcends the mogul’s longstanding resonance with hip-hop. It is the gilded ostentation of the hotel lobby and of Watch the Throne (with its gold-plated album cover). It is well-done steaks at Mar-a-Lago and gold bottles at Le Meurice. It is the taste produced by a fragile but overweening vanity feeding obsessively on ever more glittering signifiers. “I alone can fix it,” this bad taste insists. “I am a god.”
The scary thing about Trump’s (and West’s) taste is that it turns everything around the person into a proxy for that person. Every luxury object exists to sing his praises. Every associate is just a metonymy for his terrificness. Consider the president-elect’s habit of referring to Mike Pence as “one of my great decisions,” rather than, you know, a human being. Or look at the way both men talk about women as status symbols. (“I bet me and Ray J would be friends/ If we ain’t love the same bitch/ Yeah, he might have hit it first/ Only problem is I’m rich,” brags Kanye in “Highlights.”)
Perhaps this aspect of Trump and West explains why the rapper’s diminished glow at the politician’s side, his participation in the politician’s agenda, felt so dispiriting. On Wednesday morning, West tweeted an image of Trump’s Time cover, across which the 2016 Person of the Year had scrawled his autograph and a personal note: “To Kanye. You are a great friend. Thanks.” The unstoppable force of Trump’s ego met the immovable object of West’s self-absorption in the lobby of Trump Tower on Tuesday. The ego prevailed, transforming West into one more Trumpian signifier, one more thrilled fan waving his signed magazine.