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Everyone Loves A Freak
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Everyone Loves A Freak

Why partisans flock to public figures who play against type.

Kanye West. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/ Getty Images.)

May I interest you in a concert, fellow music-lovers?

Running for Senate these days as a Republican means pandering to populists in the stupidest ways, but this may be the first time I’ve seen a candidate try to signal his cultural authenticity by spitballing a concert line-up.

I wonder if Eric Schmitt can name a single track from either of the men he mentioned. But if he couldn’t, would it matter? He doesn’t want to see Kanye West and Kid Rock on a bill together because he likes their music. He wants to see it because he likes their politics. Or, rather, because he knows the Republican base likes their politics and he’s keen to earn cheap “one of us” points with them.

Maybe he’s ahead of the curve. In an age when culture is increasingly politicized, we might yet arrive at a point where partisans are obliged to prioritize solidarity over pleasure even when choosing which music to listen to. Imagine Kanye striding out onstage circa 2025 to perform “Gold Digger” to a crowd of blue-rinsed red-state boomers clapping arrhythmically through pained smiles.

Why is Eric Schmitt talking about Kanye West anyway, you may wonder? Ah. It’s because everyone loves a freak.

There are many kinds of freaks, politically speaking. (And otherwise.)

Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger are freaks. They haven’t just declared independence from their party as House members, they’ve declared war on it. Within the past month both have endorsed Democratic candidates for key offices in swing states like Arizona, believing it’s in the country’s best interest that it not be governed by an authoritarian lackwit and those in thrall to him. As the American right has deteriorated into a personality cult, Cheney and Kinzinger have deputized themselves as chief deprogrammers.

They’re total freaks by the standards of modern Republicans. And Democrats adore them for it.

John Fetterman is a different kind of freak. He isn’t out of step with his party politically, as Cheney and Kinzinger are. Quite the contrary. But he’s grossly out of step with them culturally, or at least presents a convincing simulacrum of a man who is. He holds multiple graduate degrees, one of them from Harvard, and lived off the largesse of his family until well into his 40s. But to look at him, a bald-headed behemoth in shorts and a hoodie, you might think he moonlights as a bouncer at a biker bar. He’s pure salt of the earth, or so it seems, and that makes him very much a freak in a party that grows more remote from working-class whites each year. 

Democrats can’t get enough of him. It’s Fettermania among the American left.

Republicans who hate Republicans and Democrats who look like Trump fans but sound like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Those are the freaks, the people who play against political or cultural type, whom the left loves most.

The freaks whom the right loves most are celebrities.

Not exclusively, of course. Republicans love Democrats who hate Democrats too, celebrities or not. There’s a reason Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, and Tulsi Gabbard have built followings among MAGA populists. Every creed relishes converts because conversion is a form of validation. If our path weren’t the right one, fewer people would be taking it.

Still, celebrity converts are special. Although they rarely admit it, conservatives feel horribly insecure about being underrepresented among the country’s glamorous elite. Just how underrepresented they are is unclear since a celebrity who holds conservative beliefs might choose to bite his tongue rather than speak out and find himself blackballed professionally. To all appearances, though, America’s most culturally influential tastemakers—movie stars, musicians, star athletes—are pretty uniformly of the left. And if the Beautiful People are all liberal, those of us who aren’t liberal must be … less beautiful, shall we say.

Which brings us to Kanye.

Kanye West is on Eric Schmitt’s mind because of the latest step taken on his years-long journey toward the right. West is pro-life, has been known to don the red MAGA cap, and once enjoyed a personal audience with the cult leader himself in the Oval Office. But his alignment with conservatives in the culture wars went next level when he made this fashion statement last week.

Symbolically siding with Trump against the left by wearing Trump’s signature hat is noteworthy and provocative. But symbolically siding with whites against black activists—as a black celebrity—well, that’ll land you a very friendly primetime interview on the Tucker Carlson show.

And I do mean “very.” It was so friendly that some of the most embarrassing and self-discrediting things West said to Carlson were conveniently left on the cutting-room floor. He was there, after all, not to answer questions but to validate a creed. Exposing him as a crank would have defeated the purpose.

Normally, having a celebrity of West’s stature throwing in with Republicans would be cause for jubilation in right-wing political circles. This isn’t Scott Baio or Ted Nugent or someone else whose cultural relevance expired in the late 1980s. This is the biggest star in global hip-hop. And it was cause for jubilation, briefly: There’s a reason Schmitt tweeted approvingly about a Kanye/Kid Rock tour. But there’s also a reason Schmitt deleted that tweet, just as there’s a reason so many conservative writers spent the past week lamenting their side’s infatuation with celebrities.

See, the thing about freaks is—they’re freaks.

As you’ve likely heard (although Eric Schmitt evidently hadn’t), West followed up his “White Lives Matter” fashion show with a few tweets last weekend about “Jewish people.” Specifically, how they’ve “toyed with me and tried to black ball anyone whoever opposes [their] agenda” and therefore had left him no choice but to go “death con 3” on them. (He meant “DefCon.”) West also groused about Mark Zuckerberg, who was raised Jewish, in a tweet about his suspension from Instagram and asked cryptically, “Who you think created cancel culture?”

Jews also came up during his interview with Carlson, although some of the more “interesting” soundbites were among those that didn’t make it to air. In one bit of excised footage, West mused that blacks are the true Jews, the “12 lost tribes of Judah.” At another point, discussing the fact that Kwanzaa is celebrated at his children’s school, he said, “I prefer my kids knew Hanukkah than Kwanzaa. At least it will come with some financial engineering.” In one snippet that did air on Fox, he speculated that Jared Kushner, who’s Jewish, had brokered the Abraham Accords “to make money,” adding, “I don’t think that they have the ability to make anything on their own. I think they were born into money.”

Oh dear.

That was Schmitt’s cue to cut bait and delete his tweet. The last thing an establishment Republican needs in the thick of a Senate race is to saddle himself with West’s baggage. For populists, however, the calculus was tricky. Kanye had owned the libs, repeatedly, before his detour into how “Jewish people” were keeping him down. An influencer of his magnitude can’t be dispensed with lightly. Populists are also honor-bound not to let themselves be pressured into turning on a compatriot by those who come bearing norms, even when those norms are completely valid. They’re fighters, not suckers; they don’t ditch a culture warrior just because Democrats, RINOs, and media cucks are offended by some light Jew-baiting.

Culture war means standing with your allies even when they’re very likely guilty of the cultural offenses you claim to hate the most. And so the worst West can expect from his friends on the populist right and the media outlets that cater to them is this sort of careful ledger-balancing.

Kanye West: Antisemitic, but also a family man. Donald Trump: Coup-plotting insurrectionist, yet strong on the border. People are complicated. Politics is about compromise.

At least Ben Shapiro was willing to call West’s tweets what they were. Candace Owens, who was by West’s side when he showed off his “White Lives Matter” shirt, simply denied that they were antisemitic. As the truer populist of the two, she understands the importance of never conceding a point to the other side, even when they have you dead to rights. Especially then. No exceptions for antisemitism.

Celebrities, man. Seems like these freaks aren’t worth the trouble! So why do conservatives get googly-eyed when one of them gives the American right a pat on its collective head?

Commentators have been performing armchair psychiatry on that question all week. I offered my own theory above, that cultural insecurity lies at the heart of it and therefore celebrity endorsements provide unique cultural validation. Everyone wants to be part of “the elite,” very much including the young turks of the new right who toast to the downfall of that elite at the swanky Beltway cocktail parties they attend. Every populist revolution ends with pigs and men indistinguishable from each other. This one is well on its way.

But it’s not just insecurity. A celebrity convert like Kanye West or Joe Rogan or Elon Musk is cause for celebration inasmuch as his change of heart implies a potential political dam break. “Somewhere in there there’s the idea that THIS guy could move the needle (particularly a certain celebrity and black people) and then the SCALES would fall from their eyes and every knee would bend and confess that uh they love the GOP now,” tweeted Jane Coaston of the New York Times about the right’s romance with West. Hundreds of millions of people, and not just in the U.S., follow West, Rogan, and Musk closely. If those guys are drifting from left to right, it must portend something meaningful about the drift in the culture more broadly.

That belief may be especially potent in an age of hyperpolarization. Both parties live in terror that our ongoing political stalemate will finally begin to break and resolve durably in the other side’s favor. When a major influencer suddenly decides that your side has the better of the argument, it feels like the avalanche that might finally bury your opponents has at long last begun. It’s cause for rejoicing, even if that influencer happens to be a Russia simp or vaccine skeptic.

Celebrity also “takes the edge off” of political radicalism, making famous people useful evangelists to a skeptical electorate. Some have wondered why Kari Lake is so competitive in Arizona’s gubernatorial race this year while Doug Mastriano, a fellow election denier, is an also-ran in Pennsylvania. Apart from the fact that Lake is campaigning hard to win while Mastriano is, er, not, Lake’s fame may be her ace in the hole. It’s easy for Pennsylvania Democrats to define Mastriano as nutty, after all: He is nutty, and practically no one had heard of him before this year. He’s an unknown quantity and the Democratic ad team is filling in those blanks.

But Lake is already defined, a quantity that’s very much known. She was a television news anchor in Arizona for 20 years before becoming a MAGA cultist. Voters have been “inviting” her into their homes for decades. And her TV training has served her well in an era when Republican politics is all about skillful media performance. Lake is unflappable, telegenic, and has the syrupy voice of a professional newscaster. When Democrats call her a wild-eyed kook who’ll plunge America into crisis by trying to overturn another Trump loss in Arizona in 2024, I imagine many swing voters must stare blankly and think, “Her? Kari Lake?

They know Kari Lake! They’ve had a parasocial friendship with her for years. Warning them that she’ll abuse her political power to wreck the country’s civic institutions is like telling them that the host of The Apprentice will one day try to end American democracy by staging an autogolpe.

It’s ridiculous on its face.

Kanye West is a special case among celebrities because he’s African-American and exerts enormous influence over a mostly African-American genre of music. Conservatives love famous people who agree with them but, it must be said, they especially love famous black people who do. They relish having political allies whose very existence challenges the left’s evergreen charge that Republicans are racist. They feel justified admiration for the courage of someone who’s willing to defy unfair political expectations driven not just by fame but by race and to go their own way intellectually. And, as Coaston says, they may foolishly believe that West’s conversion heralds a broader trend within the one racial demographic more than any other that’s eluded them in elections for most of the last century.

Would Herschel Walker be the Republican nominee for Senate in Georgia if he were white? Maybe. Probably. As the state’s greatest football hero, his fame there is so overwhelming that he might have coasted on that alone. If Tommy Tuberville can get elected in Alabama, Walker can get elected in Georgia regardless of race. But you’re kidding yourself if you think Republican operatives didn’t consider that an African-American celebrity candidate might perhaps do better at turning black voters against Raphael Warnock and Stacey Abrams than any white Republican they would nominate. Walker’s the key that’ll finally, finally unlock (some) black support for the GOP, they likely reasoned. As if black voters’ political views are so lightly and dimly held that having a black football star declare himself a conservative might send them cascading into the GOP.

A few days ago Tom Nichols despaired at the indignity of our political moment. I thought of his essay while watching this clip.

Walker’s babbling is barely a venial sin in an age dominated by Donald Trump. To follow American politics now is to feel crushed anew each day by the immensity of its unseriousness. Watching Walker ramble on, though, one can only assume that Trump lowering the barrier to entry in terms of dignity has helped clear a path for other celebrities into politics. West ran for president in 2020, remember. Kid Rock considered, sort of, running for Senate in 2018 and campaigned for the eventual Republican nominee in his home state of Michigan. A party whose highest ambition is to performatively spite the libs is destined to attract, well, performers.

Turn your political movement into a freak show and don’t be surprised when the freaks show up.
The unseriousness of the Trump-era GOP also makes me wonder if the thrill populists get when a Kanye or Elon feeds them a biscuit isn’t fundamentally about influencing the electorate. In theory, having a mega-celebrity on the team opens up new avenues to persuade voters. But in practice, Republicans don’t spend much time trying to convince Americans of the virtues of their agenda. As my colleague Kevin Williamson recently said: What agenda? The real benefit of having Kanye and Elon aboard is simply the bragging rights it affords in the contest of endless dunks that takes place every day in partisan media, particularly social media. It’s a game, unserious even (especially?) to its most ardent participants. We get the politics we deserve.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.