Can a black man support Donald Trump? That is the question underlying one of the most fascinating recent meeting points between popular culture and politics.
The whole business was ignited two weeks ago now when the rapper Kanye West sent out a single Tweet:
I love the way Candace Owens thinks
— ye (@kanyewest) April 21, 2018
Candace Owens is a smart, young, black conservative who has been rising to prominence in the US through a succession of witty videos (such as Coming out conservative) and campus appearances in for the student movement Turning Point USA.
It was while on stage with one of her Turning Point USA colleagues at UCLA last month that Owens was heckled by some ‘Black Lives Matter’ protestors. Why ‘Black Lives Matter’ should choose to organise against a young, black, female conservative is a matter for them. But in her response to the activists, Owens included this put-down: “What is happening right now in the black community… There is an ideological civil war happening: black people who are focused on their past and shouting about slavery, and black people that are focused on their futures.”
She summed this up as “victim mentality versus victor mentality”.
Black Lives Matter protesters showed up to my @UCLA event to protest. Here is a video clip of me smacking them down with the truth; they’re a bunch of whiny toddlers, pretending to be oppressed for attention. pic.twitter.com/riBA0A3J1I
— Candace Owens (@RealCandaceO) April 20, 2018
Presumably, it was this statement that helped bring Owens to the attention of Kanye West.
What happened next was the nearest thing to a cultural fissure as can be seen in Tweet time. In the days that followed his Candace Owens message, Kanye West followed up with a number of Tweets criticising people’s attempts to force people into ideological straight-jackets based on group identity.
Then, with one tweet, the cultural rift became a canyon: he expressed admiration for President Trump. At which point celebrities and former friends piled in to denounce West in public and in private. In return, West began to Tweet out screenshots of texts from friends imploring him to row back and to repair the ‘hurt’ he had allegedly caused.
This whole Hollywood hoo-ha this shines a light on one of the strangest things of our time: the expectation that unalterable characteristics such as race or gender should dictate the way a person votes.
During the last US election cycle, this theme was prominently emphasised by Hillary Clinton. Right from the start, in her declaration speech, she emphasised the coalition of people whom she believed would and should vote for her. The fact that she is a woman was meant to be a good reason for women to vote for her. But she also sought to expand the territory of her natural support base to other ‘groups’. So LGBT people and non-white Americans were repeatedly presented with the claim that Clinton was the obvious candidate for them. This was even before it became clear who her Republican opponent was going to be.
In America, as in Britain, there are legacy reasons why certain such generalisations might be made. Conservatives tend to be more resistant to social change than leftists, let alone self-described ‘progressives’. And so it is inevitable that on a range of issues from LGBT to anti-racial discrimination laws a tendency to (at best) foot-drag can be noted on the Right. But it may also be the case that such issues begin to recede and as they do so, the coalitions in politics which might once have seemed obvious become subtler and eventually erode altogether.
It is possible that such a moment of erosion is going on right now. And that one of the reasons why the response to Kanye West’s Tweets was so out of proportion to what he was saying was that the culture’s political boundary police are concerned about this. Otherwise, it would hardly be surprising some celebrities voiced support for Donald Trump. After all, he is President, and if American celebrities had any desire to represent their fan-base, then surely one or two of them might be vaguely supportive of the man in the White House.
Yet for the time being the cordon remains extraordinarily tightly imposed. And not only on Kanye West. When the Canadian pop singer Shania Twain said in a recent interview that if she could have voted in the 2016 election, she might have voted for Trump, she was so roundly castigated that she has spent the weeks since feverishly having to announce her opposition to Trump and everything he is said to stand for.
Just as Kanye West’s support is deemed to be unforgivable because he is black; Shanaia’s is because she is a woman.
But the problem with this community boundary-policing is that it wildly exaggerates the presumption that group characteristics dictate voting patterns or issues on a range of ethical issues
Any political candidate in America who opposes the liberalisation of abortion laws, for example, can be presented (dishonestly, but commonly) as ‘anti-women’. This is a lazy framing which among other things presumes that all women are at all times in favour of faster and easier access to abortion. In fact, as a Pew poll conducted last year shows, attitudes towards abortion in the USA are fairly similar among men and women, with only a 4% differential between the sexes.
Likewise, attitudes towards issues to do with race are nowhere near as homogenous as those who promote identity politics would have us believe. For instance, a case might be made by a ‘progressive’ that in order to gain an extra chunk of the vote from ethnic minorities, the advocating of a racial quota system for American universities might be a good idea. But the facts are more complex. As this Gallup research from 2016 shows, most Americans (70% as opposed to 26%) believe that merit alone should be taken into account in college applications. And although there is some difference in attitudes towards the issue depending on race, still more black Americans (50% to 44%) believe that applicants to colleges in America should be considered solely on merit.
There is something not only dishonest, but deeply unhealthy about the suggestion that chromosomes or racial characteristics should automatically dictate the direction in which an individual should casts their ballot. There is something even more unhealthy about a situation in which everybody in the ‘celebrity’ class – from the attendees of the White House Correspondents dinner, to the people featured in the side-bars of shame of the world’s tabloids – must all be united against the choices made by the general public.
If diversity is a good thing, then diversity of thought must be regarded as the greatest good of all. You don’t have to be an admirer of Donald Trump or Kanye West to be relieved that this nastily rigid cordon created over recent years would appear to be about to break.