Conventional wisdom suggests that Kanye West and Donald Trump are outspoken egomaniacs haphazardly spewing foolish and bigoted opinions. They could also be considered geniuses that use similar tactics to manipulate the media and generate constant press coverage.
Behold their bizarre bravado:
Their conspiracy theories:
Both have had slightly embarrassing ass-related hip-hop feuds:
If insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different outcome, we must accept that Ye and The Donald are either insane or actively cultivating negative press. The tweets keep coming, and in recent months they have both become headline news.
One reason why Trump and West are two of the most spoken about people in the world is that call-out culture loathes them. But call-out culture—the practice of publicly pointing out oppressive or prejudiced speech or language—like most ethical policing can occasionally veer toward puritanical bullying.
When Cosmopolitan described Beyonce’s young daughter Blue Ivy as a “spirit animal”, people took to Twitter accusing the magazine of using a term that is considered hateful to multiple ethnic groups.
Angry social media attacks then make for easy news stories. The headline usually includes the phrase ‘Sparks Outrage’. Never mind who exactly has been outraged - the important thing is that the outrage has been sparked. Kanye and Trump, whose tweets often seem bigoted, are magnets for this kind of attention.
But why would anyone want to court negative press? As Trump and Kanye have learnt, in the fast paced world of the news cycle, any press is good press.
In the old media, editors and producers had power to decide what constituted ‘news’. For example, the discrepancy between the most and least viewed stories on TV news is almost 1:1. If it goes to air, it gets watched. TV news ratings, are almost conistent regardless of the news being broadcast.
On the online world, the ability to promote certain stories and censor others effectively dies. Web traffic is increasingly driven by algorithm-run social media, and if the first few people shown a link on Facebook aren’t clicking on a story, Facebook will just stop showing that link to people.
Online, the discrepancy between most and least viewed stories widens to 1: millions; if the first few people don’t click, the story dies, and if more people than normal click, it gets thrust in front of everybody.
Trump and Ye’s gaffes, controversies and feuds wouldn’t have gotten this kind of coverage ten years ago. The stories are cheap, tabloid-y, and don’t really tell you anything you don’t already know. Somebody’s offended by offensive things? You don’t say.
Yet call-out stories are immensely clickable. They work as news (Here’s what Kanye said about Taylor Swift), as blood sport (What Kanye said is deplorable) as education (Here’s what Kanye should have said), as existentialism (Is it okay to still like Kanye?). Simultaneously, call-out stories can be comforting; in our nebulous moral universe, it’s nice to know that some folks are still willing to assert ethical authority.
Stories about outrage are the bread and butter of new media, and without them, traffic falls away. The Huffington Post actually made a public decision to stop reporting on Trump. It’s understandable that they didn’t want to give him a leg up:
But can you imagine how many views, and dollars, they lost when they stopped covering the most trend-worthy human on the planet? Unsurprisingly, they found a reason to start writing about him again.
Trump and Kanye are unique as targets of call-out culture in that are constantly under attack, and so constanltyin the press. Usually when somebody gets called-out, they apologise publicly and it’s curtains for their career.
Part of the magic of Trump and Kanye is that they almost never apologise, and so the story never really ends. Trump has offended everybody from war veterans, to the handicapped, to handicapped war veterans, and doesn’t seem to care.
When Kanye went on Ellen to address the Taylor Swift hullabaloo, he didn’t say that he regretted storming the stage at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. He said he would have to remove himself from award shows in the future, because the thing he’s really “sorry” about, is that he “can’t lie”.
The refusal to apologise, even for the grossest misconduct, means that Trump and Kanye transcend the call-out narrative. It means they can be ongoing villains, instead of chastened transgressors. The stories about them never have to end, and don’t.
Press coverage is what Trump and Kanye both desperately need to achieve their ends - Trump the presidency, and Kanye a much-hyped album - and they’re both getting it.
In Trump’s case, he’s getting it to the exclusion of every other Republican hopeful. One can pontificate as to whether or not baiting offence is a good long term strategy for electoral endorsement, but in the short term it’s working like nothing else. Kanye, however, doesn’t need to be liked to get people to pay attention to his music. It’s the winning formula that the latter half of his career has been based on.
So let’s not write off Kanye and Trump as being intellectually deficient. Yes, it’s wrong to do a mocking impression of a reporter who has a disability and, yes, it’s awful to rap that Taylor Swift owes you sex. But it's also, in a way, it is an act of genius.