Kanye reminds us that MAGA politics are kayfabe
If the performers are good enough, every now and then you forget that what you’re watching is a choreographed act. In the end, people want to believe.
When news broke on Monday that Kanye ‘Ye’ West was buying the “free speech” social media platform Parler, Jared Holt tweeted a bit of helpful information on the topic. Namely, that Kanye’s been spending a lot of time recently with Candace Owens, the wife of Parler’s CEO, George Farmer. I looked into Parler recently when I was doing some unrelated research, and the monthly website traffic on the site was embarrassingly low. Parler is a virtual ghost town. The last monthly tally collected by SimilarWeb shows Parler receiving a paltry 1.3 million visitors per month (meaning less than 50,000 visits to the site per day). I shared this information on Twitter, and it managed to go somewhat viral to my surprise.
Given that Parler appears to be in its death throes, the first logical explanation with the available information seemed simple enough. Candace was using Kanye—a wealthy, mentally unstable man—to help her husband’s failing enterprise. Kanye, being mentally unstable, rich and bored, decided to go ahead and sink some money into a lemon. He’s been locked out of his Twitter and Instagram accounts recently, but ‘Ye’ found a way to push forward and make his voice heard! Parler is his answer. But the more time passed, the more I began to wonder if the answer was this simple. Kanye’s rap career isn’t what it used to be, but his right-wing provocateur career appears to be in full swing. He had his big interview on Tucker Carlson’s show which got a lot of attention and was hyped in a big way by the MAGA crowd. Kanye said some clearly anti-Semitic things that were cut out of the Tucker interview and then later added to this on Twitter (thus the temporary account ban), but Kanye hasn’t stopped there. He went on Chris Cuomo’s new show and said some more ridiculous things a few days ago. Cuomo pushed back on Kanye’s remarks, but why was he giving him an interview in the first place? Probably because Chris Cuomo wants you to know he has a new show as much as Kanye wants your attention for his new “career”.
I started wondering what, if any of this, was actually what it appeared to be. I decided to dig a little deeper.
Kanye, Candace and the Parler acquisition
The news that Kanye had agreed to purchase Parler on Monday was probably initially met with a wave of interest in what Parler is and for those who have heard of it, surprise at learning the social media site still exists. If you’ll remember, Parler was briefly cast into the spotlight before the 2020 US elections as a “free speech haven” for primarily pro-Trump voices who were banned on Twitter and other platforms, but Parler’s relative importance lasted only a few months. After January 6th, the platform was heavily scrutinized because it was an incubator for the attempted insurrection that day. This scrutiny caused the companies supplying supporting technology which kept Parler running—its registrar, its domain hosting company, the DDoS protection that kept the site online—to stop providing these services. Simultaneously, Parler was dropped by Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store. Parler went offline. Users who had migrated to Parler moved on to different “alt-tech” platforms like Telegram, Gab, Minds or other alternatives. Parler became an afterthought. So it’s not particularly surprising that when the company started looking for buyers recently, the asking price was essentially laughed at. The site is has very little value remaining. Enter bored billionaire Kanye West searching for meaning and a new career path.
What better way is there to state your intentions as a MAGA free speech warrior than purchasing a social media platform that’s previously been CENSORED by big tech and, supposedly, the mainstream media? That’s why Candace Owens’s role in this saga can’t really be ignored, and we got some explanation of the details by (of all places) TMZ. They recently wrote:
Turns out Kanye West and Candace Owens didn't just decide to wear their "White Lives Matter" shirts on a whim -- the two have been planning it for weeks -- with some of Kanye's former friends telling us she's acting as his chief advisor in his day-to-day life.
Sources close to Kanye tell us ... Candace has been reaching out to people on Kanye's behalf, working to set up calls, meetings and appearances.
We're told folks who were close to Kanye (many have distanced themselves after his recent attacks) believe he's in a bad space mentally, and anyone working to persuade him to do anything other than get help doesn't have his best interests at heart.
Our sources say it's unclear if Candace is getting paid by Ye as an advisor, but one source says, "Anyone taking money from him is taking advantage of him." As far as Candace's involvement in Kanye's life, the same source said, "She's gonna run him into the ground."
I know, I know. It’s TMZ. Who’s to say if any of this is real? But what we do know is this story made Candace Owens big mad. So much so, in fact, that she released some Instagram stories to refute the claims posted by TMZ and deny what they reported. As Newsweek documented, Candace denied that she and West planned to wear "White Lives Matter" shirts for weeks. Owens also claimed that she’s not serving as an "official advisor to [Kanye]”, not taking his money and not "influencing his decisions" in any way. The more I thought about all of this drama playing out, the more I realized how perfect it is that it originated at TMZ. Why? Because we’re seeing one hell of a performance. Candace claims the entire story was planted by Kim Kardashian’s people, and it absolutely may have been. It also may have been planted by Candace herself to both gain Kanye’s trust and/or to keep him in the news, to keep him in the discussion online. Maybe they’re all in on it. We can’t know.
In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Parler CEO George Farmer told the WSJ discussions about Kanye purchasing Parler started when his wife, Candace Owens, brought up the possibility at the event where both wore 'White Lives Matter' shirts. Per the WSJ, "Ms. Owens had a conversation with Mr. West about the social-media landscape and the notion of Mr. West buying Parler evolved from there, Mr. Farmer said." So did Candace convince Kanye to purchase Parler, as Farmer said, or does Candace have no influence over Kanye’s decisions, as she claims? Maybe it doesn’t matter, and the confusion, drama and attention all of this brings is the entire point. Maybe we’re witnessing yet another instance of political kayfabe by political provocateurs. Maybe Kanye isn’t paying Candace directly, but he’s injecting cash into Parler instead. If so, he’s simultaneously purchasing his “free speech warrior” brand credentials and paying Owens and her husband for all that advising they’re not doing and Kanye isn’t taking. When your net worth is approximately $2 billion, as Kanye’s is, it’s safe to say he can afford to throw some money away on a dying website. What difference is it to him? He’s getting something in return after all, regardless of what happens to the platform itself.
Kanye, Candance and all the other times we’ve been hit with kayfabe
Kayfabe is the language that professional wrestling uses to communicate ideas and intentions the audience isn’t supposed to hear or understand. If you’ve watched any amount of professional wrestling in your life, it’s clear the wrestling itself isn’t really the main attraction. It’s the script the wrestlers follow before they’re physically engaged. There are good guys and bad guys, main characters and tag-alongs. Everyone has a role, and breaking kayfabe is taboo. The story the characters are telling is scripted, but then so is the fighting that ensues. Nevertheless, every aspect of the show is meant to give the appearance of being real. If the performers are good enough, every now and then you forget that what you’re watching is a choreographed act. In the end, people want to believe. It’s really not much different than the premise behind reality television, which Kanye of course knows all about from his time with Kim Kardashian. Kanye’s planned Parler purchase has him looking like a dupe, a fool, a sap who Candace and her husband are using to make some money off a dying platform. In truth, they probably are, but Kanye’s using them too. They’re acting as his talent scouts, his agents who provided him with an incredible amount of free publicity. Kanye’s right-wing free speech culture warrior brand is now secure.
With Kanye and Candace, with Alex Jones, Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson and so many other right-wing influencers and media types, we’re not seeing them attempt journalism. We’re not watching detailed accounts of fact-finding missions aimed at getting the truth. We’re seeing narratives told and stories sold. We’re seeing real fights and fake fights, and we’re all trying to scratch and claw our way to the truth of the matter. But oftentimes, there is no truth. They’re following a script. They’re playing a part. They’re fulfilling their role, and they keep their job by never breaking character. Recently, CNN’s Jake Tapper criticized Congressional Republicans who have taken credit for infrastructure projects that were made possible by bills they voted against. I say good for him. It’s worth pointing out, but if the performance of these Republicans matters more than their actions or their policies, then don’t expect anyone to lose their House seat over this. Why bother governing when you can perform?
In truth, this sort of acting-as-politics is nothing new, but it is certainly something that has grown in scale with the advent and popularity of social media. Should we believe Candace Owens and Kanye West had a real falling out when, after Kanye praised Candace in April 2018, we saw Kanye then distance himself from her in October 2018 after he claimed she “used” him? Was that all fake? Was it real at the time but they made up later? Was all it all manufactured for our viewing pleasure? I can’t answer any of that definitively, but I can show you a short list of fake fights or intentional melodrama brought to you by right-wing influencers in recent years. You should realize how common this all is. Cassandra Fairbanks claimed she was “attacked by Antifa” in 2020, forcing her to sell her house and move after fundraising off this supposed attack. Jared Holt, writing for Right Wing Watch, followed up on this story and found nothing backing up Fairbanks’s claims. What about Roger Stone? He's been in on again, off again feuds with Steve Bannon, supposedly, even though the two remain fiercely pro-Trump, share some of the same allies and talking points. Before Steve Bannon, Stone carried on a long-running feud with Chuck Johnson over who was really responsible for some of the antics related to the 2016 Presidential campaign and contacts with WikiLeaks. Both claimed credit. Neither backed down. All it appeared to accomplish was making the job of investigators looking into Russian interference that much harder. Perhaps that was the point. Similarly, Joe Rogan and Alex Jones have “feuded” at points, but that hasn’t stopped Rogan from continuing to have Jones on his show. Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys organization, recently faked an FBI raid and his own arrest in that raid. Why? So that Gavin could go on vacation. The motivations change, but the intrigue doesn’t and so much of it gets eaten up by the mainstream media. It sucks all the oxygen out of the discourse that could go elsewhere, but it keeps happening because these stories are easy to write and get a lot of clicks. At its most basic level, this is free advertising for the right and quick clickbait for the left. Both sides benefit, so the show must go on, and it does.
Comparing right-wing media to authoritarian disinformation outlets
When I started writing this piece, I was reminded of some details I read earlier this week that related to our own piece titled ‘People are Saying: How the Iran protests help explain Tehran’s military aid to Moscow’. It seems Iran is playing both sides on the issue of its decision to send Shahed 136 kamikaze drones to Russia for use against targets in Ukraine. On the one hand, Iran is denying they’re sending these drones to Russia, and the Russians are denying they’ve received them or even asked for this aid. Nevertheless, it’s essentially verified at this point that these shipments are happening, and as a result, on October 20th, the EU placed sanctions on three Iranian generals and the manufacturer of the drones, Shahed Aviation Industries.
Yet still, on the same day, the Iranians and Russians both deny these shipments happening. You might be saying, “well, they always lie, so what’s one more?” and on that you have a point. However, amidst all the official denials through diplomats, quotes to reputable news outlets and on social media, the Iranians are actually boasting about the use of their drones by the Russians in an effort to appear stronger and more secure in their position back home than they really are. As documented by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Iranian state media is actively puffing out their chests and hoping it helps convince the anti-regime protestors to back down. They’re also hoping that Western governments see their boasts and those drone attacks in Ukraine and think twice about either supplying material support to the Iranian protestors, or they start to fear the threat of those drones being turned on them in the future. In essence, we see two diametrically opposed narratives and set of talking points. One—the official denials—are put out for Western media, for the foreign enemies of the regime. The other—the boasting on state-run media—is done for domestic consumption.
The Iranians don’t care if it’s transparently hypocritical. Their domestic audiences rarely read or even have access to Western media, and the only Western media observing Iranian state TV are think-tanks and foreign intelligence services. Such is the way the ecosystems exist in their information space. The two different realities are mutually exclusive, they cannot both exist and be true, but they’re so segregated that these impossibilities don’t really matter. Few people notice and those who do are mostly irrelevant to them, so they keep doing it.
I mention all this because right-wing media and specifically the most well-known influencers on the right have nurtured their own segregated echo chambers where such hypocrisy and impossibility really don’t seem to bother them either. Remember how, after a few years of deranged and nonsensical tweets, the Trump White House essentially started telling people to ignore his tweets because the tweets aren’t policy? Yes, they said, the tweets from Donald Trump’s official Twitter account are the words of Donald Trump, but they’re not really what Donald Trump’s White House wants to happen or is planning to do. Those are two separate things, so ignore the tweets from Donald Trump you can read yourself every day on Twitter because really we’re doing this whole separate thing and no more questions please.
What was true of Trump and his tweets is true for much of the right. There are comments made for consumption within right-wing circles, and there are fake fights, absurd claims and random noise stirred up for left-wing or mainstream media ears only. There are similarly stories which are catered to their audiences only which the left is happy to ignore. I think this is most evident in some of the anti-China rhetoric coming out of some circles on the right. There are Republicans who are very concerned with China’s aggression and growing animosity towards Taiwan, Japan and the US, but the left would rather talk about some absurd statement Steve Bannon—the mouthpiece of the fake Chinese dissident Guo Wengui—made than talk about the real problems China is causing. For instance: growing influence in US universities, espionage, IP theft, genocide of the Uyghurs, Huawei’s spying and data collection and the Chinese malware app you might call TikTok. And people still wonder what the point of Guo Wengui and Steve Bannon’s absurd little news channels and social media platforms are. They’re the dancing monkeys everyone’s meant to cover. They’re so absurd that they make the actual arguments against the Chinese government look like things Steve Bannon, Guo Wengui and probably Alex Jones would say. Who would want to be like them?
For anyone not immersed in right-wing media, the dynamic between Kanye West and Candace Owens may look straightforward. Candace appears to be an opportunist hanger-on who shows up to take advantage of Kanye when he is at his most vulnerable. She’s enabling his worst behavior to her own benefit, and her decision to urge West into purchasing Parler shows us her cynical intent. However, a more practical assessment is likely that Kanye is being used, but he’s also a willing participant. No one forced him to repeatedly make virulently anti-Semitic remarks on Tucker’s show or on social media. A person can be lonely, vulnerable and suffering from untreated mental illness without making offensive remarks over and over again. Someone suffering from mental illness only gets better if they themselves choose to get help. A friend or family member can help you setup an appointment or check you into a facility, but it’s up to the individual person whether they follow through on treatment day after day. If it wasn’t Candace Owens managing Kanye, there would be someone else in her role. Kanye has made his choices. His branding now secured, the performances will continue.
The show must go on, but where the story leads isn’t always clear. Look at QAnon. It didn’t spring up out of nowhere. The central false premise of QAnon (that of Trump saving everyone from the left-wing pedophiles ruling the world) was a natural outgrowth of previous right-wing campaigns based on the same buzzwords—Pedogate, Pizzagate and Spirit Cooking. Nevertheless, many of that movement’s earliest boosters—the people who were, presumably, read in on the initial script—denounced Q within a few months, later claiming they never supported such a thing! The Q narrative arc may have been planned, but a few members of the audience jumped on stage and took over the performance. The headliners, sensing danger, fled the scene.
But QAnon itself was always an act. It was always a pretend figure named ‘Q’ with pretend intelligence access posting what looked like clues if you were willing to squint just right in a dark room. Those “clues” were always vague enough to mean whatever the reader wanted them to mean. QAnon was the internet’s version of the Oracle at Delphi, really. It was live action palm reading updated for the internet age. QAnon became a game that people played and some got hooked with disastrous results. Once the story went off script, the initial backers of Q pulled themselves out of the next scene. Our politics moving forward will be full of captivating story lines. There will be heroes and villains. There be winners and losers. Just don’t expect the results to mean a whole lot. Characters who break kayfabe probably won’t be around for the next season, and they know it.
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I think when one telescopes way out, one mostly sees a collection of psychopaths; MbZ, Putin, MbS, the deposed Imran, Bibi, all effectively making China (and much less so and more obliquely Turkey) more powerful, whatever else they do.
Istanbul and Beijing were the two power centers of asia for most of the past 2300 years, so this should not surprise.
Israel and IRI both exist as ethnonationalist-messianic states to keep everyone else off balance, China offers genuine neutrality in the void with regards to these things, and slowly, incrementally exploits this advantage, one PLA base next to an airport at a time.
"but a few members of the audience jumped on stage and took over the performance"
Excellent analysis. I see it on the left and the right where that occurs.