Who Will Survive in America?

Image result for kanye wearing trump hat

Remember the couple of months last year when Kanye West wouldn’t shut the fuck up about his MAGA hat and everyone was mad about it on the internet? That whole saga made crystal-clear the root essence of the American cultural divide, and it went right over all of our heads. Look, the Orange Man may be bad, George Bush may not Care About Black People, we might just All Be Fucked, and I won’t blame anyone for jumping at the opportunity to #cancel Mr. West—but when you start projecting the moral binaries of your cultural bubble indiscriminately onto every Twitter-trending moment, don’t act shocked when you miss the forest for the trees.

The reason I’m still talking about this more than a year later is because when you toss two of this American century’s most prominent and polarizing cultural figures in your Vitamix, the red-white-and-blue mush you end up with is an incredibly genuine look into the heart and soul of the USA. If you ask me, Kanye and The Donald are so famous thanks to their uniquely outlandish reflections of the rabidly unstable yet so often predictable id that lurks inside of the American identity we all share. What I mean is that when they speak, they speak for you. Kanye does it through his art and Trump through his tweets; pay attention to what they really say and it’ll reveal a whole lot.

Kanye, like most good artists, is big on symbolism: see the titles of his first three albums, The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation, or the one literally called Yeezus; his habit of declaring himself the Next Warhol or Picasso; his obsession with the idea of the American rockstar; or his writing’s frequent use of a central metaphor, seen in songs like Spaceship, Wolves, or even N****s in Paris. His live shows look like this:

And he’s married to Kim Kardashian, a hilariously on-the-nose icon of American fame and decadence. If that’s not an apt symbol of his character I don’t know what is. Maybe his matte black Lamborghini

The point is that Kanye’s talent as an artist is rooted in what must be some mutant innate understanding of symbolism and iconography. It’s the same reason he’s seen so much success in his other major endeavor, fashion, wherein he’s turned his own name into a billion dollar brand behind the most recognizable sneakers of the decade, earned a better rate of royalties than Jordan did for Jordan, and sold people ugly sweaters on discount for $999. Call this a knack for branding or good old marketing, but the real reason he’s got hordes of upper-middle-class clout-chasers under his thumb is that everyone is drawn to a good symbol, and Kanye knows one when he sees one.

Speaking of symbols: 

The Hat. We all should have known the second Donny put on the hat that he was going to win. This hat and its emblazoned slogan are strokes of genius, the magnum opuses of a guy who would’ve been a revolutionary artist if he didn’t have the misfortune of being born with so much money. Kanye West and Donald Trump may be frothing narcissists strongly lacking in certain elements of critical thinking, but they’re also, undoubtedly, two of the most talented iconographers of our time. Just look at this:

Yes, it’s gaudy and tacky and decadent; in every possible aspect it is completely appalling. But this is America, baby, and I challenge you to portray capitalist triumph any better than a solid gold building in the middle of the desert with your name stamped on in more gold on the top. Say what you want about Trump Las Vegas, but the one thing you can’t avoid noticing when you look at it is that this guy is fucking rich. 

I don’t care what the New York Times says about his tax returns, what Forbes says about his net worth, or what his ghostwriter says about his business acumen; show me a gilded desert oasis or a jet black Trump Tower looming over Fifth Avenue, and I and every other hard-working American will tell you we’re looking at the legacy of a man who’s done damn well for himself. NYT exposés and Forbes rankings can be hand-waved away as Fake News, but no one can argue with four seasons as head honcho on The Apprentice and the resulting public image of billionaire cosmopolitan.

You also can not argue with a hat. Hence the power of symbolism. Liberal critics of Trump who deride his bankruptcies and chastise his policies are rolling rocks up a hill, too stupid to realize that’s supposed to be eternal punishment. Truman’s Democrats may have brought the boys home, but I Like Ike; Trump may be a racist, but the guy literally hugs the flag and wants to Make America Great Again. Who can’t get behind that?

Kanye West was telling us who the whole time. Remember what he actually said about why he refused to take the hat off? It wasn’t because he’s way into lowering corporate taxes and deporting immigrants; it’s because American liberals are a bunch of annoying fucking bullies. “They’re laughing at me. You heard them? They screamed at me. They bully me. They bullied me backstage. They said ‘Don’t go out there with that hat on.’ They bullied me backstage. They bullied me.” I’m not asking you to shed tears for the billionaire narcissist that people were mean to backstage on SNL, but I am saying that if this is how he feels, how the fuck we should we have expected the people of Sweetwater, Michigan to feel in 2016? I get that they may not at all times be the easiest crowd to garner sympathy for themselves, but they’re either with you or against you; I’ll let you decide which is better.

Spend five minutes in Trump’s Twitter replies or five seconds on the frontpages of NYT or WaPo to realize the same thing Kanye did: the closest thing the Democratic party and its voters have to an overarching identity—a symbol to get behind—is smug elitism. And they fucking love it!

Democracy Dies in Darkness, am I right? 😭

Pictured above is what I’m supposed to believe is the stalwart protector of American journalism, the light guiding us towards the truth in these dark times. Fuck you. Watergate was, like, 50 years ago. This shitrag is owned by a literal Gilded Age psychopath and tried to spend the last two years convincing us Hillary would’ve won if the Russians hadn’t sacrificed her first-born to Moloch. Fuck you! She was never going to win; this photo says everything about why. 

I would like to rant about this shit forever. It boils my blood. But, unlike these sycophant jokesters, I have respect for my readers, so I won’t. Instead, I’ll tell you how I think this happened, because although I may not have been around to vote for FDR, I learned well and good in APUSH that liberals weren’t always stupid enough to let a guy like Trump win, even against an inept huckster like HRC. What I think is that it can only happen when you control media and culture but don’t have any grasp on actual, meaningful politics.

The gap between cultural and political power in this country is staggering. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying conservatives aren’t a bunch of condescending bullies themselves. Insufferable little shits like Ben Shapiro and Charlie Kirk exist and have probably fewer redeeming qualities than the worst NYT op-ed columnist. But here’s the thing about them: if you’ve even heard of them in the first place, simply block them on Twitter and they will entirely cease to exist. They have less than zero cultural capital. You know how they like to say stupid shit like “conservatism is the new punk rock”? Bad news: in a sense, they’re kind of right. It is a ridiculous thing to say in that there’s nothing political for conservatives to rebel against—they control two-and-a-half thirds of the federal government—but culturally they’re practically extinct. Is it any wonder they all flocked to Fox News and Breitbart?

American liberalism is a losing ideology that has next to no say in what happens on the national stage at the time of this writing and yet at the same time it is somehow everywhere. Hollywood. Universities. Netflix originals. Facebook. The news media, all the way from CNN to Buzzfeed to Teen Vogue. Practically every relevant cultural institution in the U.S. is controlled by the losing team and they’ve capitalized on it by doubling down on tanking material like a one-hit comic. They have the infrastructure to be running the most devilishly effective propaganda campaign in history, and they lost to a hat.

“But what about Sinclair Broadcast Group?” begins the skeptic, armed and ready to continue missing the point. Don’t get too excited. We’re talking relevant cultural institutions here, not the rotting corpse of cable television; if I had the patience to wait a few years before posting this, I could probably cut this paragraph entirely. Alas, not yet; but I’m actually kind of thankful. A few months ago I caught wind of a viral documentary about the state of homelessness in Seattle produced by a local news team. It reeked of conservative fearmongering: long takes of public disturbances outside of Starbucks, interviews with cops and local business owners, passionate pleas to curb America’s drug problem with help from the carceral state, etc. Sure enough, it was a Sinclair psyop. But you know what? I have the attention span of a schizophrenic toddler, and I watched the whole thing. It was riveting! 

Now this is propagandizing!

I’ve little doubt that the Sinclair psychos would love nothing more than to go postal on every homeless person in the country and write the bullets off as charity on their tax returns, but this documentary could’ve fooled me. There wasn’t a hint of scorn or derision in it, not even in their candid interviews with the homeless; every moment consisted of deviously sincere concern. Concern for the residents, concern for the homeless, concern for the cops and for the tourists; take notes, people, this is how you weaponize media effectively. “Help the homeless by bulldozing their tents; help the cops by voting out the clueless liberal prosecutor; prevent drug abuse by criminalizing fun; Make America Great Again!” Roll up your sleeves, put on a serious face, offer up solutions (no matter how realistic or humane), wrap it all up in a one hour special with a head-turning title, and you’re guaranteed five million views and the hearts and minds of the American people.  

People aren’t going to buy your shit if you have nothing to sell. American Conservatism may not be the most coherent political ideology in the world, but at least it’s selling ideas: Patriotism, Freedom, Tradition, and God. I don’t really know what any of that shit actually means, but I can tell you it all sounds good. I can tell you, very simply, what Conservatives want: to Make America Great Again. Anyone have any clue what Democrats want? To be, as they say, “With Her”? To raise taxes and take guns? To be whatever the polar opposite of deplorable is? Go ahead and put that shit on a hat and see how well it does for your brand image.

Because that’s all this is about, really. That’s what it’s always been about. Marketing. When your two choices for government are the perfunctorily woke idiots and the shameless, sundowning grifters, it’s a lot more fun to project your own beliefs than try to convince yourself either of them gives a shit about you. It’s a lot more fun to turn it into a popularity contest, and it’s a lot more fun to give the finger to the team that called you deplorable and your vote to the guy whose biggest real scandal is that time he fucked a pornstar.

So, to try to answer Kanye’s own question: Who Will Survive in America? People who understand what he does. “[What] this [hat] represents to me [is], y’all can’t bully me. It doesn’t mean I’m being Donald Trump. I’m being me, I’m being punk, and I can wear whatever I want because I’m a god.” You see what he did there? How he doesn’t care what the hat stands for? No one does. He projected his own feelings onto it, and he just came out and said that, because it’s obvious, and it’s true, and it’s how symbolism works. It has been how symbolism works since long before we learned to love the eagle and the flag and the AR-15; as Gil-Scott Heron put it, and Kanye did not fail to notice,

Democracy, liberty, and justice were revolutionary code names
That preceded, the bubbling bubbling bubbling bubbling bubbling…

Kanye West, Who Will Survive in America

by Jake Goldstein, edited by Tom Lynch


  1. Spot on!

    The brand and its packaging are really the only thing that matters – functionality is secondary. Put more succinctly: image is everything. Democrats put up Clinton because the leadership grasped that fundamental truth for brief instant. Then came Gore (the Dems lost sight of the truth again: SNL even showed them where they were wrong before the election, giving them a chance to tack with the wind a bit and maybe attempt to rebrand Gore. They couldn’t do it, though). Obama? They got the truth back in their hands and won. HRC? Nope – lost it again. The problem with HRC was, they actually thought they had hold of a fundamental shift in the zeitgeist. They did – just the wrong shift.

    They’re going to fuck it up again in 2020 and we’re going to be stuck with four more years of Il Cheetoh Benito. The worst part is, they don’t have ANY candidate that has the right kind of presentation – the right edge to really motivate people to change horses, or come out and vote.

    Oh well. Great article!

  2. Tulsi Gabbard could beat Donald Trump. She is young, beautiful, has charisma, poise and is a combat veteran in the US Army. But the Democrats hate her because she is antiwar AF and they would rather let Donald Trump win than have that young, progressive women in the White House.

  3. Heck, you can go all the way back to Reagan with this. Americans love easy answers, and hate being to there are limits, even if said limits (such and natural resources, energy and the environment) are very real. The closer we come to the day when the “American way of life” is not only “negotiable” but no longer remotely viable for any but a tiny minority, the worse the “symbolism presidents” get. Reagan was a buffoon, Clinton a huckster and hustler, Bush II a dunce, Obama a empty-suited symbol and now Trump, the “reality show president.” I figure by the time the collapse happens a decade or so from now, the president will be just a drooling puddle or mindless protoplasm.

  4. Your best writing is when you don’t try to hard to make you point. You’re trying to hard, I say that with affection because I like this site a lot. Kanye West and Donald Trump – I don’t care about them and the reality is I don’t have to. Further, the reality is trump real hasn’t done much and can’t. Further still, he did not win the popular vote. The blue collar states he lost – one of which Michigan I live in aren’t exactly in love with trump, nor liberals either, nor Blue dog Democrats. People need money, simple as that. To use one of your lines if I was King I’d get rid of the whole neolib racket that started with Carter. But, as a co founder of the Santa Fe Institute, I’m here to tell me, we are in the start of a very long emergency. Our vacation from reality is over. The future isn’t what it used to be and it’s here just not evenly distributed.

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