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Kanye West on Infowars
Kanye West appearing on Infowars, a far-right conspiracy showed hosted by Alex JonesCourtesy Twitter / Infowars

What Kanye West’s meltdown tells us about the American Right

The rapper’s recent antisemitic outbursts, on a show hosted by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, suggest that American conservatives have finally bitten off more than they can chew

The American right is radicalising. Have you heard? It’s a perennial topic in American politics, but the latest series of discussions kicked off with the election of Donald Trump in 2016; his defeat in 2020; the Capitol insurrection on January 6 2021; and the eruption of increasingly fringe views that has unfolded ever since.

This radicalisation appeared to have finally hit its limit this week with Kanye West’s surprise appearance on InfoWars, a long-running internet television broadcast hosted by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.  After several weeks in which he descended ever deeper into conspiratorial rants and overt antisemitism (applauded and legitimised along the way by mainstream figures like Tucker Carlson and Tim Pool), West placed a brick on the accelerator when he used his InfoWars cameo to declare his admiration of Adolf Hitler and his love for the Nazi Party.

Repeatedly, Jones tried (and failed) to keep the car on the road by clarifying West’s remarks. In one neatly summarising clip, Jones states that he disagrees with West’s attacks against “Jewish banks”. When West responds by saying, “I love Jewish people, but I also love Nazis,” Jones howls with performative laughter before saying, with a touch of panic, “I have to disagree with that.”

Throughout the broadcast,  you can see Jones sighing, exasperated, and staring up at the ceiling with frustration as he attempts to rein in West, only for this bigger celebrity to scold him for interrupting, swat him away, and continue as before. 

In a way, it was a tidy metaphor for a dynamic that’s driven the evolution of the American right for over six decades now. It’s a cautionary tale about what happens when you invite certain forces in to serve your short-term interests. One day, you turn around and try to marshal them, only to learn that they don’t answer to you. It’s their house now, and they’ve made themselves comfortable.

The American right comprises two poles: the establishment, represented by the Republican Party (the GOP), which is fundamentally driven by the interests of American industry and big business; and the fringe, a loose gaggle of factions including Evangelical Christians, far-right militia groups, white nationalists, neo-Nazis and cultural reactionaries (all three exemplified by terminally-online, late Kanye hanger-on Nick Fuentes). The fringe also includes the paranoid, decentralised conspiracy networks such as election denialists, QAnon, and the InfoWars crowd.

The relation between these two poles rests on a simple dynamic. Seeking to harness the energy, motivation and raw numbers of the latter groups, the establishment appeals to their base desires with coded but legible dog whistle messaging, in the belief they can gather these horses and ride them to electoral victory without getting bucked off. The latter groups, once welcomed into the GOP, then quickly set to work taking over the party, aggressively shifting their own views from the fringe to the mainstream, and marginalising the previous generation of Republicans – now the ‘moderates’ – who are swiftly denounced as cowards, sellouts, ‘cucks’, or RINOs (Republicans In Name Only). In other words, they buck – hard.

A similar thing happened in 1980, when Ronald Reagan finally won the Presidency after a 20-odd-year project to make right-wing conservatism the GOP’s true gravitational centre. It happened in the early 2000s, when George W Bush abandoned the ‘compassionate conservative’ identity he had used during his election campaign and surrendered to the warmongering neoconservatives – a group who had been plotting their rise throughout the previous decade, and seized on the fallout from 9/11 to implement their world-spanning vision. 

It happened in 2010 and 2012, when the Tea Party movement rode racism, sexism and anti-Obama sentiment to a wave of electoral successes. Many of those figures, like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Pence, are now major figures in the Republican Party. And in 2016, they were in turn devastated by Donald Trump’s insurgent movement and either surrendered, or were gradually absorbed into his machine. (Can you see where this train is going yet?)

Alex Jones is an embodiment of that push-and-pull between establishment and fringe. He began his career in the early 90s covering incidents like the Oklahoma City Bombing, Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge. All of these events have become mythological ‘bloody shirts’ for right-wing militia movements – proof of a government conspiracy to oppress true-blooded American citizens by taking away their guns.  

In recent years, he’s leaned more heavily into his Evangelical Christian beliefs. He describes political opponents as literal demons and satanist baby-killers. More than anything, Jones loves railing against elites, pedophiles, groomers, baby-killers and, most importantly, ‘globalists’. So who are these globalists? Well, it can’t be white, American Christians like himself. After all, they are the ones fighting the good fight. And it can’t be Black people, LGBTQ+ groups, Muslims, and immigrants. They’re all deemed poor, scavenging criminals or evidence of the conspiracy – puppets, maybe, but not powerful overlords. So, who else could the globalists possibly be? 

But wait… no, don’t say that. Jones never says that. He’s talking about globalists and pedophiles and groomers. Just like the rest of the American right and the Republican Party. If other people start drawing offensive conclusions, well, that’s their fault, isn’t it? You can hardly blame him.

“This is the problem with trying to court the fringe while keeping them at arm’s length. As long as they’re on the end of a phone line, you can cut them off... When they’re Kanye West, you might find out they don’t want to leave“

As I was listening to Kanye unravelling on InfoWars yesterday, I was reminded of a broadcast from August 2003. In it, Jones is responding to the controversy around Mel Gibson’s recently-released film The Passion of the Christ. Noting the film’s use of explicitly antisemitic tropes, along with Gibson’s own history of antisemitic remarks, critics argued that The Passion placed blame for Jesus Christ’s death directly on the shoulders of Jewish people past and present, and risked mainstreaming antisemitism.

Jones, however, leaps to Gibson’s defence. After all, The Passion was just a faithful depiction of biblical events. Why was Gibson being persecuted for merely depicting Gospel truth? Eventually, Jones takes a call from a viewer complaining that Gibson is simply trying to get his message across, and no one is standing up to defend him. Jones agrees, and echoes the man’s sentiments. Then, the man implores Jones’s audience to read a notoriously antisemitic set of books published by Henry Ford, entitled The International Jew. And on that note, Jones swiftly thanks the man, and terminates the call.

This is the problem with trying to court the fringe while keeping them at arm’s length. As long as they’re on the end of a phone line, you can cut them off. If they’re just an ‘X’ on an election ballot, you can pretend not to see what’s clear to everyone else. It becomes a different story when they’re in your studio. When they’re a colleague in your political party. When they’re Kanye West. You might find out they don’t want to leave. That it’s their studio now. Their party. Their movement. Perhaps, in fact, it always was.

That’s the thing with Kanye West. He’s never been willing to moderate himself for professional expediency. Someone like Jones, or Tucker Carlson, they know to speak between the cracks, because they understand they’re working towards something bigger. But Kanye West? He’s not one of Jones’ starstruck guests. Jones is lucky Kanye blessed him with his presence.

Once you’ve got someone like Kanye on your side, you lose the secret sauce that has kept the movement ticking along all this time; that ability to choose your words carefully. For 60-odd years, the GOP has been playing footsy with the fringes, winking and nodding, using just enough plausible deniability to insist they’re never saying what they’re saying. But Kanye West doesn’t care whether they’re a Fox News host, a superstar conspiracy theorist, or a former President. He’s going to say what they were all too scared to say all along.

If only someone had warned them.