The most compelling moment of Kanye West’s Oval Office meeting with President Trump made no headlines. As their conversation drew to a close, a reporter asked Trump whether solving the problems that plague Chicago was a “law enforcement issue” or a “legislative issue.”
“It’s probably a combination of both,” Trump said. “It’s also a respect issue.”
Gesturing to West and Jim Brown, the president continued, “They respect this guy, they respect this guy.”
“That’s a big thing,” he said. “Right now, they’re not respecting, let’s say, your mayor, or let’s say, like, me.”
The importance of that point was lost, perhaps understandably, as we digested more entertaining moments of the Trump-West summit. But it explains a lot about the president’s strategy.
Why should Trump, the leader of the free world, take time on a busy Thursday afternoon to let West regale the press with his eccentric pontifications in the Oval Office? Why affiliate with him at all?
Because West’s word means much more than Trump’s in Chicago. And it’s even broader than that: The power of celebrity is what enabled Trump to infiltrate and reshape the Republican Party.
The audience that knew and loved Trump from “Celebrity Apprentice” helped him win the GOP primary. It gave him an edge over the full stable of staid politicians. Critically, celebrities build trust— and “respect,” in the president’s words— with their fanbases. In both Trump and West’s case, that gives them an advantage with a sizable swath of people.
Trump understands and accepts the extent to which messaging depends on the messenger. Kanye West may not be a serious political thinker or have a spotless record, but his voice is more powerful than any politician’s with his fans. Where many an established politico would laugh at the notion of giving West a platform to wax philosophical about “Yeezy Centers of Ideation,” Trump understands how the benefits outweigh the costs for making inroads with the people who matter.
A candidate endorsement from Taylor Swift, or from Kanye West, won’t have a dramatic influence over the outcome of an election. But West’s prolonged engagement on an issue that affects the daily lives of his fans will make it much easier for Trump to work on solutions. It’s one of the many issues that set him apart from the rest of Washington, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.
This time, I suspect it’ll be the former.