As babies, we either instinctively or through heavy amounts of prodding, look to objects for comfort in times of distress – blankets, towels, stuffed animals, dummies, and the like. Adults, for the most part, give up this habit, unless you count putting a burning stick of cancer-causing chemicals in your mouth. Not so for Mr Kanye West, who stated during a rambling press conference with President Donald Trump that his Make America Great Again hat made him feel “like Superman”. Tying a blanket around my neck like a cape made me feel like Superman when I was five, so I can relate. But I also frequently wet myself at that time, so it’s hard to really take all that seriously.
“This hat, it gives me power, in a way,” West said forcefully, his voice struggling to stay above the cacophony of camera shutters opening and closing during his remarks. Wistfully describing his troubled family life, West declared that he “didn’t have a lot of male energy in my home” (his parents divorced when he was three years old). The implication being that Donald Trump – his bluster, his unwillingness to capitulate or show remorse, his overall air of intense self-satisfaction – could give him that strength he so desperately craved growing up. “I’m married to a family that, umm…you know, not a lot of male energy goin’ on,” he continued, referencing the decidedly matriarchal Kardashian family, whose father figure is the world’s preeminent trans celebrity.
Kanye West couldn’t bring himself to vote for Hillary Clinton, he says, because the former secretary of state, US senator, and first lady could not make him feel the same big dick energy that Trump sent surging through his veins. It’s as though a mad scientist collected all of the left’s worst fears about gender and the 2016 election, put them into a test tube, and made a famous person. West, grinning madly and barely able to contain his physical being within his chair, described the instinctual pull of the unremarkable, but stern daddy dictator that segments of the far right cannot help but cosy up to.
Francois Duvalier, the Haitian despot who cruelly ruled over his nation for almost 20 years, was colloquially referred to as “Papa Doc,” owing not just to his previous life as a physician, but also his role as a surrogate parent, albeit one who regularly executed his children. Joseph Stalin employed the name “Koba” as a pseudonym, allegedly a reference to a character in his favourite book, the 1882 Georgian drama The Patricide, or the murder of the father.
That’s all to say that this phenomenon is not new, but the circumstances we live in most certainly are. MeToo and the various women’s movements around this moment have forced all of us to confront the damaging consequences of toxic masculinity. Hip-hop culture, arguably the dominant force in our western zeitgeist, has always carried with it a strain of of hardman swagger and dismissiveness towards feminine energy. Surely, I’m not the only one who remembers when DJ Khaled declared to God, the nation, and his family that he does not perform oral sex under any circumstances in a 2015 interview on The Breakfast Club radio show. “We the king,” he said at the time. “A woman should praise the man – the king.”
Most of us don’t look to totems or objects for comfort anymore, at least not in the same fashion as we did in our youth. I won’t immediately start crying if I can’t find my favourite watch. I’ve never once tried to suck on my iPhone, even if I might not want to leave the house without it. What comforts men, in particular, though, is our status as men. I happen to enjoy having a penis, but more importantly, I feel some indescribable satisfaction thanks to the fate of my gender. “Look at me, everyone,” I mutter to myself as I bound down the sidewalk, “I could probably beat you up if I had to. I’m respected. I own linens with my initials on them. My chest hair is thick enough that if you rubbed it for a while, it could set on fire.”
Masculinity is both a gift of this distinctly unfair society and also an ever-present curse of expectations unmet. If I don’t feel that superiority, I do my best to fake it as much as possible in public. As a new father myself, I realise that society expects me to teach my son that very same lesson in between piano practice sessions… I mean football practice.
For all the men who grow up without that paternal luxury, including Kanye West and millions of young African-Americans, I can see how a remorseless, hateful Teletubby in a power tie might offer some appeal. Substance is not usually what we look for in a father. It’s aggression, structure, and begrudgingly offered acceptance. We’ll make him like us. We’ll dress like him, talk like him, and do exactly what he commands with such gusto that he’ll have to nod his head in approval.
Kanye seemed to get what he was hoping for on this day, as Trump offered West perhaps the first sustained hug of his presidency (not counting when he made a clumsy pass on the American flag in full view of the public, his arousal barely concealed). Trump is on a “hero’s journey,” West said, a la Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, making another reference to the president’s alleged superpowers. One of those otherworldly abilities must be to avoid indictments and make mistresses disappear.
If nothing else, yesterday’s carnival freak show cemented President Trump as Kanye’s distracted, absentee surrogate father. After all, Trump has everything West could ever want: a lot of money, a powerful brand built on obstinance and defiance, and enough detractors to fill a stadium each week until the end of the year. It’s hard to imagine how this ends, especially if West upholds his threat to run for the White House in 2024. Whatever happens, I’m sure Kanye West slept easily that night, his MAGA hat tucked under his arm and Donald Trump’s words of wisdom roaming around his brain. For the rest of us, we have to contend with a world where Father Knows Best, even when he absolutely does not.
Dave Schilling is a writer for the Bleacher Report. He tweets at @dave_schilling