Are Kanye West and President Trump an odd couple or a predictable pairing? While the two men may appear to be opposites at first glance, much like President Nixon and Elvis, I’d submit that if we look more closely, there’s some important complementarity.
Meeting with the president can be an elevating experience for any performer or entrepreneur. As two men who’ve built celebrity brands and have a knack for self-promotion, I’m sure both were keenly aware of the cross-promotional possibilities. However, one section of Kanye’s remarks at last Thursday’s meeting added some more human nuance to that take on events:
You know, they tried to scare me to not wear this hat — my own friends. But this hat, it gives me — it gives me power, in a way. You know, my dad and my mom separated, so I didn’t have a lot of male energy in my home. And also, I’m married to a family that — (laughs) — you know, not a lot of male energy going on. It’s beautiful, though. But there’s times where, you know, there’s something about — you know, I love Hillary. I love everyone, right? But the campaign ‘I’m with her’ just didn’t make me feel, as a guy, that didn’t get to see my dad all the time — like a guy that could play catch with his son. It was something about when I put this hat on, it made me feel like Superman. You made a Superman. That was my — that’s my favorite superhero. And you made a Superman cape.
As someone who regularly writes about family topics, I found these comments striking. Unlike some observers, I didn’t hear this as an attack on Hillary Clinton. Rather, I heard a grown man expressing his lifelong yearning for a sense of belonging, an interest in fraternity (and paternity)—what Kanye calls “male energy.”
Having grown up without his father, Kanye recognizes something has been missing from his life. That primal urge for male connectedness and a relationship with one’s biological father were things he didn’t see on offer with Clinton (for obvious reasons, which is no knock against her), but did in the aggressive and undeniably masculine Trump.
Conjuring up the young boys I see riding Metro to ballgames with their fathers, wearing their Nationals gear and bonding over a shared love of sports and the team experience, Kanye talks about the symbolism and emotional impact of wearing a MAGA hat. The red hat “made [him] feel like Superman.” Talk about channeling some pretty iconic childhood imagery.
Now, Trump is not my personal version of an ideal father-figure (see: his personal morality and multiple marriages). But I’d submit that he’s filling that role for Kanye and many other American men who’ve grown up fatherless, for whatever reason, and continue to crave a male role model in their lives. I also don’t find that surprising.
My grandmother-in-law, whose father died when she was a baby, has always loved regaling me with stories about President Franklin Roosevelt, whom she thought of as her own stand-in father. As a young girl during the Ronald Reagan years, I began thinking of the president I saw on TV as my honorary grandfather, since I never knew either of my grandfathers.
According to “Failure Is Not an Option” author Alan Blankstein, “24.7 million kids in the U.S. don’t live with a biological father.” That’s one-third of American children. Those children are more likely than their peers from two-parent homes to live in poverty, experience difficulties in school, suffer from mental and physical health problems, become substance abusers, and engage in criminal activities. In other words, not having a relationship with one’s father can have serious consequences.
Shawn Hardnett, “a longtime teacher and school administrator” who grew up fatherless, told USA Today he “thinks fatherlessness is ‘the greatest trauma that young people face.” He added, “‘When the father’s not there, something gets broken that cannot be fixed.’”
Notably, Hardnett, who runs a middle school for boys in Washington, observed, “Without an active father in their lives, boys’ identities become ‘locked into the oldest male who is in their space’ . . . That person could be a coach, or teacher, or someone who is a very bad influence.” Or that person could be the president of the United States.
Mothers are amazing, and many single mothers are valiantly raising their children today with little or no help from their children’s biological fathers. But father absence is no joke. Policy makers and grassroots community organizations should support father involvement for fragile families because, as Kanye’s remarks underscored, that sense that something’s missing can last a lifetime.
In the meantime, men (and women) will do their best to fill that emotional void however they can, whether that means joining a fraternity or donning a MAGA hat.