"Our dinner meeting was intended to be Kanye and me only, but he arrived with a guest whom I had never met and knew nothing about," Trump said in a statement in which he also notably did not condemn Fuentes's antisemitism, racism or misogyny.
"I don't think anybody should be spending any time with Nick Fuentes," GOP House leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy said. He then falsely claimed Trump condemned Fuentes and that Trump "didn't know who he was."
The idea that Trump had no idea who was coming to dinner was bolstered by NBC News reporting that featured Milo Yiannopolous, who has a long history as a professional troll, as a main source. The Trump campaign then announced the 76-year-old would-be leader of the free world would be assigned a full-time handler to avoid any repeat occurrences.
There is no way to know for sure how much Trump knew about Fuentes before the dinner, though there is reason to assume he could have been briefed about the 24-year-old who has publicly praised Hitler. Still, the underlying assumptions are obvious enough: Fuentes is impossible to defend, but Trump's proud association with Ye is a non-issue.
For a hot minute, pitting Ye against Fuentes seemed to be working. The questions journalists were asking and the headlines about the issue focused mainly on the question of how much Trump knew about Fuentes. The question of Trump's relationship with Ye — who had been banned from pre-Elon Musk Twitter for declaring "death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE" — was mostly falling to the wayside.
Then Ye, who shares Trump's tendency to seek attention when the conversation isn't about him, went on Infowars to tell Alex Jones, "I like Hitler" and "we got to stop dissing the Nazis all the time." In case that wasn't clear enough for the folks in the balcony, Ye tweeted a swastika, causing Musk to surprise many by rescinding Ye's reinstatement.
Republican leaders now want to throw the Ye problem in Trump's lap. Trump is going to pretend he had no idea how unhinged Ye was prior to this overt Nazism. But this blame-shifting is distorting what should otherwise be seen as a clear timeline: Even before Trump had Ye over for the now-notorious dinner at Mar-a-Lago, Republican leadership and conservative media had made Ye a cause célèbre. They did this after Ye displayed strong warning signs that he held fascistic beliefs beyond even what the mainstream GOP is willing to tolerate in the era of Trump. If Trump thought he could get away with spinning Ye as an acceptable member of polite society, it's in large part because Fox News and other prominent conservatives had suggested it first.
In early October, Fox News and the GOP were working in tandem to turn Ye into the latest poster child for their claims that "woke mobs" are a threat to "free speech." Ye had been ramping up his flirtation with far-right politics for years, as demonstrated by his open admiration for Trump. In early October, Ye escalated his right wing trolling dramatically. At the Paris Fashion Show on October 3, Ye and his friend, far-right pundit Candace Owens, paraded in front of cameras with "White Lives Matter" t-shirts, an unsubtle dig at the Black Lives Matter movement. The bait was irresistible for the right wing press and the GOP, who got straight to work portraying Ye as an innocent victim of "cancel culture." As Media Matters reported, for the next four days, "Fox News dedicated more than two and a half hours of largely fawning coverage" to Ye.
On October 6, the GOP House Judiciary committee tweeted, "Kanye. Elon. Trump." The tweet was deleted on December 1, after Ye praised Hiter. It had stayed up for nearly two months after Ye made his "death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE" threat.
The most important Fox News coverage was an hour-long Tucker Carlson interview with Ye that aired on October 7, in which Carlson claimed the "enemies of his ideas dismissed West, as they have for years, as mentally ill," and suggested that the "elite" were trying to silence a brave truth-teller.
As the Daily Beast later reported, however, Fox News edited out chunks of the interview revealing some of Ye's weirder and more bigoted ideas. Vice News obtained clips that were not aired, including "numerous antisemitic sentiments from Ye" and "a strange and lengthy digression about 'fake children' he claimed were planted in his house." Among the cut comments: "I prefer my kids knew Hanukkah than Kwanzaa. At least it will come with some financial engineering."
As Matt Gertz of Media Matters wrote, "Carlson clearly hoped to use his interview with Kanye West (now known as Ye) to advance his own political agenda."
There are plenty of figures on the right to converse with who are much more disciplined than Ye and far less likely to talk about Jewish conspiracies and fake children. Carlson interviews plenty of them! But why he gave a whole hour of airtime to Ye isn't particularly mysterious. Ye was a huge get for Carlson. So huge that Carlson, along with other prominent conservatives, was willing to overlook the political danger of promoting someone as erratic as he has appeared to be for some time now.
Why were they so eager to publicly embrace Ye? First and most unavoidable reason: Ye is Black, which is useful for those who wish to muddy the waters around the question of whether Trumpism is racist. Using people who have marginalized identities as spokespeople for bigoted ideas is a long-standing trick of the right: Anti-feminist women, for instance, or Black critics of affirmative action, like Justice Clarence Thomas. There's also a divide-and-conquer aspect, in which the right tries to pit marginalized groups against each other. Carlson is particularly good at that, which is why he interviews women who claim to be feminists and use the platform to attack trans rights.
Criticism of Ye can also be spun as a "gotcha" on the left. Frequently, conservative media coverage of hip hop centers on the notion that it's a "liberal" threat to MAGA America. The discourse around hip hop often harps on Black artists who use the "N-word", stokes racialized resentment of rappers for "driving in Mercedes-Benzs," and hyperventilates over lyrics that celebrate sexual freedom. Against this background, liberal rejection of Ye gets reframed as "hypocrisy," even if that claim doesn't stand up to rational examination.
Ye is still one of the most famous people in the country, which allows him to reach audiences Republican politicians and TV news channel hosts can't otherwise. Ye's willingness to team up with right wing media and the GOP created a temptation so potent that conservative leaders ignored the dramatic red flags warning them it would likely backfire. Now the expected GOP presidential nominee in 2024 has kicked off his campaign by having dinner with a man who complains that Hitler is an unfortunate victim of cancel culture. Other prominent conservatives may want to blame Trump alone for that recklessness, but this history shows they were just as eager to make the same mistake.