Future historians will remember the date: Sept. 13, 2009. At the MTV Video Music Awards, Taylor Swift began a speech accepting the Best Female Video award for “You Belong to Me.” Kanye West vaulted onstage, grabbed the mic from Taylor’s hand, and said, “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you and I’mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!”
It was an act arguably as provocative and symbolic as the scene in May 1856, when South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks brutally caned Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
In the nine years since those MTV Awards—as in the five years between the Sumner caning and the start of the Civil War—relations between the two sides have been tense, unstable, ominous.
A year after the MTV incident, Kanye took to Twitter to say, “I’m sorry, Taylor. We’re both artists, and the media and managers have been trying to get between us.” Two months later, Kanye backtracked and repeated his original complaint: Taylor had not deserved the award and Beyoncé should have gotten it. And in any case, he added, Taylor was exploiting the incident for publicity.
It was a low point and a setback, and, in its destructive implications, it might be compared with the Dred Scott decision of 1857.
War was an on-again, off-again thing. Kanye and Taylor kept swimming back and forth across the Rubicon, so to speak—arriving at the south bank, toweling off, and then impulsively plunging in to swim the north bank again.
It was confusing. In a seemingly decisive twist in September 2015, Kanye, who has an admirably mystical sense of his own destiny, expanded his vision and announced his plan to run for president in 2020. Taylor immediately volunteered to be his running mate, tweeting: “Awww, Kanye sent me the coolest flowers!! #KanTay2020 #BFFs.” At some point they met at a gala and exchanged down-low high fives.
The nation reacted with relief and momentary hope, as it had done toward Christmas 1860, when Kentucky’s Senator John J. Crittenden offered the Crittenden Compromise.
The rapprochement was short-lived, though. In February 2016, Kanye released a new track called “Famous,” which included these lyrics: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that b— famous.”
Five months later, Kanye’s music video for “Famous” began with a shot of Kanye and his wife, Kim Kardashian, asleep in bed, and panned to show a naked Taylor—or rather, a lifelike wax rendering of a naked Taylor—recumbent on the bed, on the other side of Kanye.
Whoa! Historians with an instinct for the deeper, long-term patterns of events would not fail to recognize that Kanye’s latest provocation had been predicted in most details by John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859.
Now matters between Kanye and Taylor—as between Americans in red states and blue states—have arrived at the Fort Sumter stage.
Kanye West, inner-directed prince of the counterintuitive, has taken to wearing Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” cap. As if to strip for battle, he also has shortened his given name to “Ye.” He has defiantly voiced support for President Trump many times and advised his fellow African-Americans to cast off their traditional and, as Ye claims, unavailing subservience to the Democratic Party.
The latest evidence of Kanye’s horrendous apostasy, plus the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh for a seat on the Supreme Court, was more than Taylor Swift’s dudgeon could be asked to bear. She took to Instagram on Sunday and encouraged her 112 million followers to register to vote—hardly needing to add that she meant them to register Democrat. In the Senate race in her home state of Tennessee, she set aside gender loyalty and repudiated the female candidate, Republican Marsha Blackburn, because her record “appalls and terrifies me.” She endorsed Blackburn’s Democratic opponent, Phil Bredesen.
The endorsement took immediate effect. Vote.org reported: “We are up 65,000 registrations in a single 24-hour period since T. Swift’s post.” Thus are the fates of great nations decided.
The president and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, met at the White House with Kanye West and former NFL running back James Brown to talk about prison reform, gang violence, and other subjects. In the Oval Office, West launched into a somewhat surreal, ten-minute monologue praising Trump (“I love this guy right here”) and, inter alia, promising not to run for president until 2024. “Trump is on his hero’s journey now.”
Taylor would surely have some tweeting to do about all of that. It felt like the eve of the first Bull Run. As Scarlett O’Hara said at the barbecue, “Waw, waw, waw!”
Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images