Editor's Note: (John Avlon is a senior political analyst at CNN. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.)
(CNN) We need to talk about Kanye.
It's easy to dismiss the bizarre presidential campaign of the rapper -- who has bipolar disorder -- particularly after his series of disjointed tweets following his chaotic South Carolina kickoff event. His behavior compelled his wife, Kim Kardashian West, to call for compassion and respect for her family's privacy
The situation seems closer to a regrettable public breakdown than a presidential run.
But there are a handful of Trump-orbiting GOP operatives pushing West's helter-skelter, supposedly independent campaign for president. According to CNN, one such operative with ties to the Trump campaign, Lane Ruhland, has filed paperwork to get West on the ballot in Wisconsin.
But West and his team are working to get on the ballot in several states, including Arkansas, Illinois and Missouri -- even listing a self-described "biblical life coach" from Wyoming as West's running mate.
West cannot win the election. He's missed too many deadlines to get on the ballot in too many states. But he could be a spoiler for President Donald Trump's reelection by siphoning off key portions of the Black vote in select states like Wisconsin and Ohio, with filing deadlines this week.
The artist who once declared that former President George W. Bush "doesn't care about Black people" (and who former President Barack Obama once called "a jackass") appears to be being played by conservative operatives.
If this all sounds a bit far-fetched, then you haven't been paying attention. In his essential and insightful new book, "It Was All a Lie," the Republican operative Stuart Stevens describes discovering a tried and true formula in Mississippi Republican campaigns, "a truth as basic and immutable as the fact that water freezes below thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit: race was the key in which much of American politics and certainly all of southern politics was played. It was really very simple: the Democratic candidate needed 90-plus percent of black votes to win. If a significant portion voted for a third party, the Republican would win."
Whether West is on board or not, that's what's at work here -- plain and simple.
Remember: West briefly went full MAGA, praising Trump for the economy and their shared "dragon energy" -- an evolution that paralleled his embrace of evangelical Christianity, which inspired his last album. A messianic streak also fits the impulse to run for president, but there isn't anything holy about this run.
According to the New York Times, one of the operatives allegedly behind West's attempts to get on the ballot, Mark Jacoby, had been arrested for fraud charges in 2008 and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor (no small irony given Team Trump's misdirected obsession with the issue).
Another, Gregg Keller, is a former executive director of the American Conservative Union and friendly with ACU chair Matt Schlapp, whose wife, Mercedes Schlapp, worked in the Trump White House before transitioning to the campaign. To give you a sense of Keller's self-conception, his social media avatar is a close-up of his hairline (but not his face), paired with a description of him from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a "dark prince of secrecy."
This is not an insurgent independent campaign -- this is dirty tricks from the slice of the white-bread conservative establishment that had posters of the infamous late Republican operative Lee Atwater on their walls growing up.
West may feel that he's on a mission from God rather than the recesses of GOP operatives. This conservative-backed attempt to draw away voters from the left always seems to lure in enough "useful idiots" to make it worthwhile.
In 2000, Ralph Nader famously won more than 97,000 votes in the swing state of Florida as a Green Party candidate, in part because Democrat Al Gore was allegedly not strong enough on the environment for their taste. Bush won the sunshine state by 537 votes and ultimately the presidency. So, it should have been no surprise that Nader's reprise Green campaign in 2004 appears to have been boosted by Republican operatives trying to get him on the ballot.
This is a racial play, rather than a Green Party dream, but its impact could be the same -- a divide to conquer approach by people who have the furthest thing from the community's interest at heart. Usually thoughtful voices, like Chance the Rapper, have mused on social media about a West campaign, presumably without realizing there are Republican operatives at work. But one tell comes from Keller retweeting Chance's post with a gif of Jack Nicholson's evil grin from "The Departed." Another tell is Trump himself retweeting Kanye's claims that he could take Black votes from Biden, with Trump characteristically saying the quiet part out loud.
West is one of the most talented hip-hop artists of his generation. But make no mistake: every vote for West is a vote for Trump -- part of a larger plan to help Trump divide the Democrats and win reelection -- fulfilling one of West's own lyrical prophesies: "we're at war with ourselves."
So however you view what West and his promoters are doing here, be careful about too confidently saying that an unqualified celebrity with a self promotional campaign can't have an impact on the presidential race. This is, after all, 2020 -- a year where anything can and will happen.