Revisiting Eminem’s ‘White America,’ 15 Years Later

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2002 MTV Video Music Awards - Show
Eminem performs at the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, August 29, 2002. Photo: Scott Gries/Getty Images

How did Donald Trump become the president of the United States? One popular explanation, circulated before and after the election, ascribes its outcome to the “white working class,” particularly the white working class of the midwestern states. Over the past few decades, factory jobs had been exported overseas, leaving only meager-paying service-sector jobs. In the absence of financial and social security, white workers were succumbing to drug addiction and suicide, and they turned to Trump to save them from the prospect of a world where people of color were stealing the jobs that were rightfully theirs. Unlike the suburban, respectable Republican party of years past, the base of Trump’s party lay in this run-down constituency, or so we were told.

If, among pop musicians, Kanye West mirrors Trump the most psychologically, the demographic and biographic parallels with this imagined Trump voter are never stronger than in the case Eminem, the only superstar artist to hail from the white working class in recent years. The Eminem who emerges from the self-portraits of his songs is true to Marshall Mathers’s own life: He comes from Detroit, which is ground zero for the mass deindustrialization of the Midwest. He used to be poor, used to work terrible service jobs. He’s suffered through drug addiction. He’s angry more or less constantly, and doesn’t have the will or inclination to apologize for it. His women are letting him down and it fills him with murderous feelings. He even has a song called “White America”: It’s the first song from his third album, The Eminem Show, which turns 15 in four months. Given all this, and given the occasion of Trump’s inauguration, which revolves around its own (implicitly white) nationalist speech, it seems like a good time to revisit the track.

To begin with, it’s certainly scary enough in the new context. You hear the sound of fighter jets and rock guitars behind the artist as he bitterly crows “America,” in all caps, with reverberation. He expounds on freedom of speech, of the sacrifices made by soldiers to protect it, and the other fundamental freedoms, but hints at the betrayal of those freedoms with the quiet, barbed addendum “or so we’re told.” Then the initial bars of the first verse require no paraphrase: They’re a perfect fit for the movement Trump has set in motion.

I never would have dreamed in a million years I’d see
So many motherfucking people, who feel like me,
Who share the same views and the same exact beliefs—
It’s like a fucking army marching in back of me.
So many lives I touched, so much anger aimed
In no particular direction, just sprays and sprays
And straight through your radio waves it plays and plays
Till it stays stuck in your head, for days and days. 

He adds later in the verse, “And now they’re saying I’m in trouble with the government — I’m loving it!” It’s not hard to see the resemblance with Trump’s own harangue against Washington. Similar, too, is the song’s martial tenor, monumental in volume and booming in tone. You can see how the song became a favorite for Army torturers seeking to deprive inmates of sleep. (The new president, incidentally, has promised to bring back torture.) So far, so belligerent, and so Trump.

But the thing is that the war “White America” is addressing isn’t the war implicit in Trump’s address. Eminem’s song is very much a product of the turn of the millennium, a period when cultural conservatives were fighting, with some success, to censor all references to sex, drugs, and violence from popular culture. Though obviously more sympathetic to the Republican party, the family-values movement crossed party lines: “White America” is a salvo aimed directly at Lynne Cheney and Tipper Gore, two consecutive vice-presidential wives who made the moral cleansing of culture their pet issue. The second and third verses are devoted to a demographic analysis of the state of this culture war and his own position within it, and the analysis is as rigorous as the rhymes in which it’s patiently delivered: “See the problem is, I speak to suburban kids / Who otherwise would have never knew these words exist / Whose moms probably would have never gave two squirts of piss / Till I created so much motherfucking turbulence.” The identification with white America that constitutes the song’s title and refrain isn’t quite sincere, and it’s certainly not adulatory: It’s a jeer directed at cultural conservatives that implicitly brands them as racist. Now that the violent calls are coming from inside the white suburban house, Eminem has to be punished and silenced before the purity of white children becomes irrevocably tarnished.

The song, then, is a clear continuation of the long conflict, partially documented in Straight Outta Compton, between hard-core rap artists and middle-class civic organizations such as Tipper Gore’s PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center), which sought to ban them from being broadcast over radio or in concert. As in other songs, Eminem in “White America” extends the tradition established by N.W.A of fighting for free speech for rap as much as he extends N.W.A’s tradition of unfiltered misogyny. Through Dr. Dre, the artist is personally linked to hip-hop history. It’s no accident that he spends much of the second verse establishing his credentials and constructing solidarity by addressing his ties to Dre with a kind of lawyerly precision. If Marshall Mathers checks most of the demographic boxes for the semi-mythical Trump voter, it’s still the case that the one box he doesn’t makes all the difference: He’s a rapper imbued with a profound respect for black culture, someone whose cultural heroes, closest friends, and greatest mentor have all been black. He carved out a space for himself within hip-hop culture without diminishing anyone else within it or selling it out, and gave back as much as he took. Eminem has fallen off somewhat lately, but his influence on the recent renaissance of West Coast rap is evident. Artists as different as Tyler, the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Vince Staples, and Kendrick Lamar have all paid homage, both directly and through their style, cadence, and themes. He made good use of his time at the top, playing a key role in driving cultural conservatives into recession. When was the last time anyone tried to censor rap and came close to succeeding?

A lot has changed in 15 years. But Eminem can still speak for himself, and if last October’s “Campaign Speech” freestyle is any indication, the album he’s due to drop this year will have nothing but contempt for Trump. Meanwhile, the cultural conservatives exposed themselves as frauds once and for all by voting in droves for the ultimate vulgarian. Their numbers and their middle-class status point to the fact that the core Trump voter can’t be reduced to the “white working class.” Like racism, support for Trump runs deep in the leafy suburbs and nests high on the corporate org chart. Fear of cultural contamination is always tied to fear of losing social privilege, and the more privilege one has the more one fears to lose it. Still, there are at least a couple phrases from “White America” that remain as pertinent as ever: The references to our country as “this democracy of hypocrisy” and “this Divided States of Embarrassment” seem like they can only mean more with each passing day.

Eminem’s ‘White America,’ 15 Years Later