Last night’s BET Hip Hop Awards freestyle wasn’t the first time Eminem has raked Donald Trump over the coals — between a guest verse on a Big Sean cut earlier this year and the aptly named “Campaign Speech” released late election season last year, it’s long been evident that the rapper despises the Republican president with a passion. Still, his most recent verbal assault stood out. It was more detailed, not just Trump but his policies (green-lighting white supremacists, flirting with nuclear war, and picking fights with NFL protesters while doing nothing about gun control or hurricane relief) were named and damned. Topped off by a disavowal and literal fuck you aimed at any Trump-supporting Eminem fans, it was more direct, and more risky. It’s not that often that a major artist displays such a willingness to cull his audience in the name of politics.
It has to matter, but what does it really mean? Nearly 20 years after emerging as a public figure, Eminem is, somehow, still a source of heated and irrational debate. He’s always been a profoundly polarizing character toward whom it’s all but impossible to maintain a neutral position. Whether you hate him or love him, your attitude toward him is bound to be visceral and deeply personal. There is no way to coolly assess Eminem; furthermore, he’s the sort of artist for whom being “cool” has never been a priority. Rage, humiliation, depression, obsession, addiction, and hate are his themes, pursued with a violent intensity that precludes any concern about coming off well. To inhabit his reality is to inhabit a space where the darker elements of the human personality speak freely. He’s not the only one to have made a name this way. Some of the more striking moments in Eminem’s anti-Trump speeches are ones where he acknowledges the parallels between his own rhetoric and that of his orange nemesis: “Campaign Speech” tells voters they’d be insane to elect someone who is, essentially, his evil alter ego Slim Shady; the freestyle last night talks of how “like him in politics, I’m using all of his tricks.” Grab listeners by the gut and the rest will follow. As far as style goes in politics and politics in style, it’s a strategy as low as it is effective.
In certain ways, Eminem attacking Trump is like trying to cure thirst with saltwater. After all, a person’s politics are invariably expressed in their tone, and their tones are similar, as Eminem-hating Trump haters and Eminem-loving Trump lovers would both quickly admit. But similarity and sameness aren’t identical. All sussing-out of tone aside, one still has to account for the fact that Eminem unequivocally opposes Trump and everyone Trump represents. It’s worth making a distinction between Eminem’s “low” attitude, rooted in the social (poor white) and cultural (black hard-core hip-hop) milieu that formed him, and the privileged bloviations of a wealthy white bigot like Trump and his base.
The primary factor in the Republican electoral triumphs of the past 20 years has been that working-class turnout in elections, both by whites and people of color, has been abysmal. And for good reason, between a Republican party intent on harsh policing, killing labor rights, and cutting the social safety net, and a Democratic party unwilling to take a firm stand against these policies, there was nowhere to turn. As an active, native, superstar-tier cultural representative of the white portion of the working class, Eminem has a unique capacity to sway that audience, even during a period of aesthetic decline and economic recession he was still selling records by the millions. It’s far from inconceivable that his stand against Trump will keep Republicans from winning winnable elections, particularly in Michigan, where Trump surrogate and cultural carpetbagger Kid Rock is angling for a Senate run.
There’s plenty of things to dislike Eminem for. He’s not as fluent, self-aware, or witty as he once was; too much of his recent output, BET freestyle included, sounds like he’s hate-fucking the English language. But his forthright opposition to foreign wars and racism is entirely admirable, even if the man himself is not. It’s worth remembering that politics isn’t only tone but actual policies as well. It’s a problem when Eminem, no friend to feminists or women in his lyrics, takes aim at an administration dead set on reducing women’s rights to nothingness. But it’s a far more pressing problem that there’s an administration dead set on reducing women’s rights to nothingness, and if Eminem rallying his white working-class base against the president can help push that administration out of power (and it really could help), that’s hardly something the so-called resistance can afford to frown at or turn down.