When I heard Eminem’s incendiary rhymes dissing President Trump I was like, yeah, I knew this coming.
Eminem versus Trump was an inevitable clash. I mean, of course the Trump Show had to eventually include a Slim Shady cameo. He had to be in the circus that is this administration because he and Trump stand at opposite ends of the spectrum of whiteness.
Trump is at one end as the man who rode white identity politics and white racial resentment and white anger all the way to the White House. He told them, “I understand you, I am your voice, I am the white people’s champ.”
Trump wants to stoke racial division so he can be in the position of defending white people from black people. He’s the avatar for a brand of whiteness that loves the power of white supremacy and is deeply fearful of losing even a bit of that power. He’s like George Wallace with access to the nuclear codes and a bit of Jackie Gleason thrown in for levity amid the chaos.
At the other end of the spectrum of whiteness is Eminem. He reveres black culture. I’ve interviewed him several times and I’ve always found this reverence to be genuine. Far from a culture vulture, he’s someone who fell in love with hip-hop at an early age and has grown to become a respectful contributor to the culture. Eminem’s just one of a generation of white kids who grew up immersed in black culture, viewing it as a part of their cultural legacy, wanting to be part of the fun.
Surely, Eminem’s massive commercial success is aided and abetted by his whiteness, but that’s really about white fans responding to him. Where Trump ignites his fans by reminding them that their whiteness is under assault from those who are not straight, white, and male, Eminem stands alongside those who truly love black culture.
This clash is valuable for all of us to witness. We get to see clearly that there are varying ways of performing whiteness. You can be like Trump and wrap yourself in lost power and entitlement and victimhood and present yourself as a savior for white people (who definitely do not need saving). Or you can be respectful toward people who aren’t like you and engage deeply in their culture. America is the way it is—the land of both corrosive white privilege and innovative black culture—because we are a nation run by both sorts of white men.
But while Trump and Eminem are opposites in so many ways, their collision was also inevitable because of how they’re similar. They both understand the power of creating division.
It’s a classic pop culture strategy. You say or do something provocative and shocking—rap about extreme violence or wear a dress made entirely of meat or make a video where you make out with Jesus. This makes people who aren’t in your fanbase get angry and denounce you as if you are bringing about the ruination of America. And when this out-group attacks you, the transgressive star, that makes your fanbase, your in-group, feel attacked and band together more intensely.
That turns their cultural expression into a cause—the elites want to shut us down because they don’t understand us but we’ll show them!
Eminem has used this strategy throughout his career—as have performers like Lady Gaga, Madonna, Prince, Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson, and on and on. The first lines of Em’s first single were designed to scare the parents of America—“Hi, kids! Do you like violence? Wanna see me stick 9-inch nails through each one of my eyelids? Wanna copy me and do exactly like I did?”
It’s like he’s winking at the kids who should be his fans while trying to trigger their parents and Tipper Gore and Dionne Warwick to go on a rampage against his music, thus making his albums that much more necessary to his in-group. Kids love to love music that the older generation hates.
Trump used the same strategy throughout his campaign and his presidency. He started on Day 1 of his campaign with his Mexicans-are-rapists speech. He throws out rhetorical bombs meant to enrage the left, the media, the cultural elites, non-whites, whoever. The resulting anger and fury of his critics make Trump’s fans love him even more. Nothing binds a group together more cohesively than a threat to its existence.
Eminem made kids feel like the older generation was against them while Trump made working-class whites feel like all the non-whites in the world were against them. In each case, the result was to heighten the in-group’s sense that outsiders were out to get them, and having that clearly defined enemy led the group to follow its leader still more intensely.
So perhaps it was inevitable that Trump and Eminem would clash, given their conflicting values and their shared tactic of doing things meant to divide the audience. But strangely, so far it’s been a one-sided battle. Eminem attacked Trump, who has yet to respond even though he’s supposedly unable to stop himself from reacting to any attack. We see now that that’s not quite true.
ESPN’s Jemele Hill tweeted that Trump is a white supremacist and it was so hurtful that our snowflake in chief attacked her repeatedly, but Eminem’s extended riff against Trump, which instantly went viral, has yet to provoke a response.
That might be because of one critical way Eminem is unlike the Gold Star Khans, Meryl Streep, Chelsea Manning, immigrants, or the NFL kneelers: He’s a white male. Trump’s style is to attack non-whites or white women, in order to burnish his reputation with the sort of white men who make up his base. When Trump attacks white men, they’re always cultural elites—usually in media or elected office.
My guess is that Eminem won’t be attacked because there’s not an easy identity angle to exploit and because there’s some overlap between the fanbases of Trump and Eminem.
At least, there was overlap until Tuesday night. Eminem finished his rhyme by directly insulting Trump supporters who are fans of his, and pushing them out of his tribe. He had the courage to say he doesn’t want them in his in-group. This wasn’t a strategic move to make his folks like him more—this was about his anger at Trump and racists in general.
You would think that would make Trump come to the aid of his folks—Eminem attacked them specifically! A loyal leader stands up for his people when they’re attacked. But as we know, Trump is loyal only to himself. And most likely, the spectrum of whiteness is not the only spectrum that Trump’s on.