The appetite for sustained, loud, and direct protest against Donald Trump’s virulent presidency is widespread; tailored correctly, it can become viral gold. That’s what happened earlier this week when Eminem delivered a pre-recorded freestyle at the BET Hip Hop Awards, a four-minute takedown of Trump. He jumped between the anxiety of nuclear holocaust apparently shared by members of the president’s cabinet, how white supremacy undergirds White House policy, and the NFL protests inspired by Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback unable to find a job thanks to his protests during the national anthem played before football games. Kaepernick tweeted his appreciation of Eminem’s full-throated endorsement, one of over 2 million Twitter posts sent in the hours following the cypher’s premiere (on Thursday morning, it sits at nearly 20 million views).
There’s a joke format in left-wing Twitter circles: a public figure makes a minor overture against Trump, and he or she is lavished with praise and welcomed into the “#TheResistance,” the online Trump pushback criticized for its lack of ambitious solutions or real remedies to Trump and what led to his election. The joke is funniest when the person going against Trump is an ally, either a member of his party, cabinet, or someone with similar views: You’re Trump’s secretary of state and the former CEO of Exxon Mobil who called the president a “moron?” Rex Tillerson, welcome to #TheResistance. Perhaps you’re the Tennessee senator currently feuding with the president who also voted for his agenda 87.5% of the time? Bob Corker, welcome to #TheResistance. Or, the alt-right Breitbart editor and former White House advisor who campaigned against Luther Strange, Trump’s choice for the Republican Senate primary in Alabama? Steve Bannon, Welcome to #TheResistance.
Eminem’s history makes him a viable candidate for this punchline. For millions of people of a certain age, the music of Eminem introduced homosexuality as something to be reviled, and framed women as property to be stalked, murdered, and then discarded. He’s brushed off these criticisms, and his status as one of the best-selling and critically beloved rappers of all time give him an ostensible shield. In the new freestyle, his defense of establishment icons like Obama, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and the military next to the invocation of Kaepernick-style protest (which has itself become watered down in recent weeks) all style Eminem as a political centrist. That’s why residents of the United States who are most affected by the discriminatory policies of Trump, or those who know that the problems are systemic and deeper than one man, would be justified in questioning whether Eminem is an appropriate or even sincere standard bearer. But many people like Keith Olbermann, host of GQ’s “The Resistance,” vaunted Eminem’s fairly milquetoast jabs as the future of both rap and American politics. “After 27 years of doubts about rap I am now a fan,” Olbermann tweeted. “Best political writing of the year, period. 👏👏👏👏👏 #Eminem2020”
There’s also the point of the rap itself, which is bad: The opening bars are “That's an awfully hot / Coffee pot / Should I drop it / On Donald Trump? Probably not / But that's all I got / 'Til I come up with a solid plot,” a near-parody of the all-seasoning-no-steak bars that Eminem himself skewered during his verse at the 2011 BET Hip Hop Awards Cypher. It’s Eminem’s disavowal of his Trump-supporting fans at the end that has received a lot of attention: “And any fan of mine who's a supporter of his / I'm drawing in the sand a line, you're either for or against / And if you can't decide who you like more and you're split / On who you should stand beside, I'll do it for you with this / Fuck you!” It seems provocative, especially when the data shows the overlap in support for Eminem and Trump. But Eminem has a history of aligning himself with the prevailing political climate, as in 2004’s Bush-bashing single “Mosh.” That song’s album Encore went on to sell 5 million copies in the United States after protesting a president who, during an election year, was far more popular than Trump.
Eminem’s freestyle isn’t bold, but it has the appearance of boldness. In setting (a gloomy parking lot), and delivery (its flow is angry, forceful), it’s catered to the superficial way that we consume information on social media and entertainment news packages. Along with Eminem’s sheer star power and Trump’s unpopularity, targeting his own fans is the fuse that has helped it explode. While it is true that the cypher represents the bare minimum asked of white people after the election — Talk to your racist friends, fans, and family members! Silence is complicity! — in 2017, that message has been absorbed into the prevailing cultural climate. The idea of a godlike figure returning to save the world is a classic story that’s easy to get swept up in, but it’s worth questioning how much these people are actually doing, what alternatives are being provided, and whether it was political idolatry that helped get us into this mess in the first place.