Eminem Delivers a Critique as Vulgar as the President

An unlikely champion of civic values offers a blistering TV performance.

Jumana El-Heloueh / Reuters

The rapper Eminem performed a freestyle takedown of President Trump on television Tuesday, calling out the hypocrisy of his extravagant travel, his bumbling incompetence, and his disrespect for a POW before dubbing him “Donald the bitch.”

The performance was perhaps the most prominent instance of a white celebrity defending the NFL players protesting the killing of African Americans by police officers.

And the flagrant disrespect the entertainer showed for the president felt like karma, and not just because Trump has called the protesting NFL players sons of bitches. Recall that during last year’s Republican primary, Trump was able to excel in part by taking advantage of the fact that he had no respectability to maintain, no sense of shame or decency to limit him, and no reputation for good character to lose.

None of the other candidates could pull off bragging about their penis size on stage, insulting a rival’s wife, or appending juvenile nicknames to competing pols. The Access Hollywood tape would’ve sunk any other candidate. But why would it lower anyone’s opinion of a man who gave a radio host permission to call his daughter “a piece of ass”?

To fight Trump as Trump fought would have required a Jeb Bush or John Kasich or Marco Rubio to embarrass their mothers, spouses, and kids, to sully their souls and their respectability.

Eminem is not similarly constrained.

The superstar rapper has been marshaling profane lyrics, rejecting political correctness, calling out hypocrisy, and raising a defiant middle finger at critics for 25 years, a period in which he became one of the world’s best-selling recording artists. His many fans appreciate that he says what he thinks. Oh, and he’s from the Rust Belt. If there’s a more apt foil for Trump, or any celebrity of comparable stature who could seem half as authentic calling him “Trump the bitch” on national TV (while insisting that the president doesn’t have the balls to respond), I don’t know who it is.

And yes, “Trump the bitch” is too vulgar for many to celebrate. Alas, as long as Trump inhabits the White House, Eminem-style vulgarity is presidential. Trump’s banter with Billy Bush was certainly more degraded than anything in Eminem’s substantively civic video, where after a few fits and starts, the flow smooths out and the blows start to land:

Eminem underscored the irony of his emergence as a moralizing political critic with the line, “Trump, when it comes to giving a shit, you’re as stingy as I am!” In fact, Eminem’s reputation for not giving a shit, his impulse to burn everything down—if only metaphorically—with his lyrics, and his explicit hostility to the notion of serving as a role model, lend a fraught wrinkle to his turn as an earnest denouncer of Trump’s depredations. If Eminem feels a need to object, if Eminem can easily seize the moral high ground from the president of the United States, and if it now falls to Eminem of all people to defend core civic values, what does that say about us?

Yet here we are, with years of Trump ahead of us, and all divisions his tenure will stoke. “Any fan of mine who’s a supporter of his / I’m drawing in the sand a line,” Eminem rapped. “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 [middle finger].”

Will the president respond?

Said an observer on Reddit, “never underestimate Trump’s stupidity, but I have to believe someone on his staff would physically remove the phone from his hand before he started a war of words with a master battle rapper with 21,000,000 followers.”

In this chaos presidency, with even Eminem worried that the erratic president who commands the U.S. military may needlessly start a war that kills millions, that doesn’t seem a safe bet.