There was nothing particularly notable about Eminem’s performance at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards—except his sweatshirt.
Flashing lights emblazoned his chest with “ROLE MODEL,” one of the rapper’s songs released that year and the type of sarcastic jab at moral do-gooders that would define his work. Being a pariah was the whole point. And a VMA nomination for “Best New Artist” indicated that his words, to say nothing of his pariah status itself, had forced its way into the mainstream. Eminem’s oversized hoodie that night was a dual message both to those who embraced him and those who pushed back.
It telegraphed not only why the bleached-blond emcee was on stage, but also why people were listening: Fuck the way your parents, teachers, bosses, and elected officials tell you how to act.
This moment was long before Donald Trump, no paragon of virtue himself, insulted his way into the White House. Talk to Trump whisperers, and they’ll describe a similar rationalization—a middle finger to the establishment—as seen in Eminem fandom. His voters didn’t care one way or the other if he set a good example.
“Unless you want to write Jesus Christ in as your vote, you might as well forget it,” a female Trump supporter told New York magazine in early November, after an audio recording of Trump joking about sexual assault had surfaced. “There isn’t any perfect person on the planet.”
Trump was an imperfect messenger who spoke to broader truths—not all that different from Eminem. The rapper’s angry and surgical dissection of the flawed system that created him had long primed listeners to feel the same sense of white resentment, whether he intended it or not. (He’s recently taken to dissing the president.)
Nevertheless, Eminem’s lyrics—“And now they’re sayin’ I’m in trouble with the government, I’m lovin’ it”—would fit right in at a Trump rally. And perhaps nowhere did they resonate more than the suburban and rural regions that would eventually propel a xenophobic and unstable reality TV star into the most powerful job in the world.
A New York Times graphic this month visualized Eminem’s audience using YouTube data from January 2016 to April 2017. The darker the shade of purple, the more likely users there were to watch his videos. Notice the rapper’s popularity in largely white regions, ranging from western Pennsylvania through the Ohio River Valley and into Missouri, then reaching north through Iowa and into upper Midwestern states, including Michigan and Wisconsin.
Three of those states where Eminem reigns—Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin—narrowly flipped Republican in 2016 and pushed the election in Trump’s favor. Break down the GOP vote swing by the change in the party’s performance by county, as the University of Virginia Center for Politics did in June, and you’ll get a map that’s roughly similar to that of Eminem’s popularity.
The overlap isn’t particularly surprising for Michiganders like me. I grew up outside of Detroit, where Eminem was a way of life for suburban white teenagers, the go-to soundtrack for when we crammed into American-made cars, passed around bottles from our parents’ liquor cabinets, and went out to an empty park or grimy bowling alley. He was part of the escape—even central to it.
The media has openly wrestled with its inability to understand what drove some of these same people to vote for Trump, and why much of that support continues despite the daily gong show in Washington and ongoing pandering to white supremacists. A close read of Eminem’s work reveals the hip-hop equivalent of the president’s political rhetoric: Both men’s words take us on a self-destructive ride into white America’s heart of darkness.
A product of a broken family and low-income Detroit neighborhoods, Eminem grew up the opposite of a real-estate scion. But both he and Trump crystallize the way the white working class views its stagnation in a multicultural society, opening the door for more affluent white people to think they’re similarly aggrieved. Take the jeremiad “If I Had,” when Eminem lists off the ways “life is like a big obstacle”:
I’m tired of jobs startin’ off at $5.50 an hour
Then this boss wonders why I’m smartin’ off
Tired of being fired every time I fart and cough
The broader notion that the entire system is built to watch him fail permeates his early work. In response, the media lavished Eminem with the same mantle of trailer-trash prophet that they would Trump years later. “He is hip-hop’s first white bluesman,” The New York Times’s Jody Rosen wrote in April 2000, “whose grimly funny songs, filled with violence and self-loathing, movingly describe the hardships of a white underclass life.”
The underlying message isn’t earth-shattering for listeners of color or other minority groups used to being treated unfairly. But the same can’t be said for white people without college degrees in places like Michigan, where work on the line once meant financial security and social prestige. That such outcomes weren’t automatic was news to this privileged class around the turn of the 21st century. “Everything he talks about in his lyrics is the truth,” a suburban Detroiter told The Detroit News before a concert in November 1999. “It’s all about life. I can relate to him.”
Uncertainty abounded for such listeners, and Eminem, whose upbringing in black neighborhoods lent him credibility, spelled it out in detail in one of his most vulnerable tracks, “Rock Bottom”:
I feel like I’m walkin’ a tightrope without a circus net
Poppin’ Percocet, I’m a nervous wreck
I deserve respect but I work a sweat for this worthless check
I’m about to burst this Tec at somebody to reverse this debt
Minimum wage got my adrenaline caged
Full of venom and rage, especially when I’m engaged
And my daughter’s down to her last diaper, it’s got my ass hyper
I pray that God answers, maybe I’ll ask nicer
Asking nicer wasn’t actually part of his repertoire, of course. Instead, Eminem lashed out: at his parents, his girlfriend, his teachers, his fans, random strangers. The insults were about rape and murder; they were sinister and misogynistic and homophobic. But, like Trump, the rapper claimed plausible deniability. He loved and protected his real-life daughter, and he had gay friends like Elton John. He simply needed to let his alter-ego run wild for the sake of the Eminem show. Let Slim be Slim.
“This is stuff you might think about but never say,” a suburban high schooler told The Detroit Free Press at a June 2000 roundtable of young Eminem fans. It wasn’t far off from how supporters praised Trump at rallies over the past two years. “You won’t leave confused about where he stands,” a 60-year-old New Hampshire man told The New York Times in July 2015. “We don’t have to like the truth. But we need it.”
The initial media reaction was not all that different from the outrage to Trump: Eminem was a moral scourge to suburban parents and white-collar professionals who wondered where society had gone wrong. “You have to worry whether kids get the joke with Eminem,” read a Detroit News column in June 2000, “or if they simply take his sick characters as role models.”
The debate over whether listeners took his lyrics seriously or literally only empowered the rapper’s self-referential art, with fans claiming membership in a new counterculture. He insists in “Sing for the Moment” that all those lines about rape and murder are just locker-room talk: It’s all political, if my music is literal / And I’m a criminal, how the fuck can I raise a little girl?
It wasn’t particularly ideological—criticisms of the Bush Administration were interspersed with homophobic slurs—but rather a response to norms and the people who tried to enforce them, like obscenity warrior Tipper Gore, wife of the former vice president. The rapper understood this appeal, and in “White America,” he explicitly grapples with his resonance among people who look like him:
I never would’ve dreamed in a million years I’d see
So many motherfuckin’ people who feel like me
Who share the same views, and the same exact beliefs
It’s like a fuckin’ army marchin’ in back of me
So many lives I touch, 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
The media that critiqued him, meanwhile, was just a smarmy foil trying uphold a Pollyanna-ish vision of how things work. Who were they to say his message is incorrect, even dangerous? The media’s distaste for the messenger, Eminem argues in “The Way I Am,” is merely a reflection of their own failures: They full of shit, too.
Such whataboutism is a common refrain throughout the rapper’s catalog, political correctness be damned. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than his tour de force on free speech, “Renegade,” in which he and Jay-Z portray themselves as “debated, disputed, hated,” gateway drugs for anyone trying to escape the banality of pop culture and pretense of polite society.
It’s not hard to see why his music reverberated in so many communities that failed to adapt to economic, technological, or cultural change. Eminem was a response to that—a crudely delivered critique of the power structure that failed to prepare them for it—and like Trump he never offered up any real alternative. Marshall Mathers’ personal struggles were real, to be sure, but so, too, is the sense of self-victimization that white listeners might take away from his art. The danger is elevating a worldview that is purely reactive to perceived slights, regardless of whether they’re true.
Which is where the two men diverge. As one fan told The Detroit Free Press in 2000 regarding Eminem’s more outrageous attacks, “He’s allowed to cross that line; he’s an entertainer — it’s his job to cross it.” The rapper was in some ways puzzled, even alarmed, by such die-hard followers, and he warns against taking his lyrics too seriously in tracks like “Stan.” The immense popularity of his music was in itself evidence of the problem. But Eminem, merely an entertainer, continued to mine it.
Trump similarly feeds off such a cult of personality. The difference is that he’s converted his cartoonish cultural cache into political power. The reactionary worldview has not only been elevated, but has reached unimaginable heights. And his continued pursuit of core supporters’ validation only ups the threat of danger.
At the VMAs in 1999, when Eminem’s name was called for “Best New Artist,” the rapper, having traded his “ROLE MODEL” hoodie for a wife-beater and unbuttoned shirt, sauntered up to the stage to accept his first major award. His work had been officially recognized by the mainstream against which he defined himself. And the first words out of his mouth on stage could have described the moment Trump won the presidency 17 years later.
“Uh oh,” Eminem said, leaning into the mic and looking out at the crowd. “Was this supposed to happen?”