What Conservatives Really Mean When They Talk About Rap

Conservatives are always talking about rap as a societal ill, when they’re the ones from whom the sickness is derived.

Rapper Ja Rule and Donald Trump in New York City in February 2003
Rapper Ja Rule and Donald Trump in New York City in February 2003 Evan Agostini/Getty Images

What you say about somebody else reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessities, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you; I’m describing me. —James Baldwin

Donald Trump supporters have continually found new, improbable ways to rationalize the malfeasance of their Frankenstein monster, but recently they reached back in time for one of the most tired, though trusted, strategies in the American playbook: When on the defensive, blame black criminality; if that doesn’t work, blame rap lyrics.

Former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey wove inanity and insanity together in crafting a rebuttal to/deflection of Trump’s vile remarks about grabbing women by the crotch:

I abhor lewd and bawdy language. I don’t listen to rap music, I don’t like that kind of thing, but Hillary Clinton … Hillary Clinton expresses that she finds the language on that bus horrific, but in fact she likes language like this, quote, “I came to slay, bitch, when he ‘F’ me good I take his ass to Red Lobster,” that happens to be a line from Beyoncé, her favorite performer, whom she says she idolizes and says she would like to imitate.

According to his controversial spokesperson Armstrong Williams, Ben Carson (whose dimwitted, sleepy-eyed countenance could lead you to believe he got into Curren$y’s kush stash) backs Trump “100 percent” despite Trump’s embrace of sexual assault as a strategy for seduction. His rationale? “It’s no different from what you hear in rap music,” he said. Earlier this year, Williams was hit with a sexual harassment suit of his own. His familiarity with the crude and lewd might just have authentic roots.

That these are false equivalencies is obvious enough to anyone with a discerning mind. Trump’s apologists either know better or know nothing; the former suggests a particularly depraved mindset, the latter a chillingly stunted one. These are people who apparently don’t know R&B from rap, singers from rappers, consensual sex from sexual assault, fantasy from reality, entertainment from action. It would be too much to remind them that Digital Underground, in jest, was decent enough to anticipate and subvert Trump’s “grab her by the [p–sy]” advice by encouraging female listeners to “grab him in the biscuits.” Rap, for all its faults, has always showcased one thing Trump never cultivated: a sense of humor.

Trump and his ilk have spent a lifetime mistaking symptoms of a problem for the problem itself. They seek scapegoats in place of solutions. Their tone-deaf political rhetoric and their nonsensical social and fiscal policies stand as stark evidence. The instinct to misdiagnose and scapegoat has afflicted them with a fatal blindness—even when they look in the mirror, they see everyone but themselves. So it’s no surprise that they don’t understand the nuance of rap and its evolution from counterculture to soundtrack of mainstream America. They cannot comprehend that Trump is the bad influence on rap, not the other way around.

Just as Trump is the natural culmination of the degradation and corruption of our political discourse, rap has evolved into the natural culmination of our crass, reckless, distinctly American brand of capitalism and imperialism, an intertwining of consumption, violence and cultural incoherence. The misguided among us pitch Trump as an anti-establishment candidate, though he is simply the crudest, and in some ways most honest, depiction of establishment values. The misguided among us still view rap as counterculture, when it’s really an indicator of where our mainstream culture stands.

In fact, rap is the most nakedly American genre of music going, with its cliché anthems of sex, money and murder just being an extreme microcosm of American societal ills. The lyrics are a raw and unfiltered echo of basic American rhetoric. At its most grotesque, rap is the appropriate score for a culture steeped in endless war at home and abroad and addiction to conspicuous consumption in the face of shrinking global resources. Contempt for black life, the embrace of excess and extreme misogyny are not specific to rap—they make up the language of our society.

Rap mimics American culture and feeds it back to the mainstream in an extremely concentrated version. Trump supporters’ inability to assess their own culture—rife with misogyny, violence and excess, from its films to its sports to its commercials—leads them to mistake their own reflections as something entirely other and oppositional.