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.
The other day, I was listening to Special Ed’s 1989 classic “I Got It Made,” and it struck me that back then, when rap was truly counterculture, we had no idea that Trump's over-the-top boasting would become the norm for rap narratives:
My name is Special Ed and I’m a super duper star/every other month I get a brand new car/got 20, that’s plenty, yet I still want more/kinda fond of Honda scooters, got 74/I got the riches to fulfill my needs/got land in the sand of the West Indies/Even got a little island of my very own/I got a frog, a dog with a solid gold bone.
In Paris Is Burning, the iconic documentary released around the same time as Special Ed’s modest hit, drag queen Dorian Corey lamented the shift in cross-dressing and vogue competitions: “When I grew up, you wanted to look like Marlene Dietrich or Marilyn Monroe, but now they want to look like Alexis from Dynasty. It’s not about what you can create, it’s about what you can acquire.”
It’s not about what you can create, it’s about what you can acquire. This could stand as a succinct assessment of so much of our modern American ethos.
Years ago I cringed in agreement as I read Derrick Bell lament that blacks had ceded the moral high ground in America. Which is to say that upon being (somewhat) incorporated into mainstream America, blacks went from being invisible victims to visible degenerates—performing a hideous exaggeration of mainstream, majority culture in warped proportion to their exclusion from it.
Nelly’s “Tip Drill” video on BET Uncut, for instance, wasn’t so different from the overseas expense account romps I’d heard about from former white classmates who'd entered the corporate realm. My friend’s garish rims and his diamond–encrusted Jesus piece didn’t seem so out of step with the kitchen floor I’d encountered in a Connecticut suburban home: beautiful wood into which was cut the shapes of each leaf indigenous to New England. Both were coded versions of flossing; the floor was actually far more expensive than the chain and rims.
The cruel irony is that black invisibility affirmed black humanity among the general populace during the civil rights movement, while black visibility might just have undercut it. The more visible we are to some whites, the more we begin to look the same. Incorporation into mainstream society brought many of the benefits of citizenry, but it also blanched blacks with new stigmas. It gave whites new images to selectively manipulate, and made—by virtue of a commodity- and image-driven society—blacks complicit in their own stereotyping and vilification. It made blacks and our artistic expressions particularly ripe for scapegoating.
Of course, rap music evolved long ago from updated Negro spirituals and “street CNN” societal commentary to something else entirely, something out of step with black reality but in step with black yearning and oppression. What whites think of blacks and rap music rarely provides much insight into black reality but never fails to give us a window into the mainstream white soul. And what we see is, as McCaughey said, “lewd and bawdy.” We see something empty and incoherent. We see, as Republican strategist Steven Schmidt termed it, “intellectual rot.”
James Baldwin put it best: “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.”
T.D. Williams was born and raised in New York City, where he spent his youth in a welfare hotel for the homeless in Times Square. He has been a soda salesperson, camp counselor, a parking lot attendant, a waiter, a bartender, a civil rights activist, a dean of college admissions and an adjunct professor. He is currently finishing his first novel, and his writing on sports and societal issues has appeared in various publications, including Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter.