The disgracing, rehabilitation, and then re-disgracing, of Roseanne Barr is a classic Trump-era tragicomedy, and one that echoes across media, politics, and popular culture.
Roseanne regained prominence for a final act in public life as the rarest of things: an unapologetic Trump supporter from the entertainment industry, with a proven knack for portraying the white working class in a resonant way. President Trump championed her, ABC rebooted her eponymous sitcom. All of the above were rewarded with huge ratings, while her advertisers were rewarded with access to the eyeballs and pockets of otherwise-disaffected Trump supporters.
On Tuesday, ABC abruptly canceled the show, after Roseanne called former Obama administration official Valerie Jarrett—an accomplished African American woman—the offspring of Muslim terrorists and apes.
This was a fitting and entirely predictable downfall, and a reminder to cultural gatekeepers that plucking Trump supporters from relative obscurity to burnish credibility with his base is a dangerous game.
There would have been no Roseanne reboot if Donald Trump hadn’t become president.
Before the 2016 election, Roseanne the real-life person had mostly relegated herself to the conspiratorial right-wing fringe. She was a birther with sterling alt-right credentials. She called President Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice, another accomplished black woman, “a man with big swinging ape balls.” Had Hillary Clinton won the presidency, her victory would have been rightly understood as a rebuke to all that, and if executives at ABC had subsequently tried to revive Roseanne’s career and her show, they would have been fired for poor judgment and laughed out of the industry.
But Trump is the birther king, and the country’s most popular conspiracy-minded racist. His victory emboldened people with Roseanne’s political bent, and revealed untapped markets–in culture, as much as in politics–for products that appealed to people who support Trump and don’t feel like apologizing for it.
The Roseanne debacle is in that sense similar to post-2016 trends in political journalism to report wistfully from rural diners, and staff up with commentators who harbor at least some Trumpist sensibilities, if not Trump’s clarifying habit of turning subtext into text.
These outreach schemes (which are also monetization schemes) have repeatedly backfired, when the mask has slipped to reveal the full and unlovely essence of Trumpism.
When Trump became a leading contender in the Republican presidential primary, many conservative elites claimed to be appalled, or at least terrified he would win the nomination, and doom the party. Rather than air out to this tension, CNN sidelined or dismissed its existing stable of conservative commentators and replaced them for a time with smooth-talking pro-Trump propagandists, who degraded political debates on air until one of them, Jeffrey Lord, tweeted “Sieg Heil” at a liberal activist and that particular Trump-outreach project came tumbling down.
Somewhat similarly, The Atlantic hired Kevin Williamson (an anti-Trump conservative who does Trumpish things like compare black children to primates and call for the execution-by-hanging of millions of American women) in order to broaden the magazine’s appeal on the right, then fired him when the predictable backlash became overwhelming.
These entreaties to Trump supporters run in both directions, which has resulted a flourishing subgenre of soft-touch articles about Trump supporters resolute in their support for Trump. Many of these profiles are datelined in small towns, based on brief conversations with voters at local diners, or in other settings where they are unlikely to be fully candid. The questionable value of this style of reporting becomes evident any time Trump supporters get less superficial treatment. When Michael Kruse spent more than a passing moment with devoted Trump supporters, they let on a Trump-driven fixation with national anthem protests in the NFL, which they “joked” had come to stand for “niggers for life.”
Political and cultural elites have frequently talked themselves into believing their own depictions of core Trump supporters as homespun and financially insecure. They have sought to reach them on that euphemistic basis, only to find that their emissaries to that base have a lot in common with Trump himself, and can’t survive contact with the outside world for long. Roseanne’s story is no different.
Before Tuesday, conservative’s exalted in Roseanne’s success as much for being the only pro-Trump branded sitcom star, as for being the exception that proved the rule of mainstream culture’s general disdain for the American right. But none of them would have thought it very useful if the show Roseanne were faithful to the real Roseanne’s values. The conservatives who thrilled to Roseanne’s ratings wanted good p.r. more than they wanted anyone to hold up a mirror to the Trump base.
Roseanne brought the economically anxious Trump supporter of our culture’s self-soothing fantasies to life. Roseanne is the Trump supporter who shows up at Trump rallies.
It would in theory be possible to create a version of Roseanne that wasn’t overly flattering in its portrayals—where Trump supporters weren’t all affable midwesterners with diverse and loving families, or that didn’t omit the part where Roseanne, like many core Trump supporters, spends a few hours each day promoting racist conspiracy theories and tweeting 4chan memes at liberals. A show like that might even serve an enlightening purpose within the culture, revealing devoted Trump supporters to be more like Roseanne than Roseanne. But it wouldn’t be a sitcom.