Roseanne Barr has been fired, causing ABC to cancel the rebooted version of her self-named TV show, “Roseanne,” because of a tweet with arguably racist implications. The whole debacle is a microcosm of the way we live now, and in ways that are not comforting for either side. Sure, it’s a warning about the hair triggers of the left and their arrogant contempt for anyone associated with Trump voters. On the other hand, it’s a warning to the right about the price they might end up paying for Trumpism.
Barr’s actual tweet was somewhat ambiguous. In the semi-literate style of social media, she wrote: “muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj.” The initials “vj” are short for Valerie Jarrett, Barack Obama’s former White House factotum, who is black and was born to American parents in Iran. This has raised suspicions that she is some kind of Muslim sleeper agent—among those who are inclined to believe the same thing about her boss. Technically, I should point out that the Muslim Brotherhood was a Sunni Muslim movement, while Iran’s religious fanatics are from the Shia sect of Islam. But it seems beside the point to raise technical objections to a conspiracy theory.
At any rate, it’s the reference to “Planet of the Apes” that has everyone in an uproar. There is a long and odious history of racists comparing black people to apes and monkeys as a way of implying that they are subhuman. Yet it’s not absolutely clear that this is what Barr had in mind, rather than a more generic (and uncreative) attack on Jarrett’s appearance. The left has a hair trigger for this sort of thing, as when they made out Kevin Williamson as a racist for making a reference to “primates” in the context of talking about a young black man. But of course we are primates, all of us humans.
(What remains unsettled is a topic of concern to science fiction fans: the circumstances under which it is it still acceptable to make references to “Planet of the Apes”—which was, after all, originally intended as a kind of social commentary on humans.)
Any such ambiguity in Barr’s tweet is a mark against it, though I find myself wishing in cases like this that our culture had a way of registering disapproval without making her an Unperson. Moreover, I suspect people will react to this case the same way they do to Donald Trump’s ill-considered statements. On the one hand, this tweet is just ambiguous enough that many of Barr’s fans and supporters, those inclined to rally around her as a rare representative of the pro-Trump right on television, will be convinced that she was unfairly railroaded by an entertainment industry that hates half the country. On the other hand, her tweet is just bad enough that it will be used by the entertainment industry as an excuse to hate half the country.
Remember that the big breakthrough of the “Roseanne” reboot was that both Barr and her character are Trump supporters. The show was considered a way of giving not just Trump voters but blue-collar Middle Americans, along with their culture and concerns, a presence on television that is generally lacking. For this reason, and also on its own merits, from what I hear—being more of a Star Trek guy, I haven’t seen it—”Roseanne” quickly became one of the most popular shows on television and a cash cow for ABC.
Now that might all be over. Johnny Oleksinski worries that “Hollywood Will Use ‘Roseanne’ as an Excuse to Get More Insular.” One journalist demonstrates the line of reasoning that will make that happen: “Roseanne’s network wanted to showcase the average Trump voter. And that’s exactly what they got.”
This is going to be a problem for the left, which doesn’t really need another excuse to seal itself more securely into a cultural and political bubble. I would suggest that the real lesson of this debacle is that the entertainment industry needs to find more material that appeals to Middle-American viewers. The problem is not that Roseanne Barr turns out to be a flaky conspiracy theorist, which she has been, notoriously, for decades. The problem is that her show was just about the only one that attempted to appeal to a neglected half of the country.
Yet this is also a totally unnecessary, self-inflicted wound for the right—and a warning that what happens with Trump-supporter Barr could happen with Trump himself.
Did I mention that Barr has been crazy for decades—a 9/11 Truther who rails about government mind-control conspiracies? So who thought it was a good idea to set her up as the public stand-in for the right and for Middle America?
But she is not the only television celebrity with a history of saying questionable things who has been suddenly embraced as a standard-bearer of the right. She’s not the only one with a bad habit of tweeting before thinking, or of ill-considered statements that could be plausibly construed as sympathetic to racists. She’s not the only one with a following of fans willing to concoct defenses for anything she does or to dismiss all allegations against her as fake. It may turn out that she won’t be the only one to be heralded as a champion of the common man, only to end up setting back that cause.
Donald Trump’s defenders on the right have a certain tendency toward triumphal gloating when given any semi-plausible excuse for it. So Jonathan Tobin—who, like many Trump supporters, is still stuck on the “NeverTrumpers”—crows that Trump’s “conservative appointments and policies have vindicated the decision of many of his former critics on the right who hoped or believed that he would govern like a Republican even if he couldn’t act like one.”
On the policy side, I’ll admit that the Trump presidency has gone better than I expected, though my expectations were very low. Given prominent failures and cave-ins on Obamacare and the budget, I would definitely not agree that Trump is “among the most conservative presidents in memory.” But yes, he does some things that I like. Yet behind every one of those things, there is a persistent sense of existential dread that never goes away. The Roseanne debacle explains why.
The comparison is pretty apt. Eight years is a very successful run both for a presidential administration and for a television series, and the Trump administration is not much farther along than the “Roseanne” reboot was. You can hail it as a success, even if Trump’s ratings, by presidential standards, are not as stellar as those of “Roseanne.” But it’s not a good idea to ignore the erratic and repellent behavior that threatens to destroy the whole thing and set back the wider cause, possibly for a long time. The price we pay for Trumpism might be the same price we just paid for “Roseanne”: the consequence of putting the fate of a worthy cause in the hands of an unworthy standard-bearer.
Anyone who really knew Roseanne Barr must have been waiting this whole time for the other shoe to drop, for her batty views and erratic personality to blow everything up. Those of us who remember who Donald Trump is are haunted by the same kind of dread.