The Roseanne Fantasy Is Over

The sitcom star’s racist tweet ended a show that fashioned Trump’s appeal as largely economic and national unity as within reach.

Roseanne Barr in 2018
Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

The Trump-voting Roseanne Conner of the rebooted Roseanne was not deplorable. She griped not about “shithole countries” or the “rapists” from Mexico, but about her mounting bills and healthcare costs. She sternly but lovingly helped out her gender-noncomforming grandkid. Her family members disliked undocumented immigrants only, it was emphasized, because they directly undercut their own job prospects. TV’s Roseanne did have some prejudices about the Muslim family that moved in across the street, but copped to being in the wrong when the new neighbors shared their wi-fi password in a moment of need.

The Trump-voting Roseanne Barr of real life, the actress who plays the character, doesn’t seem quite so concerned with economic stability or decency. Her Twitter feed has featured bursts of Islamophobia and conspiracy-mongering about George Soros. On Tuesday, the racist worldview in which such rhetoric is rooted—a worldview that sees America as under perpetual threat by brown and Jewish folks—was again affirmed when she sent a tweet comparing the Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett with an ape.

The tweet was quickly deleted, and within hours ABC announced it was canceling Roseanne. Network president Channing Dungey called Barr’s tweet “abhorrent, repugnant, and inconsistent with our values.” This was in many ways a shocking decision: It’s not often a profit-minded corporation axes a show that’s network TV’s biggest hit in years. But on some level, the outcome felt inevitable. All along, Roseanne offered a fantasy of who the average Trump voter was, and at some point, reality ruins fantasy.

After Donald Trump’s election, economic anxiety became a go-to explanation for what had happened—and almost as quickly, became a punchline for critics who thought that term distracted from the more urgent reasons for Trump’s rise. Most of those critics were on the left and pointed to the racism, sexism, and xenophobia plain in the statements of many pro-Trump voters. Others said that even outwardly tolerant Trump supporters had endorsed exclusionary policies. Yet some critics on the right, too, warned against overemphasizing the pocketbook in understanding the president’s appeal. “Trump’s populism sprang directly from culture wars, not from economic issues,” Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro wrote in a review of the new Roseanne. “It sprang from anger at intersectional politics, coastal elitism, and disdain for traditional values.”

ABC’s sitcom, though, centered on a pro-Trumper who was basically neutral on culture. Roseanne and her husband, Dan, were mostly ever only confused, not antagonized, by signs of feminism or gay acceptance. If “culture clashes” did figure in, they were mostly in disagreements over how strictly to parent kids and grandkids. The reboot’s most controversial joke was a meta one about Dan dozing through “all the shows about black and Asian families,” a reference to sitcoms like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat. The punchline, delivered by Roseanne: “They’re just like us. There, now you’re all caught up.” Dismissive? Absolutely. Outwardly racist? No. All in all, the show was such a benign portrayal of Trumpland that Trump himself applauded it.

Of course, were the partisan debates unfolding both on talk radio and around breakfast tables only about tax rates and the affordability of health care, politics wouldn’t be such a tricky subject for pop culture right now (nor would it command the share of attention it currently does). But what’s actually happening involves a lot of people who speak and tweet exactly like the real Roseanne does. Her conspiracy rhetoric has merely echoed the messages of the pro-Trump media ecosystem. Her crack about Valerie Jarrett was far from original, too. As journalists who’ve written about the Obama administration can well attest, someone, somewhere, tweets similar vileness every time a black Democrat is mentioned online. The difference is that Roseanne was famous.

As my colleague David Sims has written, the overtness of the Jarrett tweet has made it untenable for ABC to continue with the show. There’s plausibly even an aesthetic component to this threshold of cancellation: The distance between Roseanne’s Roseanne and the actual one has been made so blatant that the show would be hard to watch with a straight face. Now, one question moving forward is whether and how Hollywood will continue in its overtures to Trump voters. Because that’s what this sitcom was: an outreach effort (and ratings grab) conceived immediately after the election by TV executives who, as Dungey put it, “had not been thinking nearly enough about economic diversity and some of the other cultural divisions within our own country.”

It certainly makes sense that a broad network sitcom would want to keep things simple when tackling as fractious a subject as Trump’s appeal. It also makes sense that it would be relatively gentle in its portrayal of his voters—both to avoid offending and because, in the end, a lot of viewers want to watch likable characters. There’s a less cynical rationale for a certain amount of compassion and flaws-covering, too. The arts, after all, are supposedly an “empathy machine,” a means for building bridges between people who otherwise don’t relate.

But art is also a way to express truth. And while there are, surely, plenty of families like the one onscreen in Roseanne, the fact that its own star—one of the few openly Trump-supporting mainstream entertainers of our day—couldn’t even maintain a façade of nonbigotry in the public spotlight raises the question of which strain of Trumpism is the more relevant one in the national conversation. Roseanne was created and written in part by progressives like Wanda Sykes and Whitney Cummings, and their team-up with the ideologically opposed Barr, like the show itself, could have been a sign that national unity is possible right now. It was a nice dream, and like a lot of American dreams lately, it’s up for questioning.