Roseanne’s Wake-Up Call for the Populist Right

Her outburst of racist invective provided a lesson for the populist right that too few of its members are heeding.

Phil McCarten / Reuters

When ABC rebooted Roseanne, the half-hour comedy’s eponymous star had an opportunity to reinvigorate her career, to earn a pile of money, and to help her country.

Like All in the Family a generation before, the hit sitcom offered families divided by the polarized politics of their era a comedic vehicle to confront and defuse at least some of the tensions that threatened to tear them apart. And the mass audience Roseanne was drawing meant that Donald Trump supporters, like Roseanne Conner, and Hillary Clinton supporters, like Aunt Jackie, were spending at least 30 minutes a week laughing with someone from the other side.

The best version of the show could’ve been good for the country.

But its constructive potential was lost Tuesday when Roseanne Barr, its creator and star, published a vile outburst of flagrantly racist invective on Twitter, where she wrote that Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama, was equal to the baby of the Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes.

Just what America needed: another celebrity TV star with no bigotry filter.

ABC quickly canceled Roseanne. And who can blame the network? Within the space of hours, the show’s lead cast member, whose identity is inseparable from that of its lead character, engaged in virulent racism against a prominent African American and falsely accused a prominent Jew who survived the Nazis of collaborating with them.

Many people find it hard to know what might get a person fired today. Either of Barr’s comments would’ve been considered well beyond the pale yesterday, 10 years ago, before the September 11 terrorist attacks, or during the Reagan administration. That’s as far back as my memory goes. I grew up in as conservative a county as existed at the time, surrounded by political-correctness disdaining adults. All of them knew better than to liken a black person to an ape, a line as clear-cut as refraining from epithets like the n-word. If the phrasing of Barr’s bigoted tweet can even be considered a joke, it was one communicating little but maximally dehumanizing contempt for black people.

Barr issued an official apology:

I deeply regret my comments from late last night on Twitter. Above all, I want to apologize to Valerie Jarrett, as well as to ABC and the cast and crew of the Roseanne show. I am sorry for making a thoughtless joke that does not reflect my values—I love all people and am very sorry. Today my words caused hundreds of hardworking people to lose their jobs. I also sincerely apologize to the audience that has embraced my work for decades. I apologize from the bottom of my heart and hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive me.

Later, she took to Twitter to concur with her critics and to rein in her defenders. “Hey guys, don’t defend me, it’s sweet of you 2 try, but … losing my show is 0 compared 2 being labelled a racist over one tweet-that I regret even more,” she wrote. In a separate tweet, she added, “guys I did something unforgiveable so do not defend me. It was 2 in the morning and I was ambien tweeting-it was memorial day too-i went 2 far & do not want it defended-it was egregious Indefensible. I made a mistake I wish I hadn’t but … don’t defend it please.”

She retweeted critics debunking the false conspiracy theory that Valerie Jarrett is a secret Muslim who said she wanted to “change America to be a more Islamic country.” She tweeted, “viacom pulled all the old Roseanne shows too.” Then she questioned whether Michelle Obama played any role in ABC’s decision to cancel her show, fueling conspiratorial resentment against another black woman and illustrating what ABC had to fear had it continued the relationship.

Still later, she added, “I’m sorry 4 my tweet, AND I will also defend myself as well as talk to my followers. so, go away if u don’t like it. I will handle my sadness the way I want to. I’m tired of being attacked & belittled more than other comedians who have said worse.” She then retweeted another Twitter user who said, “I hope and pray that when you people make a self admitted mistake and apologize and ask for forgiveness that u won’t go thru half as much hatred and vitriol that @therealroseanne has had to take. Even on my worst enemy.”

On many occasions, I’ve defended people on the left and the right in the midst of social-media pile-ons; argued against needless terminations; recommended articles and books, like Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, that thoughtfully caution against the overzealous application of stigma; and lamented that censorious sorts on the authoritarian left and the authoritarian right are trying to coercively attack ever more words and behaviors.

Still, I’ve favored public censure in some circumstances—and this is among them.

Without question, Barr’s excretion was protected speech under the First Amendment. But as surely as anti-Semitism is among the most odious social transgressions in Germany, dehumanizing black people ought to be among the most socially stigmatized in America, where African Americans were enslaved then subject to repression and domestic terrorism.

Stigmatizing such hateful, racist words is a social good that protects a clear, longstanding, vital norm. Its absence abetted horrific atrocities in living memory.

And Barr knew all that!

Failing to enforce the norm against a prominent celebrity, especially one working in the highly censored realm of network television, where all sorts of lesser taboos are adhered to, would threaten to undermine it.

And Barr lacks nearly all the mitigating factors imaginable in these cases. She is a 65-year-old woman, not an immature kid or a foreigner unfamiliar with the history of the taboo that she violated. At issue is something she just said, not a years-old comment needlessly dredged up. Her words seemed to carry animus. No truth proposition was at stake. She wasn’t in the heat of argument, or lashing out at a target who attacked her, or delivering a comedy roast, where transgressive insults are all but demanded, or invoking a pernicious stereotype to undercut it.

Finally, this was not an anomalous misjudgment in a career of mostly upstanding behavior—it is something like strike 3,000. Barr’s oeuvre is rife with flagrantly irresponsible conspiracy theories, some drawing on pernicious racial stereotypes. She even appears to have likened a different black woman to an ape. If social censure is ever warranted for non-crimes, it is here. And Trump supporters who bristle at the notion that their coalition is half “deplorables” ought to be furious at Barr for embodying that stereotype.

Of course, as I’ve previously noted, they ought to have been furious at Donald Trump, too:

The most dangerous thing a leader can do in an ethnically diverse country is stoke ethnic tensions in order to gain power. One needn’t invoke the Nazis to see that truth. Look to the former Yugoslavia, or Rwanda, or Iraq and Syria today. America isn’t on the verge of civil war, but that’s in large part because, while the exploitation of ethnic grievances has always been part of our politics, our leaders have at least held themselves to a certain standard in their public statements.

In contrast, Donald Trump kicked off his campaign by encouraging his followers to think of Mexican migrants as mostly rapists, attacked an American-born judge of Hispanic ancestry, repeatedly savaged Muslims, inspired multiple hate crimes against minorities, used his Twitter platform, with an audience of millions, to retweet and elevate anti-Semites, and inspired more energy and assertiveness from the white supremacist movement than I can ever recall seeing.

Trump’s behavior has been much worse than Barr’s behavior.

His mere words as a candidate and as president have been something like a three-alarm fire for bigoted demagoguery, so Barr’s outburst seems unlikely to serve as a wake-up call to the populist right that its coalition has a serious racism problem.

Still, it is worth noting that the social-injustice warriors of the populist right are as frequently determined to treat absolutely nothing as beyond the pale as the left’s most catastrophizing fringe is to declare that most everything is problematic.

Here’s Bill Mitchell, the Trump-aligned talk-radio host:

Today’s Lesson? NEVER apologize to Liberals … I’m not sure how saying someone looks like a child of “Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes” is racist. I thought “Muslim Brotherhood” was supposed to be a “good” thing and Liberals say we are descended from apes?

What am I missing here?

Like so many on the populist right, he is missing a big reason the right does so poorly with African Americans, the way in which the Trump era’s flagrant bigotry is going to deservedly cost the Republican Party for a generation, and the way in which every good idea the populists have will be tarnished by such bigotry.

The Guardian rounds up more nonsense apologias. Erick Erickson stakes out the appropriate reaction to them. And at National Review, where many appreciate the catastrophe that Trump and the bigoted populists among his followers represent to the right as a whole, Katherine Timpf, a commentator who frequently scoffs at overzealous political correctness in her columns, writes:

This wasn’t some kind of innocent joke that has been misinterpreted and blown out of proportion. It was a clear-cut, textbook example of racism, and 65-year-old Barr is absolutely adult enough to have known this when she tweeted it. Although she happens to support Donald Trump, conservatives absolutely should not feel compelled to defend Roseanne—and I say this as someone who really enjoyed the show.

Her tweet was racist, and she’s also made plenty of crazy statements in the past. For example: She’s a 9/11 truther. She accused the Obama administration of contriving “false-flag terror attacks,” such as the Boston Marathon bombing, in an attempt to interfere with our Second Amendment rights. She’s tweeted YouTube videos that defended the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. Truly, she’s not even really “conservative” so much as she is nuts. Is someone like that really someone that conservatives should want as a representative of their side, anyway?

I suppose I can understand how the dearth of conservatives in Hollywood might make conservatives feel compelled to just support whomever they can get, but anyone with a shred of respect or intelligence should think twice before defending a racist tweet from an unhinged conspiracy theorist. Principles should always come before party—and an opposition to racism should always be among your principles.

At least Barr’s apologies acknowledge that opposition to racism should always be among one’s principles, unlike some of the people defending her. The influence she retains in populist circles is perhaps the best resource available to her if she resolves to repair the harm that she has done by aggressively fighting bigotry and conspiracy theories. I sincerely hope that she one day achieves redemption. Fighting for it would be more courageous than going on as before or melting away.