“Look at her ratings! Look at her ratings!” Donald Trump hailed the “Roseanne” television reboot at a campaign-style speech in Richfield, Ohio, last month. More than 18 million people watched the show, which earned its network, ABC, a robust 5.1 rating, making it the best-rated comedy telecast since 2014. The successful sitcom depicts the life of a family whose matriarch might be described as one of the “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton controversially referred to the supposedly forgotten white working class during her failed 2016 presidential bid. Trump even called real-life supporter Roseanne Barr, star of the show, to congratulate her.
The ratings boom for “Roseanne” has been upheld as a roar of populism, a convening of conservatives and Obama voters who didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton.
The show is clearly meeting the demand of a large swath of America, but populism it ain’t. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word as “a political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite,” and “the movement organized around this philosophy.” By that definition, the people who struggle the most in our society are black and brown people, LGBTQ people, Muslims, the undocumented — none of whom “Roseanne” speaks for. Instead, it represents the populism of the Trump era, which is nothing more than a euphemism for white working-class angst.
After the 2016 presidential election, which shocked our nation, we’ve become fascinated with coddling this anger, repackaging it as populism. While there is no clear-cut definition, “populists are dividers, not uniters,” according to Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia and the co-author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction, in an interview with The Atlantic. Populists, he continued, divide society into “two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other.” They trumpet the “will of the people.” Trouble is, the will of the people in Trump’s populism isn’t so pure. These populists may not be elite, but they’ve certainly done everything they can to maintain power.
It was the will of the people, remember, to impose and maintain slavery for 250 years and then institute more than a hundred years of de jure and de facto segregation. I figure the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese during the Second World War is supposed to have been part of a populist movement as well. No, the refusal to enact legislation to normalize the immigration status of thousands of undocumented people brought to the U.S. in their youth isn’t pushing back against the privileged. When President Trump sends the National Guard to the Mexico border to defend against migrant caravans, saying, “Women are raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before,” he is fighting the defenseless. That’s not what populism is supposed to mean.
This threadbare version of populism cannot hide its racist roots — and with those roots come racist actions. One of the most vulnerable groups subject to these actions is children, black children in particular.
New research from different fields shows that black families’ opportunities are limited because of their race. Last week, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that black students and students with disabilities were disproportionately suspended and expelled in K-12 public schools “regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school attended.” The report found that black students “accounted for 15.5 percent of all public school students, but represented about 39 percent of students suspended from school.” This comes on the heels of a widely-read Stanford, Harvard and U.S. Census Bureau study showing that race, not class, accounts for the inability of black people to climb the social ladder. Seemingly every week, the miraculous discovery that racism explains societal disparities — something us black folks have known all our lives — makes the news.
All that this research proves is that the Trump/Roseanne brand of populism represents the voices of the powerful and the corrupt railing against vulnerable minorities. If the current populist movement doesn’t include black families, undocumented residents and Muslims, then it can’t truly be considered a movement of the marginalized and forgotten. And there are serious political consequences if the show, according to New York Times columnist Roxane Gay, continues to loosely introduce controversial topics to work through “a checklist of ‘real issues’…to demonstrate how the Conners are a modern American family.” It has the potential to give red meat to a conservative base and provide a propagandist megaphone for a president who openly uses bigotry as a way to recruit voters.
Gay wrote, “When a lot of the mainstream media talks about the working class, there is a tendency to romanticize, to idealize them as the most authentic Americans. They are ‘real’ and their problems are ‘real’ problems, as if everyone else is dealing with artificial obstacles.”
If the success of “Roseanne” comes from the public’s desire for a sitcom about the overlooked masses, well, in an oppression Olympics, black students would rank pretty high. Especially those who are suspended and expelled from school after school, no matter what kind they attend. I for one would watch a series about educators explaining away the racism in black kids’ repeated suspension and expulsion, inspired by Get Out, the popular, award-winning horror film about white theft of black brains. Or something sparked by Groundhog Day, except that instead of a person restarting the same day, at the end of each show a black student, regardless of background, is kicked out of school. It would be an uproarious way to show the illogic of racism. I bet an audience of the marginalized would appreciate it.
America may be longing for a television show that unifies the ostracized and disregarded, but “Roseanne” isn’t it. She is a real-life Trump supporter who can’t be separated from the character she plays onscreen. Her embrace of conspiracy theories is more than head-scratching; it’s outright bizarre. In 2013 Barr penned a letter to congressional leaders claiming that President Obama contrived the Boston Marathon bombing as “false flag terror attacks to remove the 2nd amendment.” Just last month, she claimed that Trump was disbanding the trafficking of child sex slaves.
Meanwhile, blacks in the inner city and whites in rural America are struggling as economists celebrate full employment in the economy. People of different races living in many of the old industrial cities such as Detroit, Baltimore or Cleveland struggle while Silicon Valley, New York and Boston flourish. The country could use a populist message. “Roseanne” just isn’t it.