Finally, for the first time, someone has tried to explain 2016’s shock election of Donald Trump as president of the United States! OK, OK, I kid — The Donald’s pundit-defying win on 11/8/16 was the loss-of-face that launched 1,000 ships, each vessel filled with books, magazine think-pieces, think-tank bloviations and newspaper reports from Formica-frozen diners in southern Ohio with the goal of making sense of the seemingly senseless. But clearly, the vast American populace that doesn’t subscribe to the New Republic was waiting on its explanatory journalism in the easier-to-digest situation-comedy format.
Yes, “Roseanne” is back, and now the TV show that won both praise and high ratings starting in the late 1980s for using humor to dramatize the slip-sliding-away travails of the white working class in Rust Belt America is back to tell us why the white working class in Rust Belt America is now voting for Trump. It’s a timely mission with an added twist: Roseanne Barr doesn’t just play a Trump supporter for the cameras, she voted for the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Av. in real life.
That made for what Variety might call boffo box office. Last week’s first episode of the reboot of a show that aired for nine seasons in the 1980s and ’90s was TV’s highest-rated sitcom episode in years, with the biggest shares in blue-collar metro markets like Pittsburgh and Detroit, in states that tipped the 2016 election to Trump. No wonder the notoriously ratings-obsessed president picked up the phone to congratulate Ms. Barr (even as some Gold Star families still wait for the White House on their caller ID). A man who won the nation’s highest office as a reality-TV star congratulating the creator of a fictional TV show for showing America the reality of Trumpism. Sounds right.
I went back and watched the first episode of “Roseanne,” and it’s funny in that 20th-century sitcom way, skilled at reintroducing characters who’ve been away for 20 years, and often acerbically sharp at describing middle-class life in the 21st century, from the panoply of unaffordable prescription drugs to the indignities of both looking for work and actually finding it by driving for Uber or becoming a surrogate mom. The feud between Trumpism and the pussy-hatted resistance portrayed by TV’s Roseanne Conner’s sister Jackie (played by Laurie Metcalf) was both the core of the episode — and its weakest link.
“He talked about jobs, Jackie,” says Roseanne in the show’s most quoted line. “He said he’d shake things up” — transitioning to her own family’s money and job troubles. It sounded a lot like a line from the New York Times’ umpteenth “Report from Trump Country,” but without the caveats that Trump’s actual “jobs” programs have either failed to go anywhere (anyone remember infrastructure?) or seem counterproductive, like the new trade wars, or that the undrained D.C. “swamp” remains swimming with lobbyists and insiders under “45.”
The fictional show veered slightly closer to explaining why Trump won when Roseanne vented her rage at Hillary Clinton, complaining that her sister “thinks every woman should grow up to be president, even when she’s a liar, liar, pantsuit on fire.” The reboot of Roseanne brought us their unchanged-since-1988 living room and its central, comfy couch — but until the camera turns the other way and shows their TV turned to Fox News Channel about nine hours a day, it shouldn’t pretend to explain Trumpism.
Back before it grew to be too much and far too tiresome, I used to read all the bacon-dripped articles from West Virginia coal country talking to Trump voters — where the economic anxiety in the form of lost jobs, flat wages, and struggling families was real and palpable, but often not the thing people mentioned to explain their votes. Fear and loathing, but mainly loathing, of Hillary Clinton hung in the air like 1950s coal dust, and while there were valid reasons to be wary of the Democratic nominee, these were not the reasons stated, but more likely the “Fox & Friends” conspiracy of the week, especially the idea that Clinton somehow caused the death of four Americans in Benghazi. “That she left [the four Americans] there, that they weren’t her priority,” one 18-year-old Trump voter told ProPublica in a story published two days after he won.
And here’s the thing — Hillary pseudo-scandals like Benghazi or the massively overhyped “but her e-mails” are just the ones you could talk about in the polite company of a journalist from New York. We are just now, a year-and-a-half later, learning the full extent of the tsunami of divisive “fake news,” targeting Clinton, or aimed at discouraging college students or black people from voting, that inundated Heartland communities that look like the one where the fictional Connors reside. That Hillary was in failing health. That as secretary of state she intentionally sold weapons to ISIS. Or the real wild stuff, like “Pizzagate,” the (debunked, of course) notion that Hillary and her closest supporters are tied to a child sex-trafficking ring. Some of it spread by Russian trolls working for Vladimir Putin.
This is where the REAL Roseanne — Roseanne Barr, not Roseanne Conner — enters the plot. In the aftershock of the TV show’s ratings coup, it’s emerged that during her mostly absence from center stage in recent years, Barr has plunged into a white-hot fever swamp of right-wing internet conspiracy that includes both “Pizzagate” and bat-guano-insane stuff that makes “Pizzagate” taste bland. Just this weekend, after the airing of the “Roseanne” reboot, Barr hailed an obscure conspiracy theory that Trump has been breaking up multiple rings of pedophiles.
That ties back to a Twitter alliance between Barr and a mysterious and anonymous poster on the conspiracy-laden 4chan message board named Q, whose interlocking scheme, according to an in-depth analysis, is where “all of the far right’s wildest dreams come true: Q promises that Clinton, Obama, Podesta, Abedin and even McCain are all either arrested and wearing secret police-issued ankle monitors, or just about to be indicted; that the Steele dossier is a total fabrication personally paid for by Clinton and Obama; and that the Las Vegas massacre was most definitely an inside job connected to the Saudi-Clinton cabal.”
Barr’s online conspiracy-mongering doesn’t stop at Q or The Storm, of course. She’s bought into completely unfounded speculation about the tragic D.C. murder of a young Democratic National Committee staffer named Seth Rich — reporting that has terrorized Rich’s grieving parents and led them to sue Fox News for its irresponsible coverage. Also in recent days — since launching a hit television show apparently doesn’t consume enough of her day — Barr has tweeted her endorsement that Parkland’s David Hogg, who hid in a closet just last month while a gunman murdered his classmates, is some kind of Nazi for criticizing the NRA. That’s awful stuff, and there’s more where that came from, but I think we’ve all heard enough.
Barr is becoming the public face for the millions who traffic in this trash. A majority of Trump voters? Hopefully not, but more than enough to tip the balance in those states where Trump won narrowly and the Roseanne premiere was huge, like Pennsylvania and Michigan. Which is why the trolls — both the official ones at Cambridge Analytica and the off-the-books ones at Putin’s farm in St. Petersburg — knew to target those states with “fake news.”
All of which speaks to a much bigger problem than Barr’s whacked-out tweets.
We’re losing our grip on reality. This has been coming for a long time. Neil Postman and his “Amusing Ourselves to Death” warned in 1985 that TV-style entertainment would eventually swallow political discourse. Two decades later, Karl Rove — in the throes of his boss George W. Bush’s Iraq war — bragged of the White House’s ability to create its own alternative reality; critics scoffed, but Rove may now be having the last laugh. Politics is moving away from “attack ads” and into “psy-ops” — using disinformation to create an alternative reality, first in modern warfare, now in presidential campaigns — to create a media bubble of fictional “truth” that can envelope millions. Even a big TV star like Barr.
Trump isn’t a president in any real sense — he doesn’t have an ideology, or policy, or even bother to read briefing papers. But then he wasn’t much of a CEO until he learned how to play one on “Celebrity Apprentice.” And so he stages fake meetings for the cameras, hires his favorite TV stars for jobs that require knowledge that TV stars don’t possess, and makes sure to have a dramatic firing at the end of each week’s episode. And last week he squeezed in a call to Barr to celebrate the work of her fictional character, who promoted a mythical reason (“jobs”) for supporting him.
If the purpose of Barr and her talented showrunners is really to explain Trump’s America, we’d get 22 minutes of their star on the couch with her laptop, live-tweeting “Hannity” and posting “Crooked Hillary” memes or DM’ing her “Pizzagate” pals until 2 in the morning. But the truth isn’t very entertaining, especially to a nation sitting on their own musty 1988 couches, waiting every 8 p.m. to be amused to death. So we create our own reality — scripted fiction about a TV-show president, with ratings to die for.