'Roseanne' shows what the media got wrong about Trump voters

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo illustration; photo: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

It took only a few hours for ABC and just about everyone else who was in business with Roseanne Barr to cut all ties to the comedian, saying they were shocked and outraged by her hateful tweeting. This had to be more laughable than any of the gags on her resurgent sitcom.

After all, Barr has never been anything other than what she is now: a talented and addled provocateur who will say or do almost any outrageous thing — butcher the national anthem, mock the Holocaust, run for president or prime minister of Israel — just to get people talking about her.

Sound like anyone else you might have seen on TV at any hour of the day or night?

And that, of course, was the point of bringing Roseanne’s irreverent sense of humor back to network TV. She was supposed to draw in all the same people who love President Trump, who resent all the elite consensus and political correctness and multiculturalism, and who just want someone — pardon the terminology here — to piss off all us snowflakes who watch “Silicon Valley” instead.

But then Roseanne flamed out all at once, publicly comparing a black confidante of President Obama’s to an ape (and a radical Muslim one at that).

Why? As the late New York City Mayor Ed Koch once shouted at me from a hospital bed, when I asked him to explain Rudy Giuliani’s apparent meanness: Why does the scorpion sting? It’s in his nature!

And so ABC becomes the latest media outlet to have waded into the boggiest swamp in American politics, only to reemerge shrieking in horror and running for higher ground.

You may remember a time, for instance, when you couldn’t turn on CNN without hearing the breathless exertions of a Trump apostle named Jeffrey Lord, who was supposed to speak for the unheard masses, even though none of the masses had ever heard of him.

That came to an abrupt end after he tweeted “Sieg Heil!” at a critic, not because he was a Nazi sympathizer, by any stretch, but because in his reading of history, I guess, American liberals and German Nazis were more or less interchangeable.

Look: It’s not that there’s anything wrong with ABC or CNN trying to broaden their appeal by going beyond the same old safe perspectives — I applaud that. It’s just that by trying to talk to a growing audience in American life, you can end up pandering to a dying one instead.

Ever since the 2016 election, I’ve heard people in Washington and Hollywood talk about how they need to better represent “the Trump voter.” This is, I suppose, a natural reaction to having missed something critical about where the society is headed.

The problem is that anytime you reduce a large chunk of the electorate to a label (“values voters,” “evangelicals,” “Trump voters”), you’re oversimplifying a more complicated reality.

In this case, what we generally think of as Trump voters encompasses two distinct subsets of discontented Americans. There’s overlap, certainly, but not as much as you might think.

The first are economically dislocated Americans: right-leaning or independent voters who harbored (and still harbor) no great love for the president, but whose communities are unrecognizable to them now, mainly because of automation and global competition and all the social ills they wrought, like broken families and addiction.

These voters bitterly detest the political status quo and were willing to take a chance on just about anyone whose last name wasn’t Clinton or Bush.

This group has been ascendant and growing in intensity for decades; some sizable minority of them cast ballots for both Presidents Obama and Trump in successive elections. They do not constitute the bulk of Trump’s support, by any means, but they are the main reason he became president, and to understand where they’re coming from is to understand the most powerful current in American politics.

The second group, roughly speaking, is the culturally affronted crowd you see reflected on social media all the time.

These voters don’t think much about an economic future; they want a time machine that will take them back to an orderly America ruled by white dudes, where you could say whatever you wanted without being labeled a bigot or a sexist, where you didn’t have to worry about gay rights and women’s rights, and where black guys getting dragged out of a coffee shop for no reason was called Wednesday.

I’m a skeptic of reflexive political correctness, as I think a lot of mainstream voters are. The pseudo-intellectual bullying on college campuses today is enough to make any thinking person recoil.

But the cultural right isn’t really opposed to the silly lexicon of liberalism as much as to liberalism itself. What they call PC is really just the modern concept of tolerance.

These voters represent a shrinking slice of the electorate, if you take any kind of long view, and they’re hardly misunderstood. They have the loudest voice in America, in fact — a president who stars in his own round-the-clock reality show, a miner of nostalgia who lives only for their applause.

The problem for coastal liberals who run news and entertainment media is that in trying to speak to the economically disenchanted first group, they inevitably get dragged down into the netherworld of the culturally outraged second.

Which is exactly what happened to ABC with Roseanne Barr.

I didn’t watch the “Roseanne” reboot, but judging from its jokes about black Americans and immigrants, it was aimed squarely at the white Americans who feel robbed of their heritage. (Yes, “Roseanne” had a massive audience for a network sitcom today, but to put this in electoral perspective, Nielsen ratings earlier this month had it seen by fewer than 7 percent of American households watching TV.)

And so it was a pretty good bet that Roseanne would stumble her way into the hatred and bigotry that lurk all over social media. Entertainers like Trump and Barr go wherever the crowd takes them. They play to their audience, for better or worse.

If you want to draw in the disaffected Americans who voted for Trump but remain trapped between free-market failure on one hand and liberal condescension on the other, then bring back a show like “King of the Hill,” which lampooned cultural elitism in a way these voters viscerally understood.

That show is as relevant to the making of a President Trump as anything still airing today.

But if your plan is to shine a bright light into the darkest, dustiest corner of cultural nostalgia, because you think that explains everything about the Trump phenomenon, then be prepared for what jumps out.

The only America you’ll illuminate is the one that’s going away.

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