Roseanne, Sarah Silverman, and the Trump-Supporter Anthropology Series

[Content note: Racism, homophobia.]

The 2018 version of Roseanne was the reboot that was supposed to, in the star's words, "portray a realistic portrait of the American people — working class people" and "the people who elected Trump." 

Like the cottage industry of beltway media figures who "play anthropologist" as they "interpret" Trump supporters to (I guess) everyone who isn't one, the assumption seems to be that we ordinary TV watchers and newspaper readers on the political left don't actually know any working class white Trump supporters and that we desperately need the media to help us understand them.

This assumption is flawed on at least two counts. First, many of us actually do have lived experiences with working class white Trump supporters because they are members of our families, friends and acquaintances, residents of towns in which we grew up or currently live, people we have to interact with at work, people we engage with on the Internet, and/or are people we otherwise encounter as we navigate our daily lives.

Secondly, the people "interpreting" the "white working class Trump supporter" to us often seem to be people quite removed from this population themselves, such as pundits and Hollywood personalities who live in socioeconomic and political bubbles, such that the portrayals end up being superficial engagements in which the parties model "getting along with each other" for we the disagreeable masses.

The pilot episode of comedian Sarah Silverman's I Love You, America is a good example of what I'm referring to here. In it, Silverman visits a Trump-supporting, white working class family in Louisiana. As she has dinner at their house, things are ... mostly fine on the surface. The conservatives are relatively polite to the liberal and vice versa. When Silverman asks them why they voted for Trump, they say things like, "I did it for change," "He made things sound pretty good," and "He can't do no worse than what the other ones did."

One family member eventually expresses doubt that President Obama was born in the USA, to which Silverman unsuccessfully tried to correct that he was actually born in Hawaii, and then the matter was dropped. Another one says that gays shouldn't be able to raise kids and he defends his view saying, "Everybody got their own opinion, you know," to which Silverman responds, "That's true, you're right" and then she companionably touches his knee.

She then ends the segment saying, "Did we change each other's minds? Fuck no. But we did learn that we don't have to be divided to disagree. We can have fun and even love each other." A member of the family said that it felt "great" to talk to someone with different views without being judged.

So, the exchanges in this clip capture at least one thing quite well. That is, some of our media "anthropologists" seem really invested in a narrative wherein if interactions appear civil on the surface, and beliefs and differences aren't delved into too deeply, we can and probably should all just get along. True love means never "judging" somebody else's bigotries or racist, inaccurate views.

In discussing the Roseanne reboot back in January, Sara Gilbert (who plays one of Roseanne's daughters on the show) expressed a similar sentiment:
This is a time where the country is very divided, and we did have a wonderful opportunity to talk about this in the context of a family. And I think part of what’s going on is people feel like they can’t disagree and still love each other or still talk to each other. It was a great opportunity to have a family that can be divided by politics but still love.
Let's be clear. Yes, the nation is politically divided. But, I feel like some people, including a number of those on the liberal/left side of the political spectrum, are forgetting that many of the current political divides exist because of historical and ongoing injustice experienced by marginalized populations? As a result, people buy into these mainstream notions of civility in which bigotry is defined as someone's innocuous opinion that they're entitled to continue holding without ever having it labeled as bigotry.

The dynamic that the Silverman clip fails to capture, like many pieces within this Trump-voter-in-their-natural-habitat genre, are the unscripted, unobserved-by-outsiders ways that white people often perpetuate racism.

Remember, to Silverman, a person they knew was a famous liberal comedian who brought her cameras along for the dinner date, the family gave reasons like wanting "change" for voting for Trump and they didn't say the n-word in front of her? Now, all of that may indeed have been authentic for this particular family.

What I also want to note, however, is that the way many white people talk when a camera is in their face documenting their words for a piece on helping people "understand" Trump supporters can be very different than the way they talk with trusted, like-minded white people in private. The inherent condescension of these pieces is that members of the working class aren't savvy enough to put on a performance for the audience.

So, back to Roseanne.

Roseanne-the-character and Roseanne-the-person are both Trump supporters. That the character serves as a sanitized facade of the actual is a pretty good encapsulation of how bigotry often functions within the mainstream narratives. The typical narrative is that someone is either a full-on Nazi, which many people can agree is bad, while everyone else just has simple differences of opinion that we shouldn't judge. Thus, the Roseanne character who exists on the show to teach liberal audiences that Trump supporters aren't really that bad wouldn't have likened a Black woman to an "ape" in her performance.

But, Roseanne the actual Trump-supporting person got online and did exactly that.

So, as the beltway media remains fixated on humanizing, sugar-coating, and asking us to have sympathy for Trump supporters, we might continue to ask why it's so rarely the reverse.

Does the media think there's simply too much goodwill in the world already toward Black people and feminists and queers and trans people? Is the media overreacting to Hillary Clinton's much-maligned "deplorables" comment and showing an intractable, ever-present need to "prove" that Hillary is a bitch who was wrong. Is it a need to keep white people, and their purported good intentions, centered in political conversation? Is it that too many white people are still "more devoted to 'order' than to justice"?

Or, is the assumption that white working class Trump fans are simply incapable of sympathy for other groups, in which case that would be quite an admission that even members of the pundit class aren't buying the very narrative they're trying so desperately to sell.

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