Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University, editor of “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment” and co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Roseanne Barr’s latest tweet storm, which was filled with racist and conspiratorial diatribes, just killed her hit television show.
Her slew of tweets targeted former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett, Chelsea Clinton and George Soros’s family, and elicited a strong response from ABC Network. Though Barr apologized for the Valerie Jarrett comment, the network announced that it would be canceling her show.
The entire incident is a fitting story for the Trump era. The star of a television show – one that has been said to capture the economic anxiety of the President’s base – just let off a tirade that captured the worst kind of social and cultural hatred that has taken root since the 2016 presidential election. If the tweets of the star are combined with the substance of the show, the rebooted “Roseanne” really does capture a troubling part of what President Trump’s politics has centered on: Talk of economics with one breath, and then use another to unleash on different social groups.
This on-screen portrayal of today’s politics stands in stark contrast to the Gary David Goldberg’s hit show “Family Ties,” which in the 1980s was the sitcom seen as the best expression of the Reagan Revolution that was transforming American politics. In the show, which debuted in September of 1982, Michael J. Fox played Alex P. Keaton, the son of Baby Boomer liberals whose world view had been shaped by the 1960s.
Fox’s character is a walking poster boy for President Reagan’s free market and hawkish anti-communist values, constantly fighting with his parents about their ideals. “When else could a boy with a briefcase become a national hero?” Goldberg recalled about the 1980s.
In one episode Alex got mad at his mother Elyse for questioning the need to produce so many hydrogen bombs: “From the beginning of time, there’s been weapons, and there’s always been a fringe element who’ve overreacted. I’m sure that even in the early days, there were bleeding-heart cavemen running around with signs that said ‘Make love, not clubs.’”
Or there was the scene in which, during a job interview after college, Alex told his interviewer that he had a “killer instinct for cash. A lust for travelers’ checks. Now sure, everyone who comes through this door loves money. But do they dream about it? Do they fantasize about it? Do they roll around naked in it? I do.”
These moments illustrate the way that the show’s creator captured the legitimate ideological tensions of the 1980s that revolved around the role of government and markets as well as the best approach to national security. Yet, with its lovable characters, “Family Ties” showed that politics can indeed exist among compassion and good intention.
“The Republicans took Alex under their wing and made him the poster boy for the movement,” Fox later said, “while at the same time social liberals were writing me letters saying, ‘Way to go,’ satirizing that point of view.”
When seen in the context of Roseanne’s tweets, today’s version of “Family Ties” quickly becomes angrier and nastier. Of course, as an individual, Roseanne’s tweets are distinct from the message of her show but in our modern social media age the lines that distinguish the two are difficult to separate. Regardless, the tweets from the star are a reminder that today’s Trumpian conservatism is not only driven by economic beliefs but also by social and cultural division.
Although many commentators had initially praised the show for focusing Americans on the economic concerns that made the Trump victory possible, the sitcom’s star just exposed the visceral anger – joking or not – that has also been an integral part of the mix.
While it is true that many in Trump’s base do not agree with the sentiment that is conveyed in her tweets, too many were willing to vote for a person who played with and retweeted these kinds of ideas. Perhaps what is most unsettling are Trump-lite candidates who have been running for Congress who are now legitimate contenders. One candidate running for the governorship of Georgia has been riding on a “Deportation Bus” to demonstrate his support for kicking out undocumented immigrants.
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Over the past few years, there have been too many moments when this kind of rhetoric has become part of the new normal, including from the President himself. It would be good to hear President Trump condemn the comments, though given that Donald Trump Jr. retweeted Barr’s controversial tweets about Soros, the odds are low that such a statement is on the way.
The continued assumptions that as a nation we won’t allow public figures to “go there” keep proving to be misplaced when such rhetoric is not met with consequences. This time a television network took swift action. The question is whether anyone else with influence will be willing to do the same the next time this occurs