By the standards that have been set in recent years, Roseanne Barr’s downfall was remarkably swift. There were none of the rituals with which we’ve become familiar; no suspension, no apology tour, no time spent convening focus groups to gauge the viability of the product. The time that elapsed between the actress’s racist attack on former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett and ABC’s decision to cancel her show was approximately 12 hours, and most of those were of the early morning variety.
For some, Barr’s earned defenestration must have felt like a revelation. Rightly or not, her program came to be seen by political observers as a commentary on red-state family dynamics in the age of Trump. The anti-Trump left has decided to apply the precedent set by Barr’s banishment to both her fans and the president’s supporters. If they are branded irredeemable bigots, too, perhaps they might also be drummed out of public life.
“[H]aving a major character on a prominent television show as a Trump supporter normalizes racism and misogyny and xenophobia,” wrote New York Times editorialist Roxanne Gay. “Roseanne’s problem turned out to be that she far too authentically represented the actual worldview of a significant chunk of the Trump base,” MSNBC host Chris Hayes agreed. ABC “wanted to showcase the average Trump voter,” author and journalist Molly Knight noted. “And that’s exactly what they got.” For the Nation’s Edward Burmila, the whole point of the show was the fabrication of the otherwise nonexistent “likable Trump supporter.” “Why did they follow her?” CNN host Don Lemon asked of Roseanne’s viewers. “Because, in some way, they bought into her bigotry, and at least part of what she was selling was the bigotry, the racism, the homophobia, and the conspiracy theories. And if you watched that show and you believed it, then you’re a part of that as well.” Asked point-blank if everyone who voted for Trump was a racist, CNN contributor and culture writer Michaela Angela Davis replied: “absolutely, yes.”
For the left, the idea that Trump voters are consciously or unconsciously bigoted is not a new. The notion that each of Trump’s 62,984,825 voters harbors some kind of racial animus, and that it was that shared trait—not the quality of his opponent—that best explains the 2016 election results has broad purchase in certain liberal circles. That conclusion has even been backed up by “research,” though more unscrupulous observers conflate amorphous status anxiety among some Trump-backing demographics with standard-issue white racism.
I have written extensively in opposition to Donald Trump’s nakedly racial appeals to the Republican base. I’ve written about how his ascension to lead the GOP made Trump’s white-supremacy problem their own. I contend that Trump gave aid and comfort to the vile racists calling themselves the alt-right. He has destigmatized blatant misogyny and repeatedly used irresponsible language to describe Latinos in a way that can have downstream policy consequences. Republicans who bury their moral compass beneath a mountain of politically expedient rationalizations are doing themselves no favors. But the notion that the president’s voters or even his supporters are inherently racist is logically flawed, and the comfort with which so many prominent liberals have embraced it suggests there’s something deeply wrong with the modern liberal political ethos.
The first problem with the theory that Trump voters are, in general, white supremacists is the existence of the crossover voter. The 2016 campaign was highly racialized—much more so than 2012, as the political scientist John Sides noted—even though demography was hardly the deciding factor for millions of voters. But that polarizing effect was “particularly consequential for Clinton because a substantial number of white Obama voters had less favorable views of immigrants, Muslims, and black people,” he wrote. Crossover Obama-Trump voters have been a preoccupation for Democratic political professionals since the election and the liberal activist class resents that passionately. “Democratic strategists should recognize that Obama-to-Trump voters do not represent the future of their party,” wrote a quartet of liberal strategists for the Times in March. Instead, Democrats should focus their efforts on non-voters who more closely reflect the “consensus on issues of class, race, gender, and the environment.” They hope to purge white working-class Trump voters from the Democratic coalition, and branding these defectors as unsavory segregationists advances the ball. But what does it say of the Democratic Party that these untouchables were members in good standing before 2016?
The fallacies around the idea that Trump voters are predominantly racist might be most easily demonstrated by articulating the conservative equivalent. Imagine a conservative argument that posits the Democratic coalition is beset by misandry and soft, patronizing bigotry. After all, this is a party that contains elements which view meritocracy for minorities as a myth. Their success is contingent on the enlightened, white liberal Sherpas who alone can help them navigate otherwise insurmountable obstacles. Likewise, the “woke” social-justice movement is typified by strict racial hierarchies, exemplified by the “progressive stack,” in which whites are expected to subordinate their interests to minorities. Or consider the obscene treatment to which Rep. John Lewis was subjected by Occupy Wall Street. It would be deeply unfair to contend that the entire Democratic Party is typified by racial tiers. A wise editor at a mainstream publication would likely leave that claim on the cutting-room floor. That is, if a conservative writer at a mainstream publication failed to self-censor; there are, after all, well-known consequences for conservatives who trod recklessly through spaces that liberals see as their own.
No doubt, there were millions of Trump voters who backed him enthusiastically as a result of his irresponsible provocations. For millions more Trump supporters, though, the president earned their vote despite, not because of, his boorishness. That weak bond is only likely to be reinforced by liberal condescension. Indeed, in spite of Donald Trump’s daily indiscretions, the Democratic Party’s position has been deteriorating for months. Perhaps it is easier to lash out at Trump’s voters than to wonder why that is the case. But no matter how branded they may be in the eyes of liberal opinion makers, Donald Trump’s voters cannot be expelled from American political life.