The Memo: 'Roseanne' storm revives debate over Trump

The Memo: 'Roseanne' storm revives debate over Trump
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ABC abruptly canceled “Roseanne” on Tuesday afternoon, just hours after the show’s creator and star, Roseanne Barr, tweeted a racist insult about Valerie Jarrett, a senior aide to former President Obama.

But the firestorm surrounding Barr does not appear likely to be quelled anytime soon — and not only because the show had been a huge hit, attracting more than 18 million viewers for its March premiere.

The show’s eponymous lead character was a Trump supporter, a rare thing on the pop culture landscape.

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Now, liberals are asserting that Barr’s comments — she compared Jarrett, who is black, to an ape — are emblematic of the toxic currents they say President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want to use 'adversary' to describe Russia Comey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Roby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism MORE has loosed on American society. 

Conservatives have long resented charges of racism leveled at the president or his supporters, insisting the accusation is a politically motivated smear.

The controversy is sure to intensify if Trump weighs in, either through his own tweets or at a scheduled rally in Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday night.

The White House said Tuesday afternoon that the furor surrounding Barr is "not what the president's looking at" and that he was instead focused on issues like trade and North Korea.

But once the president takes the stage or begins firing off tweets, all bets will be off.

Observers say the best political choice might be to steer clear of the issue, but Trump may not be able to resist.

“Of course it’d be foolish to get involved — but that won’t stop him,” predicted Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications. “If I was one of these cable networks, I’d start the countdown clock — and the clock probably won’t run very long.”

Trump had previously reacted with glee to the success of the rebooted version of Barr's sitcom.

“Look at her ratings!” Trump said at a rally in Ohio soon after the first episode aired in March. “Over 18 million people! And it was about us!”

Some figures who have mounted any kind of defense of Barr have pointed to the show's unusually sympathetic view of Trump and his supporters, saying that this was partly responsibly for its popularity. 

Herman Cain, a businessman who ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, told the Fox Business Network on Tuesday that “Roseanne apologized fervently. They canceled her anyway.”

He added: “They were looking for a reason to cancel ‘Roseanne.’… Even though the show was a ratings success, I believe that forces within ABC didn’t like the fact that her conservative defense of certain things was so popular.” 

Cain also called the tweet an “excuse” on the part of ABC to cancel the show.

But conservative media figureheads, including Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly — two commentators who often take delight in poking liberal sensibilities — were critical of Barr.

O’Reilly said in a tweet that ABC had no choice but to cancel the show, otherwise it would be “insulting millions of Americans.” Hannity called Barr’s tweet “outrageous.”

There was some degree of bipartisanship among lawmakers, as well. Rep. John LewisJohn LewisSo the Tea Party wants a tea party? Dem lawmakers join nationwide protests against Trump immigration policies Democratic congresswoman: ‘I was proud to be arrested’ with immigration protesters MORE (D-Ga.), an icon of the civil rights movement, praised the network for canceling the show, tweeting “you did the right thing.”

Rep. Pete KingPeter (Pete) Thomas KingWashington big names celebrate launch of Hill.TV The Hill's Morning Report — Trump denigrates NATO allies, floats 4 percent solution ‘Unmasking Antifa Act' includes 15-year prison term proposal MORE (R-N.Y.) tweeted “good riddance” and added that ABC had “every right to fire her.”

The political dividing line seems to be less between pro- and anti-Barr positions and more between those who feel that Trump bears some responsibility for a coarsening of the national dialogue and those who see that as an unfair charge. 

“Trump has emboldened people to talk about it publicly, [as if] it is OK to have these thoughts out loud,” said Karine Jean-Pierre, a senior adviser and national spokeswoman for the progressive group MoveOn.

Jean-Pierre drew attention to Trump’s deeply controversial comments after neo-Nazis and other far-right factions gathered in Charlottesville, Va., last summer, sparking violent clashes in which one woman was killed. 

She also cited news reports from earlier this year that the president had referred to El Salvador, Haiti and some African nations as “shithole countries.”

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, also linked Barr’s rhetoric to Trump’s.

“She was articulating some of the same kind of rhetoric that you hear from the president and from some of his supporters, and there was a quick backlash,” he said. “It does show some of the poison that is out there in the public. The fact that someone would feel comfortable tweeting that shows where we’ve gone as a country.” 

Supporters and aides to the president have adamantly rejected those kinds of charges. 

The president’s former chief strategist Stephen Bannon, for example, said in a BBC interview last week that Martin Luther King Jr. would be proud of Trump for his economic record. 

Zelizer predicted that the near-universal outrage over Barr’s comments about Jarrett would likely not last, given the polarization of contemporary U.S. society and the willingness of partisans to form into battle lines.

Right now, he said, “there is nothing so egregious that it receives unanimous condemnation. I’m sure there’ll be some of her fans who will argue that she is being unfairly treated. I’m sure that will emerge.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.