A challenge of this populist age is separating authentic outsiders with usefully unorthodox political perspectives from rank kooks looking to exploit a moment of open-mindedness.
Roseanne Barr provides a good study.
The popular reboot of her blue-collar sitcom after a two-decade slumber has been widely heralded as a populist victory by much of the pro-Trump Right, given the decision to cast Roseanne’s character as a Trump voter. That Roseanne the woman is herself a Trump supporter only advances the notion that the show is a populist win, and many critics and viewers have offered the MAGA factor as the sole variable explaining the program’s popularity. “Look at her ratings!” cried the gleeful president himself after the show’s debut.
As conservatives who have watched the show have observed, however, the politics of Roseanne 2.0 are quite a hodgepodge of class consciousness and political correctness that amount to, as Ben Shapiro tweeted, a sort of “Hollywood fantasy of what Trump voters are: people who agree with Hollywood elites on values, but just disagree on economics because they’re old white factory workers.” The liberal actress Whitney Cummings, a writer and producer of the series, has vowed that episodes beyond the premiere “are going to piss off conservatives.”
Barr has never met a conspiracy theory she didn’t love.
More important, however, Rosanne Barr is a woman who long ago sacrificed her right to be taken seriously as any sort of American sage. Even by the standards of Hollywood, her politics are extraordinarily deranged and sinister. They earned her a deserved exile on the furthest fringe of flaky celebrity opinion, and this is where she was understood to sit, alongside Charlie Sheen and Rosie O’Donnell, until just a few weeks ago. It’s embarrassing to see some conservatives exert even an ounce of intellectual energy to rationalize someone who has devoted so much of her recent years to polluting American public life with lies and nonsense.
Barr has never met a conspiracy theory she didn’t love. She’s a 9-11 truther who believes that “Bush did it,” and she has called the Boston Marathon bombing one of many “false flag terror attacks” perpetrated by the Obama administration to “remove” the Second Amendment. For good measure, she also believes that the old man Bush killed JFK.
You can find YouTube videos of her rambling about “MK ULTRA Mind Control” on RT, and she seems particularly fond of the notion that the American ruling class is running some manner of pedophile sex cult. Her views on Jews and Israel fluctuate wildly — in the past, she has called Israel a “Nazi state” and alleged that Zionism was created by the Third Reich (or something — I challenge you to succinctly summarize the opinions expressed here), though more recently she’s taken to accusing Hillary Clinton of plotting Israel’s destruction and labeling aide Huma Abedin a “Nazi whore.”
Her populism begins from the premise that absolutely anything or anyone exercising power in American society obtained that authority illegitimately and relies on various forms of black magic to keep it.
Roseanne has long self-identified as a socialist and in 2012 attempted to secure the Green-party nomination for president. She lost and had to settle for being the candidate of the extreme-left “Peace and Freedom Party” instead. As a running mate, she selected Cindy Sheehan (remember her?), who initially gushed with excitement about “the chance to infuse the message of socialism with the heart and soul that is missing from political discourse” but ultimately quit the ticket, claiming that Barr was getting too “right-wing.” In 2016, Barr refused to support Bernie Sanders’s own socialist crusade, blasting him as a sellout who was “kind of running on war” and willing to meet Pope Francis.
This is but a taste of the steady stream of madness that has been flowing from Barr over the last little while, a madness we’re now being instructed to either overlook or ignore because her eponymous television show seems (for the moment at least) to advance the more palatable narrative of America’s ignored underclass finally getting some long-delayed respect and affection.
Roseanne is a Trump-supporting populist, but the populist tradition she represents is one born not of canny critique of political and economic stagnation but of paranoid ignorance. Her populism begins from the premise that absolutely anything or anyone exercising power in American society — from Paul Ryan to organized Christianity to the Monsanto Corporation — obtained that authority illegitimately and relies on various forms of black magic to keep it. This is the sort of lazy logic popular with people who don’t know a whit about politics, history, law, or economics, and can’t be bothered to learn, but still want to enjoy the standing of being smarter than everyone else. It’s a perspective that tends to be especially popular among those in the performing arts, where cravings for adulation run high; yet resentment of reliance on the scripted thoughts and actions of others fosters an obsession with demonstrating their independent worth.
One of the darker by-products of the Trump era has been increased public legitimacy for every random crank who sees his own goals reflected in the president’s amorphous agenda, or who considers Trump’s unorthodox rise validation of his own idiosyncratic approach to politics. Some of this comes from the press’s anti-Trump habit of elevating utterly unrepresentative Trump backers such as Richard Spencer to tell more sensationalistic stories. Other times, the validation comes from the president’s own reckless praise for every opportunistic weirdo who offers him a compliment, from Alex Jones to Wayne Dupree.
As we seek to understand the complexities of the current political moment, figures on the fringe sometimes help reveal controversial truths that more-conformist thinkers fail to see.
And sometimes, like Roseanne, they’re just crackpots.