Only hours after ABC abruptly dumped Roseanne Barr’s TV series in the wake of her disgustingly racist tweet, President Donald Trump went before a large rally crowd and put on a show similar to the one Roseanne stages regularly - full of bigotry, lies and conspiracy theories, topped off with Trump’s usual crowd-pleasing dehumanization of others combined with seething resentment over invented levels of victimization.
This captures something about our current moment: Trump, more than any of his predecessors, is using the presidency to put on a TV-and-Twitter show. Like Roseanne’s, it combines an idealized version of Trump’s working class America with an uglier underlying reality of virulent racism and hate that spills over and stains that salt-of-the-earth veneer with now-predictable regularity.
But what truly captures this moment is that, even as Trump got his crowd roaring by depicting immigrant gang members as “animals,” the number of migrant children in custody has climbed above 10,000, thanks to the administration’s new border crackdown.
At Tuesday night’s rally in Tennessee, Trump absurdly hyped the job creation on his watch and suggested media that don’t give him a fair shake have been humiliated. He drew boos with his riffs on “fake news.” He raged that numerous people infiltrated his campaign, a reference to his ongoing conspiracy theory about FBI spying.
But Trump’s biggest lies were reserved for immigration. He drew a false link between a recent terrorist attack and “chain migration,” and blasted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as an “MS-13 lover.” He then said: “She loves MS-13. Remember, I said, ‘They’re animals.’ And she said, ‘How dare you say that.’ “ He added: “We’re taking them out of the country by the thousands.”
As it happens, government data show that not enough MS-13 members have been arrested for this to even be possible. Those “thousands” of deported people must include non-MS-13 members. And Pelosi did not defend MS-13 members; she actually said that “calling people animals is not a good thing.” But Trump’s complementary distortion show that here again he was playing his usual dehumanization game: Just as with his original “animals” comment, he was applying the dehumanizing slur to the most hated sub-group, then conflating that sub-group with the larger category (immigrants targeted for deportation) that was his real target, then feigning innocence about the real intention behind that conflation.
The feigning of innocence is the key here. Spooked by outrage from Trump and his allies, news organizations chastised themselves for failing to note that Trump’s “animals” comment came amid a discussion of MS-13 members. But the truly operative context is the larger one - the one in which Trump has called immigrants rapists, has privately attached random Hispanic names to various crimes for sport and has essentially declared his desire to roll back the country’s racial and ethnic mix by advertising his disdain for migrants from “shithole countries.”
Trump campaigned on that general goal, with varying degrees of explicitness. Last night, Trump embarked on an extended diatribe about MS-13 members - “they’re not human beings” - and then cued the crowd into roaring the word “animals.” Trump can insist that this was only about gang members, but the bottom line is that this was a hate rally, and it shows again that Trump views the carrying out of that broader agenda as key to his visceral connection to these crowds, or to large swaths of his base.
What does this look like in reality? It has led to a suspension of relatively sane enforcement priorities, unshackling Immigration and Customs Enforcement to carry out a much crueler deportation regime. It has led to a new policy of prosecuting all people who cross the border illegally, including asylum seekers, which means more broken-up families. This is explicitly justified as a deterrent to such border crossings. Its inhumane cruelty is the whole point - it is intended to dissuade people from seeking refuge here.
Writing at Crooked Media, Brian Beutler argues that the firing of Roseanne Barr unmasks a delusion about Trump’s America that has been kept alive (ironically enough) by an elite media in the grip of a journalistically misconceived obligation to Trump country. We read story after story portraying Trump voters in ailing Midwestern manufacturing and Appalachian coal communities as suffering from an economic anxiety that is meant to ennoble Trump’s America and cleanse the media of its 2016 sin of overlooking its extent and reach. As Beutler notes, Barr was supposed to represent that America, but now she has let slip darker impulses animating untold swaths of it, ones that Trump continues to speak to directly, as he did last night.
These regional economic divides are real and important, and I don’t believe that all Trump voters would thrill to Barr’s racism. Indeed, elevating Barr as a symbol of Trump’s America - as Trump himself has done - actually shows contempt for Trump voters as a class. But in a sense, this is what some in the media have done by creating a hollow, idealized portrayal of Trump’s America, and Barr’s downfall punctures that illusion. As Beutler puts it: “Roseanne is the Trump supporter who shows up at Trump rallies.”
Fully puncturing that illusion requires an acknowledgment that, however representative those people are, they are who Trump is talking to, not just at his rallies but also with his policies.