WASHINGTON President Donald Trump wants to create a safe public space for ugly, unvarnished, unambiguous racism, which he knows he can exploit for political advantage. This cynical and destructive ploy must not be allowed to succeed.
Witness Trump’s reaction to the Roseanne Barr self-immolation. The president frequently airs his opinions via Twitter within minutes of seeing something he likes on Fox News or something he hates on CNN. But for two full days, and counting, there has been not a word of censure for Barr’s vile “joke” portraying Valerie Jarrett, a top adviser to President Obama, as the result if “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby.”
Trump has had nothing to say, pro or con, about ABC’s decision to cancel Barr’s revived sitcom. Rather, he has twice complained that while Robert Iger, chairman of ABC’s corporate parent Disney, promptly called Jarrett to apologize, Iger has never called Trump with an apology for things said about him by others associated with ABC. “You and ABC have offended millions of people, and they demand a response.… Double Standard!” Trump said to Iger in a Thursday tweet.
You can see Trump’s narcissism at work there, but also his calculation. He portrays himself as a victim and encourages his supporters to do likewise. He apparently realizes that defending Barr – a Trump supporter whose show the president has praised in the past – would be going too far. But he is careful not to offer even the mildest criticism of what she said.
Why would Barr, out of the blue, attack Jarrett, who hasn’t been in the news since Obama left office a year and a half ago? Because many on the paranoid hard-right fringe remain obsessed with Obama and those who served in his administration. They find it impossible to accept the fact that an African-American man, surrounded by other African-Americans, was elected president twice and served honorably and successfully for eight years.
Jarrett, whom Obama met when he lived and worked in Chicago, was born in Iran to African-American parents. This happenstance fuels the fevered delusions of anti-Muslim bigots who paint her and Obama himself – yes, I know this is beyond ridiculous – as Islamic sleeper agents or moles or something, bent on destroying America. Apparently they did this by rescuing the nation from its gravest financial crisis since the Great Depression, killing Osama bin Laden and greatly expanding access to health care.
There is a direct line between birtherism – a racist movement that Trump effectively led – and the outburst that got Barr fired. To accept the legitimacy of the Obama presidency would be to acknowledge that white supremacy is nothing but a vicious lie, used by the powerful to divide and weaken the powerless.
Out there on the fringe, Barr and others seem to have a special hatred for black women. In a similar vein, Barr once compared Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, to an ape. And some of the vilest, most disgusting attacks of all are leveled at Michelle Obama.
Among those who have tried to ridicule the former first lady in this manner is Dinesh D’Souza, a right-wing provocateur and convicted felon who was sentenced to eight months in a halfway house and paid a $30,000 fine for breaking campaign finance laws. Trump announced Thursday that he will give D’Souza a pardon because “I’ve always felt he was very unfairly treated.”
See, there it is again: victimhood. We are being wronged. By them.
The complaint cannot be that racists should be free to spew whatever bigoted nonsense they want, because the First Amendment already guarantees their right to do so. It is that they should be free from the consequences of their words – a promise the Constitution assuredly does not make.
Barr first blamed herself for her outburst, then reverted to form and blamed everyone else she could think of. She said she was taking the sleeping aid Ambien, prompting the maker of the drug to state, for the record, that racism is not a known side effect. She claimed that ABC executives got nervous when comedian Wanda Sykes, who is black, promptly quit her job as a consultant on Barr’s show. She blamed all of her “liberal” critics.
She ought to blame Trump, if his election and his big mouth lulled her into believing it was safe and funny to be racist. ABC knew that its audience and advertisers would not accept such racist filth. Perhaps the president will invite her to the Oval Office for some laughs. Just the two of them.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.