Few people of any real stature have defended Roseanne Barr's tweet that got her ABC show canceled. But when they have, they've generally followed a playbook: Compare it to harsh criticisms of President that haven't drawn similar responses. Yes, Barr said black former Obama administration official Valerie Jarrett was the offspring of apes, they say, but Bill Maher compared Trump to an ape, too. And he still has his job!
But implicit in this argument is the very fallacious idea that calling a white person an “ape” is indistinguishable from using that word for a black person. It completely ignores vital context, centuries of racism and indisputably awful, long-running comparisons between black people and animals. It essentially suggests Barr's tweet wasn't racist in the first place.
And judging by Trump's first reaction to the Roseanne imbroglio, he may not think her tweet was racist either.
About 16 hours after White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted Trump was too busy to be focused on Roseanne, Trump weighed in — albeit somewhat obliquely:
“Bob Iger of ABC called Valerie Jarrett to let her know that 'ABC does not tolerate comments like those' made by Roseanne Barr,” Trump said. “Gee, he never called President Donald Trump to apologize for the HORRIBLE statements made and said about me on ABC. Maybe I just didn’t get the call?”
Trump isn't totally owning or defending Roseanne's comments here, which is notable given he has praised her show for its portrayal of Trump country in the past. But while his tweet isn't an explicit approval of what she said, it certainly implies that it wasn't that bad. Trump, after all, is comparing his own treatment to Jarrett's.
I don't have a catalog of everything that has been said on ABC about Trump, but not even conservative news sites seem to have documented Trump being on the receiving end of racist attacks on Iger's network — much less any other network. Pundits and comedians like ABC's Jimmy Kimmel have said nasty things about Trump, to be sure, and comments like Maher's and Kimmel's commentary on Melania Trump have often tested the bounds of acceptable political discourse. On this blog, I've personally expressed some uneasiness about the “mental stability” narrative that has followed Trump.
But there is a difference between lodging a personal attack and making a racist comment. The former is constantly the subject of societal debate; the latter has been established as a no-go zone for a very long time. This was also the second time Barr had compared a black Obama official on Twitter to an “ape,” making it seem far from just a joke gone wrong.
By comparing it to criticisms of himself, though, Trump is severely diluting the importance of racism as a consideration. And coming from the guy who blamed “both sides” for the tragedy in Charlottesville, it fits a very clear pattern on that front.