MISFIT DOC: Romanoffs, I Know You

I’ve been watching history’s warm breathing half life in my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. I don’t mean just in terms of our newly sworn-in Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, nationally famous for her public-hanging joke at a campaign event. I mean I’ve been watching The Romanoffs, now in its pricey, weird eight-episode run on Amazon Prime Video. In each installment, a purported present-day descendant of the dethroned Russian dynasty punks us over the truth that deep-seated identities die hard. One episode after another, average enough-looking humans, with spouses and jobs, turn out to be lugging entitled, deceptively weighty interior baggage. Except it’s not as if a Romanoff ever schleps her own bag. The hapless around them do, be it in Paris, New York or Vladivostok.

There’s pop-culture talk that the indulged self-seekers on the series mirror the Trump dynasty. Fair enough, yet I see facsimiles closer to home—and anywhere in history where power infects its holders, in fact.  In the South, the human tire tracks left by the careless Romanoffs on the small screen uncannily mirror the recent throwback neo-Confederate displays on the ground, public words and policies impossible to ignore. The television series’ point is how people living alongside the Romanoffs ought never be shocked at the brazen mindsets they exhibit—longstanding as the dynasty’s toehold, circa 1613. Yet each episode’s plot orbits around how bystanders repeatedly are. “I can’t believe I didn’t know you were like this,” sputters the husband of Kathryn Hahn’s character in Episode 7. You’d think he would.

That’s how it feels to witness—and see the rest of the country register its disgust—at the casual, classic Deep South white supremacy that followed Hyde-Smith into office as well as Brian Kemp, who took office as governor of Georgia on January 14.  On the ground, it’s a shameful shock, and, of course, in another way, it’s not, based on several centuries of racist history. That said, over 46 percent of Mississippi voters rejected the notion of a hanging-and-voter-suppression jokester representing them in the Senate. There’s been a psychic shift in the Mississippi air as a result of Hyde-Smith’s contest, no matter if the resistance to her election fell three percent short of a majority.

The day after, there were the expected journalism hot takes and Twitter disgust at Hyde-Smith’s win over Democrat Mike Espy, who stood to become the state’s first African American senator since Reconstruction. Many white Mississippians—the 20 percent estimated to have voted for Espy, at least—hoped the results would signal a new era, although Hyde-Smith’s numbers, like Kemp’s in Georgia, produced a slim win. Both candidates’ dog-whistle trappings worked with a majority of voting whites. Hyde-Smith’s 7.26 percent winning margin may have been less than half of Trump’s in the state in 2016, but it was enough.

That’s what’s in common with The Romanoffs: a demonstration that a chunk of the mind—or a political base— still can latch on to the idea of deserved aggrieved aggrandizement and continue to clamp hard. Whether the case is the assumptions of white Mississippians or white Russians, actions are based on the unseen girders holding up the inside of someone’s head. There’s an old place in the human skull which can’t be pinged and status alerted away. That’s the point of the TV show, the project of Mad Men creator Maxwell Weiner, and that’s the point of the current Deep South cases of high-visibility white supremacy.

As the telling bombshells uttered by Hyde-Smith multiplied, so did the list of national organizations who asked for their campaign donation back: Major League Baseball, Walmart, Google, AT&T, Union Pacific, Pfizer, Aetna and Walgreens to name a few. (None have been issued). The scrutiny started with a video that surfaced on Nov. 11 of her fond tribute to a friend at a Tupelo gathering. “If he invited me to a public hanging, I would be on the front row.” An unsettling word choice in a state with the country’s largest number of lynchings between 1882 and 1968. She refused to apologize for 10 days. Even other top state Republicans, hardly known for their racial sensitivity, urged her to apologize. She reportedly balked. As the public blowback grew and her lead over Espy seemed to narrow, she issued a mild statement of regret. Listlessly, she seemed to read it verbatim. Her choice to be silent was even more significant than her initial one-liner on her front-row spot.

Silence at the wrong time is loud as spoken venom. In Romanov history, the last czar Nicholas II’s head was so steeped in privilege that when he received a Ruso-Japanese War communiqué on the deaths of nearly 4,500 troops and the capture of almost 6,000 —eighty percent of the Russian fleet was lost—he wordlessly stuffed the message in his pocket. He resumed his tennis game.

His wife Alexandra lived on out-of-touch assumptions as well. Only two years before their executions by Bolshevik troops, Alexandra coached her husband to stand fast as an autocrat. “Russia loves to feel the whip. It’s their nature.” The words show her human willingness to rationalize what was needed to sustain an illusion, morally tenable or not. “Tender love and the iron hand to punish and guide,” she declared.

In the nineteenth-century, U.S. abolitionists pointed to the ironic correspondence between serfdom in imperial Russian and slavery in supposedly democratic America. The white South, like Russia, prospered through the forced labor and bodies of millions. Interestingly, Czar Alexander II’s March 1861 emancipation decree of the serfs preceded Abraham Lincoln’s in January 1863. It has been speculated that the czar’s decision helped to provoke Lincoln’s.

“They resisted democracy,” a lecturer in a scene from The Romanoffs’ Episode 2 reminded descendants on a cruise-ship family reunion. “They enforced feudalism until nearly the twentieth century. They ruled with an almost pagan absolutism.”

Black voter suppression, of course, is an absolute necessity in authentic neo-Confederate think. The Ku Klux Klan killed for it. Poll taxes and arbitrary literacy tests were created to ensure it. A moral history of the United States could be told through the history of black leaders like Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers and Fannie Lou Hamer who resisted it—in Mississippi most of all. At another campaign stop, Hyde-Smith mentioned its usefulness.  While meeting with students at Mississippi State University, she was filmed saying maybe it should to be “a little more difficult” for liberal students at more liberal colleges to vote (presumably the historically black universities).  Later Hyde-Smith said she meant her comments as a joke, in a state where three Freedom Summer voter-registration volunteers were horrifically murdered in 1964 and where voters continue to face some of the nation’s most restrictive voting hurdles. (There is no provision for early voting. In 2013, Mississippi put a photo ID law into effect, requiring one of 10 acceptable forms of identification at the polls, including a firearms license.)

Report after report came out of Georgia of the systemic moves that disproportionately suppressed black voting. The state’s 2018 top election official, now Governor Kemp, edged out Democrat Stacey Abrams, who would have become the nation’s first African American woman governor. Kemp, naturally, denied the chilling effect of the election system under Republican watch. “You can’t dwell on things in politics. We just grind it out every day, whether it was a good day or a bad day.”

But dwelling on lofty old assumptions is entirely what’s at the core of The Romanoffs and for mindsets like Hyde-Smith’s and Kemp’s. At one point in the series, a Romanoff-by-marriage blurts out what she fathoms at long last: an alternate mindset still steers her in-laws, 2019 or not. Shipboard, Shelly Romanoff watched the clan’s presumptions and manufactured sense of victimhood. “They’re all some combination of the grandiose and the terrified.” That’s the description of what happens when an aggrieved neo-Confederate mind speaks in the open air. Sure, there are those headline-grabbing hanging and voter-suppression comments. Yet there’s also a hypervigilance to the idea that the customary whites-on-top red Deep South political structure is under siege. Others must be watched, since they nip at the heels of the entrenched. In Episode 7, when Kathryn Hahn eyes a pair of Victorian wood-backed chairs at a sinister Vladivostok adoption agency, her mind imagines chairs like those would have been set up in the czar’s family’s execution room a century ago.  As the czar’s descendant, the potential for attack hovered around her awareness perpetually.

Just that kind of siege mentality was on show at Hyde-Smith’s victory party. Her chief backer, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant declared, “I’ve never seen anybody attacked, anybody fired at as hard as this great lady was.” Hyde-Smith’s crowd whooped.  A few minutes later, a Team Cindy campaign tweet, complete with GIF, sailed out, blasting local reporters for covering Hyde-Smith’s explosive comments and also reporting that she and her daughter attended anti-integration private academies: “Y’all find @cindyhydesmith’s middle school yearbook yet? #ThanksForPlaying #GameOver#FakeNewsGotBurned”

Hyde-Smith’s message centers on the whites-only magical-thinking assumption that every decent person in Mississippi can do nothing but line up behind her guns, border wall and military agenda. (She’s stated that she bought her college-age daughter a lifetime NRA membership when her daughter was two) Hyde-Smith campaigned as the ultimate Trump-acolyte—she was the only senator in the 115th Congress with a one hundred percent pro-Trump voting record, according to FiveThirtyEight.com. “Invite a gun-toting, liberty-loving, God-fearing Mississippian to vote Cindy Hyde-Smith today!” noted her campaign Facebook page, ignoring the concerns of so many in this impoverished state for expanded health coverage and public-school support.

A glimpse of her inner GPS came through in a social media post a few years back from Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis’s last home on the Biloxi beachfront. Back as state Agriculture Commissioner—her post until her initial March 2018 temporary appointment to fill the seat vacated by Sen. Thad Cochran’s retirement—Hyde-Smith posed in a Confederate soldier’s cap and waggled a Confederate rifle. “Mississippi history at its best!” she exclaimed. In an official campaign photo, she stood in the line of sight of a state flag draped to reveal—no surprise— the Confederate emblem at the left corner.

The kicker on The Romanoffs and in Mississippi and Georgia is that the players get away with their throwback assumptions. “It just seems like it all worked out for you,” observes a sidelined lover in Episode 4. Amanda Peet’s character dabbles with the idea of taking responsibility for a lie that has propped up her lux life: a gentrified brick townhouse and non-profit play job, one where she can show up at 4:30 with beer on her breath. She opts not. She lacks the will to imagine a world beyond the customary one that she bequeathed to herself from within her own head. A twist comes at the show’s end, however, when Peet’s character realizes that despite the outer looks of her status quo, the ground beneath has actually shifted. What’s more, she’s hospitalized for gallstones, a ham-handed easy-read of her full supply of conduct that galls. The actual Romanovs had their reckoning in 1918, two years after Alexandra’s confident talk about whips.

The same for Hyde-Smith. Her victory wasn’t as solid as her win initially indicated. Her 7.26 percent winning margin revealed change even in habitually ruby-red Mississippi. The percentage was the smallest for any GOP Senate win in the state since the early 1980s when aging old-line Democrats like John Stennis and James Eastland clung to office. Ordinarily in Mississippi, Republicans rolled over the competition in statewide votes. President Trump won with an 18-point margin two years ago, and the state’s incumbent U.S. senator Roger Wicker is returning to Washington this month with an almost 20-point win. Yet after the public hanging comment was reported, Espy drew more votes in the Nov. 27 run off against Hyde-Smith than in the first-round contest on Nov. 6 before the news spread. Espy managed to flip four 2016 Trump counties.

At his watch party at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, Espy said, “Make no mistake. Tonight is the beginning, not the end.” The former congressman and Secretary of Agriculture in the Bill Clinton administration said, “When this many people show up, stand up and speak up, it is not a loss. It is a movement.” Espy has filed papers to run for the seat again in 2020, presumably against Hyde-Smith once more.

Run-off night in Jackson, Hyde-Smith didn’t wait for the traditional 10 p.m. news time to take the Westin Hotel podium for her victory speech. “This One’s For the Girls” boomed on the speakers. She was flying to Washington next morning, she said. “I’ve got to be at the airport at 4:30.”

On December 19 at the Senate, a few days after being sworn in for her win, Hyde-Smith was ironically presiding at the moment Kamala Harris presented a bill to make lynching a federal crime, a measure previously proposed and rejected two hundred times since 1882. In December, it passed unanimously.

In Mississippi and via my Amazon Prime account, it’s clear that a historic drama doesn’t always feature dowries and daggers. History is also the present. It can replay on and on. As long as people let it.


Ellen Ann Fentress is a writer and documentary filmmaker in Jackson, Mississippi. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Oxford American, The Baffler, The Bitter Southerner, Scalawag and other journals. She teaches nonfiction in the Mississippi University for Women MFA program. Follow: @ea_fentress Check out: www.ellenannfentress.com

Image from The Romanoffs reproducued here under fair use.


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