UPDATED It’s become a cliche to say that America is more polarized than it has been for decades, but the strange saga of Jussie Smollett and the hate crime that may have become a hoax is fresh evidence of the divisions roiling this country.
Chicago police assert that the “Empire” actor was looking for a raise when he claimed he had been the victim of a homophobic and racist attack by two men who shouted “This is MAGA country.” If he did orchestrate his own assault in order to get a bigger paycheck, Smollett also managed to touch a series of political and social fault lines.
In the hours after his news broke of his attack, social media was flooded with supportive statements from celebrities, some of whom asserted that Smollett was an example of the dangerous consequences of a far-right agenda they viewed as racist and anti-gay. After Smollett’s story began to unravel, conservative commentators and politicians reacted with fury. Donald Trump wanted to know when Smollett would apologize to the president’s supporters. If Smollett’s allegedly false attack provided the spark for the latest round in our ongoing culture wars, social media was the petrol.
“Our reactions to things are quicker and more polarized than they have been in the past,” said Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State University.
Before police identified him as a suspect, Smollett made a point of emphasizing the politically charged nature of his alleged assault. In an interview with “Good Morning America,” Smollett said he was targeted because of his criticism of Trump.
“I come really, really hard against 45,” he said, referring to the president. “I come really, really hard against his administration, and I don’t hold my tongue.” He went on to claim that skeptics wouldn’t have mistrusted his account if he said he was assaulted by a black or Muslim man.
If it turns out that Smollett lied about his account of the assault, he also may have knowingly tried to exploit racial and political tensions as a way to provide himself with cover.
Cable news and talk radio have made hay out of stories such as Smollett’s in the past, but the digital era has enabled anyone with a Twitter handle to weigh in, providing an echo chamber of ever-escalating outrage. Grossmann suspects that the Smollett story will dominate Fox News and other right-leaning outlets for days to come as a symbol of perceived media bias.
“Conservatives have long distrusted Hollywood and media personalities, so the combination of the two makes this a very attractive story,” he said.
Smollett’s claim caught the attention of a number of Democratic figures, including contenders running for president.
As Smollett’s harrowing story dominated news coverage, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) weighed in to condemn the attack. Former Vice President Joseph Biden wrote on Twitter that “what happened today to @JussieSmollett must never be tolerated in this country. We must stand up and demand that we no longer give this hate safe harbor; that homophobia and racism have no place on our streets or in our hearts. We are with you, Jussie.”
These figures were notably less outspoken in the wake of Smollett’s arrest. Campaign spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment, but it’s likely that one or more of the contenders eventually will have to address the story in some way.
Robert Shrum, the veteran Democratic campaign strategist and political science professor at USC, said that the Smollett story is a good lesson for candidates who want to weigh in on such high profile stories. “You can’t react with a hair trigger. We’ve all done it.”
He said that the candidates “will probably get asked about it. The simple answer is, ‘I made a mistake.'”
Whether they comment, he said, “is up to them. In electoral terms I don’t think it matters.”
He added, “Trump and the folks on the right that are seizing on this are seizing on this are talking to each other in their own echo chamber. It will not have much of an impact.”
A concern now is whether it will distract from the hate crimes against lesser-known individuals. Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin initially expressed support and anguish after Smollett reported the attack. On Thursday, he wrote that the latest news was “both devastating & frustrating. But I want to ask everyone feeling angry, hurt & disappointed to channel that into productive activism – because there are thousands targeted by hate violence each year who need our help.”
It’s unclear why Smollett would fabricate a story, risking imprisonment and career ruin in the process. Mental health experts argue that their are deeper psychological issues at play than mere career advancement.
“If someone was trying to promote their career there are other ways of doing it,” said Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center. “It seems like an expression of extraordinary frustration. What’s underneath this is angst and pain and that must be what’s driving him to act out.”
However, in these charged times, Rutledge doesn’t expect many people will feel sympathy for Smollett. Those on the left side of the political spectrum are burned and embarrassed, those on the right feel unfairly maligned.
“My hope is that people understand that this sort of behavior is more psychologically driven than criminally driven,” she said. “However, the political and social ramifications of his actions are going to keep it from being discussed with much compassion for him.”
Update: Harris responded late on Thursday in a tweet, writing that she was “sad, frustrated and disappointed.”
“When anyone makes false claims to police, it not only diverts resources away from serious investigations, but it makes it more difficult for other victims of crime to come forward.”
Like most of you, I've seen the reports about Jussie Smollett, and I'm sad, frustrated, and disappointed. pic.twitter.com/91OHOymShi
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) February 21, 2019