Democratic politicians and celebrities called it a shocking instance of Trump-era racism and hate. Republicans now depict it as yet another example of liberals and mainstream media rushing to judgment while disparaging the president’s supporters as bigots.
The case of “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett encapsulates the polarized state of political discourse in America.
With Smollett now accused of staging a racist, anti-gay attack on himself , the case seemed to inflame political tensions even more while creating potentially damaging consequences for genuine hate crime victims in the future.
“The danger is that it will cause people to respond with skepticism whenever they hear reports of hate violence, even though the overwhelming majority of those reports are completely true,” said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
Smollett, who is black and gay, is accused of filing a false police report last month asserting that he was attacked in Chicago by two men who beat him, targeted him with slurs, and yelled “This is MAGA country” — an apparent reference to President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
Democratic presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Cory Booker were among those who sided with Smollett early on and called the incident a “modern-day lynching.” They soon found themselves under attack from the right as Smollett’s story began to fall apart.
Trump initially called reports of the attack “horrible.” On Thursday, he tweeted, “what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?”
Harris tweeted Thursday that she was “sad, frustrated and disappointed” at Smollett’s alleged staging of the attack.
Editor and commentator Jarrett Stepman of The Daily Signal, an online publication of the conservative The Heritage Foundation, faulted left-of-center pundits and politicians for seizing immediately on Smollett’s claims in a bid to score political points.
“Instead of just treating this as a serious crime, it was used as a political bludgeon to malign large swaths of Americans,” he said. “There was a rush to find a story to attack half the country.”
However, Stepman said he shared concerns that the case might have unfortunate consequences for real victims who deserve support and compassion.
“Heinous hate crimes do exist in this country, but it’s the ‘boy who cried wolf’ thing,” Stepman said. “People become cynical, and that’s not a healthy thing for American society.”
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson had a hard time holding back his frustration over the allegation that a gay black man like Smollett would concoct such a story given the real struggles in the city with racial divisions and hate crimes.
He expressed similar concerns about how hate crimes are handled in the future because of this case while recognizing how his city became a participant in a national political debate.
“Celebrities, news commentators and even presidential candidates weighed in on something that was choreographed by an actor,” said Johnson, who is black and grew up in Chicago.