(CNN)“Empire” actor Jussie Smollett made the whole thing up.
From a criminal perspective, next steps seem simple. Smollett has been charged with a felony for filing a false police report. He will, presumably, be tried and sentenced — unless he can offer evidence that clears him. What’s harder to sort through is the political reaction to the case — and how we can avoid going down this same road in the future.
“This publicity stunt was a scar that Chicago didn’t earn, and certainly didn’t deserve,” Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said on Thursday. “To make things worse, the accusations within this phony attack received national attention for weeks. Celebrities, news commentators, even presidential candidates weighed in on something that was choreographed by an actor.”
“Even presidential candidates.”
And Johnson knows of what he speaks. Within a day (or so) of Smollett going public with his allegations that he had been the victim of a politically motivated attack with racial and homophobic overtones, virtually every major Democratic candidate for president rushed to put out a statement not only condemning the attack but painting it as part of a broader problem in society.
Sens. Kamala Harris (California) and Cory Booker (New Jersey) described the attack as a “modern day lynching.” Added Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (New York) via tweet: “This is a sickening and outrageous attack, and horribly, it’s the latest of too many hate crimes against LGBTQ people and people of color.”
The implication was clear: This wasn’t just about Smollett. This was about a culture — egged on by President Donald Trump — in which intolerance toward those who don’t look or love like you were to be called out and punished. (For his part, Trump also released a statement following the Smollett accusation; “That, I can tell you, is horrible,” he said on January 31. “I’ve seen it last night. I think that’s horrible. It doesn’t get worse, as far as I’m concerned.”)
Harris said in a statement Thursday, “Like most of you, I’ve seen the reports about Jussie Smollett, and I’m 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.
“We must speak the truth: hate crimes are on the rise in America. Just last year, the FBI released statistics that revealed a 17 percent increase in the number of hate crimes in America.”
She added, “I will always condemn racism and homophobia. We must always confront hate directly, and we must always seek justice. That is what I will keep fighting for.”
The truth is that all of the Democratic politicians believed what they were saying. At the time, based on the information available, what they said made sense. (Chicago police had confirmed they were investigating a possible hate crime against Smollett when he reported it.) But if we are being completely honest here, there was also a bit — and more than a bit — of political calculation. Smollett was black, gay and famous. He was a prominent anti-Trump voice. Because of all of those factors, the Democratic candidates for president were not only inclined to believe his story but also wanted to believe that story.
Each of these 2020 Democratic candidates is running as much against what Trump has done to our culture and the everyday citizen as they are running against Trump the person. It is what Trump symbolizes for those inclined to intolerance that is the real enemy, they have and will continue to argue. Trump created the landscape on which attacks like this can occur.
That’s not entirely wrong. I don’t think Trump created intolerance but he has certainly — through his rhetoric and his actions — allowed people who carry bigoted views to feel more comfortable about airing them. And, yes, crimes of hate and intolerance occur in this country — and have for a very long time.
The problem for Democratic politicians is that this particular crime didn’t happen, police say. And in fact, if true, Smollett’s hoax was built on the idea that he would become a sympathetic figure — a man victimized by Trump’s America. And, on cue, Democratic politicians did just that.
In backtracking from her original statement on Smollett, Gillibrand actually touched on the lesson everyone in politics should learn here.
“I still don’t know the facts of what happened and so I will wait to find out the facts of what happened … before I make another statement,” she said earlier this week. “I think my statement was much more about that racism and homophobia in any form, any bigoted act or words are heinous and something that we don’t support, but we don’t know the facts, so I’m going to wait and find out the facts.”
This is the key bit: “I still don’t know the facts of what happened and so I will wait to find out the facts of what happened … before I make another statement.”
The problem, of course, is that Gillibrand said this way back on January 29: “This is a sickening and outrageous attack, and horribly, it’s the latest of too many hate crimes against LGBTQ people and people of color.” There was no mention of waiting to see what all the facts showed before saying anything. Just an attempt to connect the alleged Smollett attack to the broader intolerance in the country.
The solution here is as simple as it is unlikely: Wait. Breathe. Pause. Let the police investigate. And then offer an opinion.
Or, short of that, this: Condemn the attack — or alleged attack — without seeking to broaden out its implications to something that fits your preconceived world view or improves your own personal political case.
Even that second option, however, is very unlikely to come to pass. Why? Because our politics — and our political media — prioritize getting there first, and with the hottest statement or take. A statement from a presidential candidate urging caution and resisting judgment until all the facts are gathered is pushed aside by a statement from a candidate not only condemning the heinous act but also insisting that said act is evidence of the broader issues we have with our society.
We reward snap judgments. Those are the ones that get the attention — and attract supporters who are looking for bold and decisive leadership. In 99% of situations, having a hard and fast take on some event works out. The attack happens the way the alleged attackee says it did. The politician is rewarded for taking a stand — and doing so quickly.
The problem is Jussie Smollett. Someone who purposely seeks to take advantage of our rush to judgment for, allegedly, his own personal gain. Our politicians are supposed to provide leadership, to show the populace how to best approach even the toughest situations. Leadership isn’t jumping to conclusions because something fits the way you believe things to be. And that’s why the 2020 Democrats failed to lead in this instance.
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