If “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett is guilty, as Chicago police have charged, of falsely claiming he was the victim of a hate crime, he has done a grave disservice to the many Americans — black and brown, Muslim and Jew, gay and transgender — who have been or will be the actual victims of such attacks. If he faked an assault, he has provided skeptical police officers and unsympathetic right-wingers another excuse not to take such claims seriously.
Smollett — who turned himself in after he was accused of filing a false police report — deserves, like all criminal suspects, the presumption of innocence. His family and his attorneys continue to insist that the actor, who is openly gay, did nothing wrong.
But his story began to fall apart pretty quickly after he made the claim late last month about a vicious attack on a Chicago street as he walked alone late at night. Smollett told police that two masked men punched him while yelling racist and homophobic slurs. He also claimed one yelled, “This is MAGA country!” — invoking President Donald Trump’s signature phrase, “Make America Great Again.” Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson told reporters Feb. 21 that Smollett paid two men to help him stage the attack.
As feminist writer Roxane Gay tweeted: “Why would he make it harder for people who actually suffer from hate crimes? It makes no sense. The lie is so damaging.”
On cue, Trump quickly jumped in on Twitter, feigning outrage on behalf of all of his supposedly defamed supporters. “@JussieSmollett — what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!? #MAGA,” Trump tweeted.
Conservative commentators, some of whom were already openly skeptical of Smollett’s claims, also raced to denounce the actor and his defenders. This case will likely get more attention on right-wing radio talk shows than all the actual cases of hate crimes taken together.
And plenty of real hate crimes keep police busy. Just last week, federal authorities arrested an active-duty U.S. Coast Guard officer, Lt. Christopher Paul Hasson, who called for “focused violence” to “establish a white homeland.” Investigators uncovered a cache of weapons and ammunition at his home, as well as a hit list that read like a who’s who of journalists and Democratic politicians. If notes confiscated from his computer are any guide, Hasson was becoming increasingly alarmed at the prospect that Trump might be impeached and was readying a strike. His Excel spreadsheet, according to published reports, included this chilling tidbit: “best place in dc to see congress people.”
As alarming as this development is, it’s no surprise. Trump has catered to bigots since he started his presidential campaign, and they have felt empowered since his election. He began his political career as the nation’s most famous birther, notoriously insisting that President Barack Obama was a usurper who wasn’t born in this country. He easily segued into a campaign that insulted Mexicans, denounced Muslims and placated white supremacists. His rallying cry, “Make America Great Again,” is clearly a call for a return to a time when black and brown Americans had little political or economic power and no cultural clout.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks such things, the number of hate groups operating in the United States is now at an all-time high. It has identified 1,020 such groups. The Trump presidency has seen, among other assaults, the calamity at Charlottesville, where Heather Heyer was fatally struck by a car driven by a white terrorist looking to mow down peaceful protesters, and the atrocity last year at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, which left 11 worshippers dead.
Smollett may have seen an opportunity in linking his allegedly fake claim to an actual perpetrator: a president who has continually engaged in hateful and divisive rhetoric that stirs up the lunatic element among his supporters. If Smollett lied, he has only assisted the hater in chief.