When Jussie Smollett said last month that he’d been the victim of a racist and homophobic hate crime, a lot of politicians immediately tweeted out their support of the actor. But now that Smollett has been arrested for allegedly faking the attack, they're starting to pull back the support, and they could be much more reluctant to step forward on social justice cases in the future.
Particularly for Democrats, the story of the "Empire" actor being attacked by two white men who put a noose around his neck, called him racist and homophobic slurs, and hailed “MAGA country” was a perfect encapsulation of the Trump-influenced hatred they stand against, and an opportunity to reiterate their own values.
Over the past few years, politicians, both liberal and conservative, have used public outrage tweets as a low-effort way to play to their base.
But that strategy may no longer be considered safe.
Thursday morning, Smollett turned himself in to Chicago police, who say he orchestrated the whole thing and filed a false police report. In Illinois, this is a felony punishable by up to three years in prison. Smollett’s lawyers maintain his innocence.
President Donald Trump, who initially showed sympathy for Smollett, saying that the alleged attack was “horrible” and “doesn’t get worse,” has now gone on the offensive, tweeting that Smollett had insulted “tens of millions of people” with “racist and dangerous comments.”
But pivoting hasn’t been so easy for Democrats who had tweeted support for Smollett, and many have begun to walk back their statements. Right-wing commentators have had a field day bashing initial supporters such as Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris, who tweeted that the alleged attack was a “modern-day lynching,” and Nancy Pelosi, who called it an “affront to our humanity” (Pelosi has since deleted her tweet).
Despite clear evidence that hate crimes are on the rise, conservative commentators often insist that reports of hate crimes are either exaggerated or false. For them, this incident has been a lucky break.
Smollett has not been found guilty of anything, and it is entirely possible that he'll be exonerated. But the doubt surrounding this case doesn’t only affect Democrats — it will likely have serious implications for politics in general.
In recent years, victims of hate crimes could often count on politicians to publicly support them. For the politicians, it may have been a selfish PR move, but it did have the positive effect of helping to put those issues into the national conversation. The Smollett case could have a chilling effect on the conversation.
This segment originally aired February 21, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.