When Empire actor 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.
Particularly for Democrats, the story of Smollett 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 stood 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 viewed as a safe one.
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.
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 will 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 politician, 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.
But after Jussie Smollett’s arrest, politicians will likely be much more reluctant to step forward and support movements for social justice.
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