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  • Sam Duan

The Smollett Affair and Its Partisan Implications

Jussie Smollett is a television actor of Empire fame. The character he portrays on the show, Jamal Lyon, has been hailed as a turning point for black, gay characters on television.

In January 2019, the Chicago police announced that Smollett had been the victim of a racist and homophobic attack. In February, two “persons of interest” were arrested and questioned by the police. A turn of events occurred when Jussie Smollett himself was charged by the police with “disorderly conduct / filing a false police report,” after which he was arrested on the suspicion that he staged the incident himself. On March 14, 2019, he appeared in court for the first time relating to the matter and pleaded not guilty, and eventually, all charges against him were dropped.

However, after the first trial, the City of Chicago ordered Smollett to pay for the police work and overtime associated with the investigation of the case, which the actor refused. The city then sued him, charging him in February with “six counts of lying to police,” the trials concluded on December 9, 2021, which found him guilty on five of the six counts of false police reports. On March 11, 2022, the court sentenced the actor to a fine, 150 days of jail time, and 30 months of probation. However, five days later, he was released from jail pending an appeal. On April 11, he published a new song, “maintaining his innocence.”

The matter itself, because of its high profile, and because of its reference to both race and sexuality, two of the most salient issues in contemporary U.S. politics, destined the event to be subject to immense public attention. But regardless of how muddled the water is, especially since the most recent appeal of the sentence, it is now clear that Smollett had himself staged the incident. According to the Illinois Prosecutors Bar Association, the professional association of prosecution lawyers in Illinois, the dropping of the charges during the first trial in 2019 was “abnormal and unfamiliar to those who practice law in criminal courthouses across the state.” During the second trial, two “persons of interest” who had worked with Smollett before the incident as trainers and had been seen in the same car a few days before the attack, testified under oath that Smollett had paid them to stage the incident. The evidence against Smollett, according to the prosecutor, was “overwhelming.” Although Smollett has filed for an appeal after his second trial, it is improbable that a higher court would overturn the verdict.

More conflicted, however, has the public response. A day after the incident was reported, an out-pour of support came from TV stars and politicians, including Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, who were both campaigning for the presidency. Then-President Trump’s response was, “It doesn’t get worse, as far as I’m concerned.” As the case went through its twists and turns, however, opinion began to shift. In March, as Smollett was suspected of having orchestrated the incident himself, Trump began calling it an “embarrassment to our Nation.” By the time of Smollett’s guilty verdict, he referred to him as a “con man.” Trump also called the incident, consistent with the far-right interpretation of the liberal position on race in general, “a hate crime in reverse” because of the use of “MAGA” — the acronym of Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make American Great Again” — during the incident.

The colorful language and gleeful attitude from the right are in large part due to the perception that the “liberals” have been “owned.” In the words of one self-identified conservative writer, “it is delicious to have the self-described truth-tellers of the media and the ‘reality-based community’ of the left made to look foolish.” The initial, one-sided, and strong support from the entertainment industry and Democratic-leaning politicians made it difficult for them to backtrack once the incident came out to be staged. The Democratic response to the possibility that the incident had been staged was mild and defensive in comparison to the support they offered initially. As the country became occupied with COVID response, economic policies, and the outbreak of war in Ukraine, however, Jussie Smollett seemed to fall out of public consciousness.

The event itself is an indicator of the deep partisan cultural cleft in the United States. Smollett himself, in his defense in court, applied much rhetoric that speaks to the racial divide. For instance, in his first trial, he stated that he did not call the police himself because “as a black man in America, [he doesn’t] trust the police.” Trump’s far-right criticism of the matter, going as far as calling it “racism in reverse,” shows the existence of a second language and framework of thought incompatible with the former. But neither voice pertains to the finding of truth. Smollett used left-wing rhetoric to confound, while Trump used right-wing rhetoric to mobilize. The extensive media coverage served to amplify the splitting effect of this event on the American polity.

The Jussie Smollett case epitomizes the political polarization in the United States and the damage it has done to democracy. It proves, further, the ease in this day and age with which truth can be muddled.


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