When actor Jussie Smollett said he had been beaten and left with a noose around his neck by two men shouting slurs and pro-Trump messages in Chicago last month, Democratic politicians couldn’t issue sweeping condemnations quickly enough.
California Sen. Kamala Harris called it “an attempted modern-day lynching.” So did New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. (He used those exact same words.) “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,” tweeted New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
On and on it went. Why? Because it seemed so ready-made for politicians hoping to make a point about the poisoning of our culture by Trump and his ilk: Smollett is gay, black and an outspoken critic of Trump. Of course Trump supporters reacted violently!
Except, not. Chicago police had confirmed they were investigating a possible hate crime against Smollett when he reported it, but two law enforcement sources with knowledge of the case have told CNN the police now believe Smollett paid two men — brothers — to stage the attack on him. Smollett has denied that charge but has yet to speak again directly with the police about the circumstances surrounding the incident on January 29.
That news has led to a massive conservative counterattack — on Democrats and the media who they argue were all too willing to cast Smollett as the victim of an attack, even though corroborating evidence was in short supply.
“Hey Hollywood and media types, I’ve noticed a lot of you deleted your #JusticeForJussie tweets… what’s the matter, don’t you want justice for him anymore??? #frauds,” tweeted Donald Trump Jr., the President’s eldest son — and proud Twitter troll.
And ’round and ’round we go. Whatever the ultimate details are about what happened with or to Smollett on that January night, his claims are a useful lens to see our current politics — and what is deeply broken about them.
We live in a political world — and in a broader society, because, let’s be honest, everything is political now — that puts a premium on instant reactions. As soon as something happens, politicians scramble to beat each other off the draw to comment. Reporters ask them for their statements, and analysts — yours truly often included — start writing about what happened, what politicians said about what happened and what it all means.
So, the media has a role in this. It’s not all politicians’ fault.
However, because politics has become so, so base-centric in the last decade-ish, politicians are forever on the hunt for stories that confirm what their base already believes. If they can be the first and/or loudest voice in condemnation, they believe that helps them — especially when they are running for president.
And so, Democratic 2020 candidates were very quick to believe Smollett’s version of events. And now Republicans — especially those aligned with the Trump White House — are just as quick to seize on the idea this was all an elaborate hoax. Both sides are simply exhibiting confirmation bias. Because we reward that sort of thing in our politics now.
The Point: Modern politics isn’t built for a let’s-wait-and-see-what-all-the-facts-reveal approach to events. It’s built to incentivize whoever has the first and toughest (and most memorable quote), even if the facts ultimately undermine it.