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The Jussie Smollett Smokescreen

Several major stories this week revealed deep truths about this political moment in America. None pertained to the TV actor.

Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

There were plenty of contenders for the biggest news story this week. North Carolina officials ordered a new election on Thursday in the state’s 9th congressional district after hearing testimony about widespread absentee-ballot fraud during last fall’s race. Dramatic testimony from the son of Mark Harris, the Republican candidate who officially received the most votes last November, revealed that he had warned his father last year that a local political operative’s ballot collection plan was likely illegal. The Republican Party often invokes the illusory menace of widespread voter fraud; now they’ve had an election victory overturned for election fraud themselves.

Another contender would be the arrest of Christopher Hasson, a Coast Guard lieutenant in Maryland, for allegedly planning to carry out a targeted killing spree against prominent journalists and Democratic lawmakers. Federal prosecutors warned a judge earlier this week that he sought “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country.” Hasson’s plan, court filings suggest, was to use the killings as part of a broader campaign to secure a “white homeland” within the United States. It’s the second time in six months that one of President Donald Trump’s supporters has been arrested while allegedly plotting to kill his political opponents.

But one story received more media coverage than either of those, or any other this week: the arrest of Empire actor Jussie Smollett for filing a false police report in Chicago. Smollett, who is black and gay, told police earlier this month that he had been attacked by two white men who shouted “This is MAGA country,” used racial and homophobic slurs, poured an unidentified liquid on him, and tied a noose around his neck. Investigators now say that Smollett paid two other men to help stage the apparent hate crime, potentially out of frustration with his salary and screen time on the popular Fox drama. Smollett denies the allegations.

Critics seized on the Smollett episode to make broad pronouncements about the American left and the journalists that covered his story. There’s a certain irony about this, as the frenzy of coverage has obscured other news stories that tell deeper truths about the current political moment. For all the ways in which conservatives claim that mainstream news outlets are biased toward liberals, the last week shows how conservative narratives still get privileged in mainstream political discourse.

Smollett’s story prompted a flurry of attention from the beginning; his arrest turned it into a blizzard of commentary. Cable news covered every twist and turn in elaborate detail. The New York Times sent multiple push alerts to apprise mobile readers of new developments. Major publications saw deeper meaning. The Atlantic’s John McWhorter opined that Smollett’s alleged fraud reflected the broader problem of racial “victimhood chic” in contemporary American culture. USA Today’s James Robbins argued that the “real issue” was “how easily and quickly people latch onto hoaxes like the one attributed to Smollett, aiding and abetting the farce absent any solid evidence to support it.”

Trump-aligned pundits also chastised mainstream news outlets for wrongfully demonizing the president’s supporters. “If it advances the narrative that Donald Trump is evil and his supporters are bad and America is scary and racist and sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, the media mob will shift into full gear without performing any due diligence,” Fox News’ Sean Hannity told his viewers. Even Trump weighed in. “@JussieSmollett What about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!? #MAGA” he wrote on Twitter on Thursday.

An underlying theme here is that hate crimes are often either exaggerated or fictitious. Reality suggests otherwise. The same day of Smollett’s indictment, federal prosecutors in Utah filed federal hate crime charges against a Salt Lake City man who allegedly walked into a tire store, shouted that he wanted to “kill Mexicans,” and struck two Hispanic men with a metal pole. Earlier that week, Indiana police arrested a man for allegedly shooting and killing a 21-year-old Muslim man in a road rage incident. Witnesses and the alleged gunman himself told investigators that he shouted slurs about Islam and Muhammad before opening fire. Neither attack received widespread attention from pundits or tweets from the president.

So what stories get crowded out instead? The North Carolina election fraud story should, in theory at least, be a major embarrassment for a party that’s made fears of widespread voter fraud central to their messaging over the past decade. The disparity in coverage surrounding Hasson’s arrest is even more striking. The Justice Department didn’t issue any press announcements about the case, as it often does during major terrorism related arrests. The Intercept noted that the department is six times likelier to issue press releases in terror cases involving Muslim suspects than non-Muslim suspects.

Political violence isn’t necessarily exclusive to the right, of course: A gunman who once volunteered for Bernie Sanders’s campaign tried to assassinate multiple Republican lawmakers during a congressional baseball practice in 2017. But there’s an enlightening difference in how each side responds to it. After the gunman’s history became public, Sanders immediately took to the Senate floor after the attack and denounced the gunman’s actions. Trump has yet to comment publicly on Hasson’s arrest or denounce it himself, even among the flurry of tweets he regularly sends.

When asked about the president’s silence on Friday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that he is “typically one of the first people to condemn the violence, and the media is the first people to blame the president.” Trump, for his part, continues to describe journalists as “the enemy of the people.” Last weekend, he publicly agreed with a claim that his opponents are trying to stage a coup against him.

Whenever the president’s supporters commit violence, or are arrested before they can do so, the political right often responds with denialism. When prominent Democrats received mail bombs in the weeks before last year’s midterms, Trump’s media allies expressed disbelief that one of Trump’s supporters could be responsible for a wave of attempted mail bombings targeting prominent Democrats. That disbelief turned to silence after the arrest of Cesar Sayoc, who had attended Trump rallies and spread conspiracy theories online about Democratic politicians and donors. But this week, there was barely any need to deny the growing crisis of right-wing domestic terrorism in the U.S. It turns out that distraction is an even more effective tactic.