Trump and Fox News’ Strategic Obsession With Jussie Smollett
What the president’s 2020 Democratic rivals can learn from his latest culture-war fixation.
Over 20 million people are poised to lose their health insurance in the next year, credible experts predict that we have less than 15 years to blunt global extinction due to the effects of climate change, and for the first time in about 100 years, American life expectancy has declined for three years in a row—but what motivates Donald Trump to act with a sense of urgency?
No doubt motivated by blanket, typically histrionic coverage of this celebrity scandal on Fox News (ostensibly the only “daily briefing” this president absorbs), Trump has ordered an FBI probe into the Empire star after all charges against him were dropped this week by prosecutors in Chicago for a bizarre, allegedly faked hate crime perpetrated on himself.
Of course, Trump would be activated by the Smollett story since it is deeply entrenched in issues of race and the right’s perception of the left’s inauthenticity.
The left has been roundly dragged for initially believing that Smollett, who is openly gay, had been the victim of a hate crime engineered by MAGA name-checking assailants.
Eventually, the case took an unbelievably strange turn when it appeared that Smollett may have fabricated everything (even hired his “attackers”) as part of a crude and foolhardy attempt to renegotiate his television contract.
If that were true, it would in no way change the fact that there has been a well-documented uptick in racially-motivated violence or that hate crimes are a very fact of life for many Americans. And yet Smollett’s folly has been conveniently spun as yet another “loss for the libs.”
Now, in a stunning (and still confounding) development, Smollett will go free and the timing couldn’t be more auspicious for Trump, who loves nothing more than a bright, shiny culture war for him to fan the flames of.
When Smollett was first arrested, Trump weighed in early about his guilt, while neglecting to address a plot revealed that same week by a white supremacist member of the U.S. Coast Guard to murder several prominent Democratic leaders, including his potential 2020 opponent, Vice President Joe Biden.
Today, as skepticism increases over William Barr’s short interpretation of the Mueller Report and furor grows for a full accounting of what the special prosecutor found, the president would rather (and has the unique power to) shift the conversation away from consequences or even policy, to a space that he feels more comfortable wading into—a kind of thunderdome for racial grievances.
Whether the Mueller Report exonerates him of a crime or not, by all accounts it does appear to once and for all convincingly establish the fact that Russia did successfully inject a sophisticated disinformation campaign into our last presidential election’s bloodstream, and Trump, who now is asking the public to believe the Mueller Report (a position that may change once they have actually read it) just days after saying it was illegal, has done absolutely nothing to rectify the problem or hold Russia accountable for it.
Shouldn’t that be a major national discussion we’re all having right now? If indeed the president’s hands are totally clean on matters of conspiracy and not entirely dirty on the topic of obstruction, don't the public and our representatives in Congress deserve some kind of detailed explanation for Trump’s uncharacteristic deference and jaw-dropping obsequiousness toward Vladimir Putin?
No, instead the president—and by extension the television news media—have decided the conversation should shift to a B-list star of a fading network TV show.
This entire episode should be instructive about how 2020 could play out should none of the Democratic contenders prove nimble enough to bat down “fake news” controversies and pivot to real-world concerns. So far, only Beto O’Rourke, by virtue of his newfound celebrity, has been able to steal focus from Trump and not always for the right reasons.
Whoever she or he may be, this dream candidate would need to be politically savvy enough to know that Smollett will only give Trump more fodder with which to denigrate the city of Chicago, which he routinely characterized as if it were some kind of blood-drenched hellscape throughout much of the 2016 campaign. Now, he’ll have a face to put with the name “black people.”
They will have to somehow point out that our president seems far more comfortable dunking on prominent black figures both trivial (LaVar Ball) and revered (Rep. John Lewis), but won’t criticize dictators with the same fervor.
They might want to point out that while Smollett shouldn’t be rewarded for his bad behavior, neither should the members of his cabinet who have done everything from coddle a convicted child molester to defund the Special Olympics.
Or it would be especially great if this Obama-esque nominee could use the entire episode for an instructive and inspirational conversation about the fundamental unfairness of our justice system as it’s currently constituted.
But these conversations haven’t happened in earnest yet and so we will have to watch—like a car crash in slow motion—Trump work this new sound bite into his repertoire.
And those of us who can’t afford the luxury of being whimsical or fatalistic about the next two years will have to endure this far-too-familiar bait-and-switch our president engages in until, like Smollett, we too are free of this nightmare.