Hoaxers and their Media Fixers
The Strange Case of Jussie Smollett is just the latest and most infamous in a long string of anti-Trump hate crime hoaxes.
In the bitterly cold, early morning hours of January 29th, Fox television star Jussie Smollett claims he was brutally attacked on an empty Chicago street by two, Trump supporting thugs.
The black and openly gay actor says he was returning home from a 2am run to a sandwich shop when the masked culprits ambushed him shouting racist and homophobic slurs. He claims his tormentors recognized him from his prime time, hip-hop soap opera, “Empire,” and proceeded to beat him, kick him, pour bleach on him, and hang a noose around his neck. They allegedly capped their savage assault by wildly jeering, “This is MAGA country!”
The former child actor was instantly inundated with an outpouring of support from celebrities, politicians and journalists. Halle Berry, Reese Witherspoon and a constellation of Hollywood’s brightest stars tweeted their shock and solidarity. Superstar comedian Kevin Hart, who dropped out of hosting this year’s Oscars after decade old, anti-gay tweets resurfaced, sent the 36-year-old fellow thespian his deepest sympathies.
Democratic presidential candidates Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker rushed to pronounce the alleged crime “a modern day lynching.” Firebrand Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters angrily blamed President Trump for “separating and dividing” the public and “emboldening those folks who feel this way.” Even Trump, the accused MAGA mastermind, weighed in declaring, “It doesn’t get worse, as far I’m concerned.”
Larry Wilmore, celebrated black comedian and former host of the “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” on Comedy Central, was a rare Hollywood skeptic. He tells me, “There were too many ‘racist’ details that seemed over the top. It was as if some bigots were out trolling at 2am with a ‘racist utility belt’ hoping they’d run in to somebody. It seemed weird. My Spidey Sense didn’t like it.”
Meanwhile, mere days after his ordeal, battered and bruised but unbroken, Smollett flew to Los Angeles to perform at West Hollywood’s Troubadour night club. From the strobe lit stage, the triple threat entertainer reassured his ecstatic fans that “I had to be here tonight. I couldn’t let those motherf–kers win... Above all, I fought the f–k back! I’m the gay Tupac!”
Buoyed by public support, Smollett, an NAACP Image Award winner, went on the popular, nationally televised morning news show, “Good Morning America,” to detail the traumatic events of that icy, Chicago morning. By turns tearful and defiant, Smollett told the nodding and sympathetic host, “It feels like if I had said it was a Muslim, or a Mexican, or someone black, I feel like the doubters would’ve supported me a lot more, and that says a lot about the place that we are in our country, right now.”
Many in the US media agreed.
Washington Post columnist Eugene Scott opined, “To many, the Smollett incident — and the political nature of the assault — is yet another reminder for many black gay Americans that this president’s vision of a ‘great America’ does not appear to include them.”
GQ writer Joshua Rivera wrote a blistering essay furiously blaming “America’s choice to embrace the blind rage of late stage whiteness.” According to the magazine scribe, Smollett’s nightmare come to life was only the latest, most vivid example of “the fury of racist homophobes stalking the streets of your city, who want you to know that they could lynch you if they really wanted to, and maybe get away with it, too.”
CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin sadly concluded, “This is America in 2019.”
The only problem? None of it appears to be true. After an exhaustive, three week investigation by two dozens officers, Chicago police now allege that the actor paid two, muscle bound, Nigerian Americans, one of whom was Smollett’s personal trainer, $3500 to stage the entire stunt. Police say that Smollett was dissatisfied with his reported $125,000 per episode salary and hoped the national attention would boost his market value.
In a lengthy press conference laying out copious forensic evidence, the visibly angry Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson asked, “Why? Why would anyone, especially an African America man, use the symbolism of a noose to make a false accusation?”
Attention, fame, money, sympathy. As it turns out, The Strange Case of Jussie Smollett is just the latest and most infamous in a long string of anti-Trump hate crime hoaxes.
A week before the 2016 presidential election, an arsonist set fire to a predominantly black church in Greenville, Mississippi. “Vote Trump” was spray-painted on the side of the historic place of worship. The town’s mayor blamed the destruction on Trump’s campaign rhetoric. The arsonist, however, was revealed to be one Andrew McClinton, a 45-year-old, black member of the congregation.
A few days after Election Day 2016, another anti-Trump fake hate crime popped up in Malden, Massachusetts. A 20-year-old man told police that, as he was getting off of a city bus, he was harassed by two men hurling racial slurs and screaming, “It’s Trump country now!” He later admitted it never happened.
That same month, a Muslim student at the University of Louisiana claimed that two, white, Trump supporters ripped off her hijab, assaulted and robbed her. Her story was found to be a hoax.
She was not the only hijab-clad student to claim MAGA thugs had targeted her. A day after the election, a Muslim student at San Diego State University told campus police that Trump supporters had stolen her purse and backpack, and made off with her car while taunting her: “Now that Trump is president, get ready to start fleeing!” Campus police debunked her story, including the alleged auto theft. She had forgotten where she parked her car.
The following month, a New York woman made national headlines with an anti-Trump hate hoax. The 18-year-old claimed a group of deranged Trump supporters attacked her on a New York subway train and tore off her head covering while fellow passengers impassively watched. She later confessed that she concocted the story to avoid being punished by her father for staying out late. She was right to be fearful. Upon learning of her deception, her father made her shave her head.
In his new book, “Hate Crime Hoaxes,” Wilfred Reilly, an associate professor of political science at Kentucky State University, trains his academic lens on this bizarre phenomenon. He tells me that he has identified more than 350 hate crime hoaxes perpetrated in a mere five year span, from 2012 to 2017. Reilly contends that genuine hate crimes are rare relative to more traditional criminal offenses. By way of comparison, 7,175 hate crimes were reported to the FBI in 2017. That same year, the FBI clocked nearly one and quarter million reports of violent crime. The professor and trained lawyer notes that inter-racial violent crime is, itself, uncommon. For example, 84% of white murder victims and 93% of black murder victims are killed by criminals of their own race.
Politicians and wide swaths of the media, however, are convinced that hate crimes are at epidemic levels since the election of Trump. They point to FBI statistics that show hate crimes increasing by a whopping 17% from 2016 to 2017. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a controversial yet widely cited civil rights organization, dubs it the “Trump Effect.”
But is it true? Is Trump’s America provoking the fury of racist mobs?
Reason magazine’s Robby Soave has delved into the FBI statistics and discovered that the entire 17% increase between 2016 and 2017 can be plausibly attributed to the additional 1,000 agencies submitting hate crime data. Moreover, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2015, “the rate of violent hate crime victimization was not significantly different from the rate in 2004.”
To put these numbers in political perspective, the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism finds that the increase in hate crimes in 2017 is comparable to the annual increases during the Obama administration. In other words, when it comes to hate crimes, Trump’s America looks like Obama’s America, and Bush’s America before that.
Getting back to Superintendent Johnson’s bewilderment over why Smollett would use “the pain and anger of racism to advance his career,” Dr. Marc Feldman, a psychiatrist who specializes in Münchausen syndrome, has some answers. In an interview with The Cut, he notes that perpetrators tend to choose traumas with status, like cancer or a terrorist attack. He tells the magazine, “I first became aware of it in the context of the 9/11 attacks, where way more people claimed to have been victims than was conceivable. They claimed to be in the World Trade Center or they claimed to be first responders.” Even more strange, “There have been individuals who have faked being drug addicts because it has a certain cachet in certain communities like the rock music community.”
As the Washington Post puts it, “The story Jussie Smollett told police had it all: racism, homophobia, politics, celebrity.” It also had a news media primed and eager to believe the worst about Trump voters.
Kaya Jones, a former member of the pop group “The Pussycat Dolls” and an ardent Trump supporter, wasn’t surprised by the media’s credulous coverage. She tells me, “Well, Kathy Griffin got away with a fake severed head of our president. Madonna got away with talking about blowing up the White House. So, I assume Jussie Smollett felt the narrative wouldn’t be questioned.”
And for three weeks, it wasn’t. Instead, the media hyped Smollett’s epic tale as a sinister consequence of Trump’s purportedly inciting rhetoric. Johnson, a proud lawman and Chicago native, observed with frustration, “Celebrities, news commentators, and even presidential candidates weighed in on something that was choreographed by an actor.”
Smollett may not be a working actor for long. Fox Studios has announced that he has been cut from the final two episodes of “Empire.” More ominously, Smollett stands accused of a felony for allegedly filing a false police report. He faces up to three years in prison and, if found guilty, may be ordered to pay back the hundreds of man hours Chicago police invested in finding his faux MAGA muggers.
Trump, for his part, demands to know, “What about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?”
Smollett maintains his innocence, for now.