The recent Covington High School incident proved to be a political Rorshach test. You might have seen sneering twits in MAGA hats taunting an elder Native American, or perhaps you saw patriotic youngsters framed by a media too eager to torment U.S. president Donald Trump and his supporters. Even as the dramatic final days of the longest government shutdown in history wore on, the national conversation coalesced around who was at fault in that viral moment–and what had actually happened.
One heated point of contention around the issue, though, is what message the students’ MAGA hats inherently conveyed: innocent support for the president, or something more malevolent. Both sides-ing media outlets like Politico rushed into the fray to defend MAGA hats, while Alyssa Milano incurred a backlash for denouncing them as the new “white hoods.” Partly missing from this conversation were the cold hard facts about how many violent acts have been committed in the name of Trump’s movement. On Tuesday morning, there was a devastating reminder.
Actor Jussie Smollett, best known for his role on Empire, was reportedly beaten, taunted with homophobic and racial slurs, doused with bleach, and assaulted with a noose-like rope around the neck by two white men in ski masks, who told him, “This is MAGA country.”
Every time an undocumented immigrant commits a crime in the U.S., it becomes a multi-day story on Fox News, and a talking point for why the president should be able to build his wall. It’s a reductive generalization, a false-positive that ignores how rare such a crime must be for the people touting it to make such a big deal about each one.
So rather than extrapolate from Smollett’s beating the fact that anyone with MAGA in their vocabulary at all is a hate criminal waiting to happen, let’s take a look at those facts.
Trump’s entire platform is marked by a tendency to “Other” people of color, whether it’s Mexicans who are supposedly more likely to be rapists, Muslims who should be banned from entering the U.S., or whole nations like Haiti and Africa dismissed as “shithole countries” in contrast with majority-white Norway. (Trump’s actions with regard to the LGBT community also speak for themselves.) With this kind of rhetoric and policy, it’s no wonder hate crimes in the U.S. rose by 17% the year after Trump’s election.
Might those people have committed hate crimes no matter who was president at the time? Sure. But the attorneys for one man convicted of an anti-Muslim hate crime last year did ask the judge in the case to consider Trump‘s campaign rhetoric as a “backdrop” to the case before sentencing. Another man wearing a MAGA hat pushed a Mexican man in front of a subway in New York City, killing him. Sometimes those committing these violent acts just happen to be Trump supporters; other times they explicitly shout out their affiliation during the crime, like these 17 cases ABC found. Sometimes they get discovered with MAGA bumper stickers all over their vans after mailing pipe bombs to the president’s perceived political enemies.
Pretending there is no connection between the president’s rhetoric and the actions of some of his supporters, just to give the benefit of the doubt to the greater crop of Trump supporters in general, is burying one’s head in the sand. Anyone who disputes the existence of such a connection is usually someone who benefits from doing so. For people like Jussie Smollett and other victims, however, ignoring it is unfortunately not even an option.