Smollett, Mueller and the news cycle that put another nail in the coffin of trust

Alia E. Dastagir and Anne Godlasky

What. Is. Happening? Americans across the political spectrum are suffering from whiplash after this week's news cycle delivered two men claiming exoneration and two authorities saying otherwise.

"I have been truthful and consistent on every single level since day one," said "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett on Tuesday after it was announced that the prosecution dismissed the 16 charges against him. Chicago Police arrested him for allegedly filing a false police report claiming he was the victim of a hate crime attack by "MAGA"-yelling men.

But Joseph Magats, the first assistant state's attorney in Cook County, Illinois, told the media: “The fact that (Smollett) feels that we have exonerated him, we have not. I can’t make it any clearer than that.”

President Donald Trump on Sunday said and tweeted that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report was a "complete and total exoneration."

Mueller did not find evidence of collusion with Russia. Yet according to Attorney General William Barr's summary — which is all the media, the White House, Congress and the public has seen — Mueller said: "While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him" on obstruction of justice.

On its face, these cases could not be more different. At its roots, they touch the frayed nerve of identity politics.

The people most outraged about either can be guessed by their political camps. Yet for many in what remains of a "middle," a predominant feeling is confusion, being left in the dark by opaque legal and political processes. The American public is decidedly locked out of "the room where it happens."

In the two months since news of the Smollett "attack" broke, looping in race, sexuality and politics, emotions have run high and conflicting reports citing the Chicago police department have left people struggling to keep up. Then, the charges were dropped seemingly out of nowhere.

In the nearly two years since the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election began, Americans watched as the president repeatedly attacked the special counsel and admitted “this Russia thing" was on his mind when he abruptly fired then-FBI Director James Comey, all to be left with a mere four-page summary in which Mueller essentially punts on making a call on obstruction.

Americans' confidence in many institutions has been slowly crumbling since the 1950s. But will the events of the past week — layered upon the past months' college admissions scandal and the Covington Catholic firestorm, layered upon the past years' misinformation campaigns and polarization — send the last remnants of trust through the shredder?

Actor Jussie Smollett after his court appearance at Leighton Courthouse on March 26, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois.

"People have been lied to in American life for generations," said Christopher Smith, a professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, recalling incidents from Watergate to Colin Powell's assurances leading to the second Iraq War. "But what these institutions have done is display how easily they can be influenced. ... Couple that with technology that has fragmented us and put us into echo chambers, and you've got a perfect recipe for the erosion of trust."

Both of these lightning rod cases are concluded. And yet they hardly feel tied with a bow.

Trump said Thursday he would have the FBI and the Justice Department review Smollett's case, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said city leaders are demanding Smollett pay back at least $130,000 for the cost of the investigation. Emanuel has been one of Smollett's most vocal critics, calling the decision to drop charges “a whitewash of justice.”

Meanwhile, a CNN poll found a majority of Americans say the president and his campaign have not been exonerated in the Mueller report. A separate poll found 56 percent of Republicans say the full report should be released to the public, compared to 84 percent of Democrats. Barr says he will release it in weeks, not months, while the Justice Department determines which parts will be redacted due to grand jury testimony or revelations about pending cases.

In all of these cases, calls for transparency abound, yet feel unheeded.

Smollett "knows people," Barr is deciding "how much is accessible" and celebrities and the wealthy "were willing to pay half a million dollars to get their kid into Yale," Smith said.

"When people are utilizing every bit of influence, cutting every corner, no wonder the public doesn't have trust."

How did we get here?

Over the last half century, trust in a number of public institutions, especially the government, has declined.

In 1958, the Pew Research Center found about three quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time. In 2017, that number had dropped to 18 percent.

“There was an unusually high level of trust that came out of World War II, before the turn towards a more cynical view of the institutions of society," said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan.

Other institutions have since suffered. Those reporting "a great deal" of confidence in education has hovered around a quarter since 2012, down from a high of 49 percent in 1974, according to the General Social Survey (GSS), one of the oldest and most comprehensive recurring surveys of American attitudes.

A USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll in the wake of the college admissions scandal found fewer than one in five Americans say the college admissions process is generally fair.

Trust in institutions — or lack thereof — also exposes political and racial divisions. GSS data for 2018 shows Democrats' confidence in the executive branch is at its lowest level, but Republicans' lowest level was during Barack Obama's presidency.

While those reporting a "great deal of confidence" in the press has increased for all parties since 2016, there remains a huge gap: 21 percent of Democrats say so, vs. just 6 percent of Republicans.

A 2016 Pew report found while about one-third of the public says they have a lot of confidence in their police department, just 14 percent of African-Americans say the same.

The majority of Republicans say the criminal justice system is "not tough enough," but only 29 percent of Democrats agree, according to a 2016 Gallup poll. One in 10 whites say the system is "too tough," while nonwhites are more than twice as likely to say the same.

These gaps in trust show how our identities shape beliefs about whether the nation is holding up its democratic ideals. They reflect our different realities, and the different versions of America in which we seem to be living.

When we can't agree on who's to blame

Behavioral scientists say a dearth of universally accepted experts exacerbates our differences, sowing distrust. Combine that with the rise of social media (where conspiracy theories abound), a more partisan press, and greater access to information (which many people use not to search for the truth, but to confirm their existing beliefs) and polarization becomes inevitable.

Details of the Smollett case were confusing from the outset, and the conclusion did nothing but add to people's bewilderment.

"All Jussie Smollett has done has made our conversations much more confusing and charged," Smith said. "This case is a real low point for us."

While many progressives are recalcitrant to publicly attack Smollett, few are directly coming to his defense. Many have focused their criticisms on the systems that habitually absolve wealthy, well-connected perpetrators. Many African-Americans also expressed skepticism of the Chicago Police Department.

On the other side, Smollett handed conservatives ammunition to negate the existence of white privilege, hate crimes and other injustices.

Others compared him to O.J. Simpson playing the "race card."

Experts say the Smollett case likely will make it more difficult for legitimate claims of hate, which are increasing, to be heard.

In November, the FBI released hate crime statistics for 2017 that showed a 5 percent increase in reporting of hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation bias and a 16 percent increase in anti-black hate crimes. In 2017, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, a national organization which aims to reduce violence among LGBTQ people, recorded reports of 52 hate violence-related homicides of people who identify as LGBTQ, the highest number the group ever recorded.

"To use Jussie Smollett as a universal condemnation of every black person who makes an argument about injustice only exposes ...  a sense of white resentment that reinforces white privilege," said Michael Eric Dyson, a sociology professor at Georgetown University.

The same charged condemnations accompanied the end of Mueller's investigation.

Some blamed the media for turning the question of Russian collusion into a scandal. Democrats blamed Republicans for crowing without the full report. Trump's campaign manager Brad Parscale blamed Democrats for taking Americans “on a frantic, chaotic, conspiracy-laden roller coaster.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blamed former President Barack Obama for not stopping Russian election interference. Democrats returned that it was McConnell who stood in Obama's way.

Smith said the finger-pointing is predictable. The stakes are high.

"The contest for power is so fierce right now," he said. "Truth is up for grabs, and who we trust is up for grabs, too."

After weeks of twists and turns, many would welcome some transparency, and the safe steadiness of agreement, though both remain elusive.

"I was walking to my office and I saw ... the news about Smollett, and I thought, it feels like we are living in times that are defined by being whipsawed every which way," he said. "It's one helluva nasty ride. I hope when the roller coaster ends, we finally reach flat ground."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Smollett, Mueller and the news cycle that put another nail in the coffin of trust