Megyn Kelly devoted weeks of her Fox News program in 2010 to pushing fraudulent claims that the Justice Department engaged in racially charged corruption by failing to act against two members of the New Black Panther Party who had supposedly intimidated voters at a Philadelphia polling station during the 2008 election. Will she devote similar coverage to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s declarations that his overwhelmingly white supporters should engage in “racial voter intimidation on Election Day” to prevent nonexistent voter fraud?
On Election Day 2008, two members of the New Black Panther Party stood outside a polling station in Philadelphia dressed in all-black clothing displaying the group’s characteristic insignia. One carried a nightstick; the other was a registered Democratic poll watcher. After video of the pair went viral and Republican poll watchers complained, the Justice Department opened an investigation. While no individual ever came forward to say they had been intimidated from voting, the Obama Justice Department sought and received default judgment against the New Black Panther member who had carried the nightstick, dropping initial cases against the other one, as well as the organization and its leader.
This should have been a local news story detailing a single interaction at one of the tens of thousands of polling places across the country. But because the defendants, the new president elected that day, and the attorney general he would nominate to lead the Department of Justice (DOJ) were all black, it became a cause celebre on the right.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, whose board had been packed with conservatives under President George W. Bush, opened an investigation, even as the group’s vice chair warned that the case was “small potatoes.” And J. Christian Adams, a Republican activist who had been hired as part of the Bush administration’s effort to politicize the Justice Department, left government and publicly declared that the case was an indication of racially charged corruption at President Obama’s DOJ.
Adams would find a ready champion for his baseless accusations at Fox News: Megyn Kelly. Days after he first leveled his allegations in a Washington Times op-ed, he sat for a two-part interview with the Fox daytime anchor. Those were the first of an astonishing 45 segments Kelly would run on the story over the next two weeks, totaling more than three and a half hours of airtime. The rest of the network would support her effort to manufacture a scandal, with Fox evening shows devoting an additional 50 segments to the story over the same period. A year later, she would devote just 20 seconds to an independent review of the case, which concluded that no wrongdoing had occurred.
Critics pointed out that that Kelly’s obsession with the case crossed the line into “embarrassing race-baiting” and a “minstrel show,” which resulted in “fear and distrust of their DOJ [caused] by round-the-clock videos of one racist idiot brandishing a nightstick for a couple hours in 2008.” Even on her own show, Fox personalities criticized Kelly for “doing the scary black man thing” and noted that she had no evidence for her claims of misconduct by a supposedly corrupt or racially biased Obama administration.
Kelly’s obsession with nonexistent voter intimidation supposedly perpetrated by black men raises questions about how she will react now that the Republican nominee for president is suggesting that his supporters engage in a nationwide campaign of voter intimidation in minority neighborhoods.
Trump has been warning his supporters since at least August that the “election is going to be rigged” and that they need to be “watching closely, or it’s going to be taken away from us.” During a rally earlier this month in central Pennsylvania, he revived the argument, urging his fans to band together and “watch your polling booths, because I hear too many stories about Pennsylvania, certain areas. I hear too many bad stories and we can’t lose an election because of you know what I’m talking about.” On Twitter, he has warned of “large scale voter fraud” at “many polling places.”
As Slate chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie has noted, Trump’s “rhetorical time bombs... could be the catalyst for actual intimidation and violence, before and after Election Day. And if that violence and intimidation strikes, it will be against the chief targets of Trump’s campaign: people of color.”
During the debate over the New Black Panthers case, Kelly furiously denied claims that she was less concerned about voter intimidation against people of color than intimidation against white people. And in the past, she has openly admitted that there is no “overwhelming” evidence of voter fraud in U.S. elections. Those positions require her to denounce Trump’s push for voter intimidation.
If she doesn’t, it will suggest that she’s fully bought into Fox’s race-war mentality.