John Kass
John Kass Credit: Illustration by Jonathan Roth

Update 1/12/20:
Chicago Tribune editor-in-chief Colin McMahon controls the paper’s news pages, and was the person in charge of relocating John Kass’s column from Page 2 to an op-ed section in the middle of the paper last summer. However, since the publication
of this piece I have learned that Kass is now on the paper’s editorial board, and therefore currently reports to Tribune publisher Par Ridder, not McMahon. Therefore the questions and suggestions at the end of my piece should have been been addressed
to Ridder. Apologies for the mix-up.

“All the French joined the resistance after the war.” — Jill Sobule, “Heroes”

Last July longtime conservative Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass was widely condemned for his op-ed “Something grows in the big cities run by Democrats: An overwhelming sense of lawlessness.” The piece blamed violence and civil unrest in cities like Chicago on Jewish billionaire George Soros, whom Kass wrote “remakes the justice system in urban America, flying under the radar” and spends “millions of dollars to help elect liberal social justice warriors as prosecutors,” such as Cook County state’s attorney Kim Foxx, who’s African American.

Everyone from national media outlets like The Forward, the progressive Jewish publication, to local politicians like 47th Ward alderman Matt Martin, who’s Black, noted that Kass’s article promoted, as Martin put it, the “racist and antisemitic . . .  trope that Jews foment civil unrest and that PoC don’t have the agency to organize ourselves.” Kass’s coworkers at the Chicago Tribune Guild union, of which he is not a member, slammed the op-ed in a letter as “antithetical to our values” and called on the columnist and the paper to “apologize for his indefensible invocation of the Soros tropes.”

Kass denied any wrongdoing and defiantly declared in a follow-up piece, “I will not bow to those who’ve wrongly defamed me.” But during the Soros controversy, Tribune editor-in-chief Colin McMahon announced that the columnist would be losing his prime spot on Page 2 and position as “lead columnist,” and moved to an op-ed section in the middle of the paper to help readers distinguish between factual reporting and political commentary, although McMahon claimed the change had been in the works for months.

Now, in light of Kass’s role in encouraging Donald Trump’s campaign of lies that the election was stolen, which reached a traitorous, bloody crescendo with last Wednesday’s storming of the U.S. Capitol during the Electoral College vote count, it’s time for Tribune leadership to get rid of Kass’s column for good.

What’s particularly galling is that Kass’s op-ed written in the wake of this tragedy that has resulted in at least five, possibly six, deaths and titled “Trump owns this,” completely ignored the fact that the columnist was himself a cog in Trump’s election fraud conspiracy theory machine. I’ll discuss how in a minute. To use the kind of religious reference that abounds in Kass’s writing, he tried to absolve himself of blame, Pontius Pilate-style.

The new column began, “There is one man responsible for what happened in Washington on Wednesday,” as if Trump didn’t benefit from a whole ecosystem of sycophantic politicians, from Vice President Mike Pence and Republican U.S. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell on down; permissive social media platform owners; and sympathetic pundits like Kass who helped set the stage for this disaster.

While Kass denounced the treacherous violence as “nauseating,” in the same breath he predictably claimed, “This was no different from the looters in Democratic cities all summer long” during Black Lives Matter protests. The notion that people breaking into stores while legitimate racial justice demonstrations were happening is comparable to a mob, including men with Confederate flags and “Camp Auschwitz” hoodies, desecrating the nerve center of American democracy is laughable.

After two months of the president’s nonstop, deluded claims that a second term had been stolen from him by trickery ended in bloodshed, Kass’s column finally admitted the obvious: Trump “had no evidence of widespread voter fraud.” That’s locking the barn door after the horses have been stolen.

But let’s look back at what Kass had to say on that subject on November 11, a few days after it was obvious that Joe Biden had won the election fair and square. The title of the column accused Democrats, rather than Republicans promoting Trump’s baseless accusations of voter fraud, of “playing with fire.” The piece scolded the president-elect for “threatening Americans who dare question the evenhandedness of the election” and said Biden should instead push for investigating “election irregularities.”

In a classic example of “very fine people on both sides” nonsense, Kass claimed that Democrats shared equal responsibility with Trump for right-wing paranoia about election theft. “Fine, blame Trump for undermining election integrity,” he wrote. “And blame Biden for insisting the only way he could lose was through ‘chicanery’ at the polls . . . Blame the left for concerns about violence from shopkeepers . . . Blame all those who insisted there would be no problem with massive mail-in voting . . . Blame those who demand the other side be silent or face punishment.”

In that November 11 piece Kass quoted Jennifer Rubin from the Washington Post and CNN’s Jake Tapper, who noted that baselessly, dangerously claiming the election was rigged would reflect poorly on one’s character in the future and could affect one’s job prospects. Kass implied that was McCarthyism, adding “That’s how fire starts, ignited by words.” Their statements have aged well; his hasn’t.

Clearly Kass helped provide oxygen to Trump’s incendiary fiction, by shaming people who pointed out the obvious: the president’s allegations of vote fraud were cynical lies that could have harmful consequences for our democracy.

But even in Thursday’s post-Capitol-storming column, Kass voiced sympathy for the racist rioters, blaming their rage and resentment on “corporate media” accurately debunking Trump’s falsehoods and “Big Tech that sought to silence” conservative speech, when in reality Twitter and Facebook amplified the president’s conspiracy theories. Kass acknowledged that Trump was guilty of “inciting a riot,” but didn’t admit to his own role in advancing the narrative that MAGA followers had legitimate grievances against a potentially fraudulent election process.

And even in a column about a right-wing mutiny, Kass couldn’t resist making digs at the Democrats. He wrote that Biden going on microphone during the crisis to state the obvious—the violence, and Trump’s incitement of it, needed to stop immediately—was opportunistically “press[ing] his political advantage.”

In his op-ed about the most disgusting expression of fascism in modern U.S. history, Kass also warned that Democratic U.S. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, who’s Jewish, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who’s Black and Asian, will use their newfound control of the Senate in the wake of the Georgia runoffs to “change the word” and “exert leverage . . . upon the republic.” Not a good look for Kass in light of his George Soros/Kim Foxx column, which advanced the white supremacist notion that Jews and people of color are conspiring to undermine public safety.

Kass ended Thursday’s article by asserting once more about the deadly insurrection, “It’s all on [Trump].” I’d love to see the columnist do a mea culpa, apologizing to the public for his own role in laying the groundwork for the tragedy. But judging from this “not my fault” manifesto, that’s obviously not happening.

And we certainly can’t expect a classy response from Kass’s nominal supervisor, Tribune editorial page editor Kristen McQueary. After all, she’s the right-winger notorious for wishing in a 2015 op-ed that Chicago would be devastated by a Hurricane Katrina-level storm.

So that leaves McMahon, the paper’s editor-in-chief. Mr. McMahon, are you proud your paper has paid John Kass six figures over the last four years to amplify Trumpism, contributing to this shameful, but inevitable, end result? If not, what will the Trib do to prevent Kass from enabling fascism in the future?

In the wake of the riot, Twitter and Facebook have, at long last, booted Donald Trump from social media. Likewise, Mr. McMahon, I respectfully call on you to deplatform John Kass.

The Tribune just announced the departure of his more talented and nonproblematic colleagues arts critic Howard Reich and architecture writer Blair Kamin, as well as the company moving its offices from its current Prudential Plaza location to its Freedom Center printing facility, as cost-saving measures. I can’t think of a better way for the paper to cut costs than axing Kass.  v