We may have an answer for the right-wing “civil war” devotee who asked Charlie Kirk the other week: “When do we get to start using the guns?” Judging from the way the trial in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is proceeding—and from the way right-wing pundits and politicians are responding—this week, the answer is: The day teenager Kyle Rittenhouse is inevitably acquitted for murdering two men at a Black Lives Matter protest last summer.
Rittenhouse’s acquittal is largely a foregone conclusion. And not because the evidence points to his innocence—Rittenhouse did, after all, kill a mentally ill man whose only acts of aggression included shouting at him, flinging a plastic bag with his personal effects in them, and reaching for his gun. On the other hand, the prosecution’s case has been a mixed bag at best—but more because the judge in the case, Bruce Schroeder, has placed his thumb so heavily on the scales of justice here, often in plain view. More broadly, however, right-wing political figures and extremists discussing the matter on social media are not merely defending Rittenhouse but valorizing him, holding up his murderous acts as heroic vigilantism, and demanding that other like-minded “patriots” follow in his footsteps.
It’s a recipe for an outbreak of eliminationist violence directed at “the left”—who these right-wing ideologues define broadly as “antifa,” Black Lives Matter, socialists, anti-police protesters, and for that matter merely liberal Democrats who support President Joe Biden. The day when the jury declares Rittenhouse innocent will become a beacon for the radical right, a giant flashing green light signaling permission to begin “using their guns,” telling them their long-awaited day to “begin killing these people” without consequence or compunction has finally arrived.
We know this because that is not only what they have been telling themselves in the runup to the trial, but it’s what they and their Republican enablers are now shouting from the rooftops. Leading the parade on Twitter was Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance of Ohio, who posted a video ranting about the trial and denouncing the prosecutor for even filing charges against Rittenhouse:
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for us as patriots to stand up. Because if you don’t fight back against the lawlessness, if we don’t defend this young boy who defended his community when no one else was doing it, it may very well be your baby boy that they come for. It’ll be your children whose life they try to destroy when no one else is defending their communities.”
Vance repeatedly described Rittenhouse as someone who was “defending his community,” even though he did not live in Kenosha, but in Illinois. He also repeatedly described the prosecutor as a “lawless thug” who was “trying to destroy his life.”
The trial itself, Vance contended, represented a societal sickness: “We leave our boys without fathers. We let the wolves set fire to their communities. And when human nature tells them to go and defend what no one else is defending, we bring the full weight of the state and the global monopolists against them.”
Tucker Carlson, who had adamantly defended Rittenhouse immediately after the shootings, continued in the same vein, blaming the violence on the “radicals” who were “burning down cities” and extolling the virtues of vigilantism as a natural consequence. He also claimed the Rittenhouse has “already won his case,” then observed that “if you take a step back from the Rittenhouse story, you see something else entirely, you see violent insanity completely out of control in the middle of an American city. And the question is how did that happen in our country and why did nobody stop it?”
“The question, then, is how exactly are we surprised when a 17-year-old lifeguard from Illinois decides to step in?” Carlson concluded, sounding ominously like Charlie Kirk’s interlocutor. “They hate it when you say that, but it’s an entirely fair question. When legitimate authority refuses to do its duty, its sworn duty, others will fill the vacuum. That is always true. It’s a physics principle.”
Carlson’s Fox News colleague, Greg Gutfeld, similarly chimed in that “all Rittenhouse did was to fill the void that the government left open.”
“Those two people should never ever should have been out on the streets and it forced citizens to become the police,” Gutfeld said.
Other right-wing pundits valorized Rittenhouse as a youth role model. As Kristen Doerer reports at Flux, one of these is Ed Martin, president of Phyllis Schlafly Eagles, devoted an extended rant on his podcast defending the teenager.
“And my point here in setting that up is Kyle Rittenhouse was a completely—his conduct was completely consistent with what Americans should do,” Martin wrote. “Stand up for the property, stand up for their towns, stand up for what’s happening. He is a hero—that’s true. Kyle Rittenhouse is a hero. Kyle Rittenhouse should be regarded as someone who did the right things.”
Moreover, his example is worthy of emulation, Martin opined: “He stepped up in a way that was, frankly, it was much more, it was much more worthy of praise than the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Americans that sat home and watched cities burn.”
These themes have been the right’s primary argument in support of Rittenhouse’s murders since he was arrested. Moreover, the undercurrent in all of these arguments is to create permission for right-wing “patriots” ginned up on right-wing propaganda to act out their shared violent fantasies.
And it has been from the outset. At far-right Proud Boys rallies rallies that followed the Kenosha shootings, participants began showing up wearing T-shirts declaring “Kyle Rittenhouse Did Nothing Wrong,” and extolling his murders: “The Tree of Liberty Must Be Refreshed From Time to Time With the Blood of Commies,” read the back of one.
Far-right Twitter maven and Gateway Pundit writer Cassandra Fairbanks retweeted an admirer’s post after Rittenhouse’s arrest: “I don’t give a fuck anymore. I gone full Cassandra. Kill all the idiots violently terrorizing our towns. If the white suprematist [cq] do it then they’re more useful than elected officials.”
“Yeah,” responded Fairbanks, “I’m literally just sitting here like … maybe some people will think twice about rioting tomorrow.”
The primary source of their permission for violence is the eliminationist narrative the right has concocted about antifa and Black Lives Matter, concocted out of ideological and racial hysteria and conspiracy theories, depicting them as a demonic threat to the American republic. This narrative has become extraordinarily widespread, as well as deeply imbedded into the nation’s political discourse, thanks largely to its constant repetition both by leading Republicans—notably Donald Trump—as well as “mainstream” right-wing media like Fox News.
We saw during jury selection for the federal civil lawsuit trial against the lethal 2017 “Unite the Right” rally organizers in Charlottesville that this wildly distorted view of “the left” has spread deeply enough to affect jury pools as well as court proceedings. In the Rittenhouse trial, it’s become clear that not only the jury may be affected, but so is the judge overseeing the proceedings, Bruce Schroeder.
Schroeder, as Will Bunch explored on Twitter and at the Philadelphia Inquirer, has a troubling history of pushing “law and order” politics in his courtroom, as well as indulging in dubious courtroom behavior and head-scratching rulings. He already had informed attorneys in the case that they could not describe the three men as “victims,” but would permit defense attorneys to describe them as “looters,” “rioters,” or “arsonists,” even though none of the three were ever accused of those crimes.
This week, Schroeder also:
- Called on the court to applaud a defense witness, who was there to testify that Rittenhouse was justified in taking two lives, for being a veteran. Schroeder, noting that it was Veterans Day, asked if anyone in the court was a veteran; when witness John Black said he was, Schroeder called for the court to applaud him. Jurors joined in on the applause.
- Rejected video of Rittenhouse shooting one of his victims, claiming the using Apple’s zoom functions might distort the image. “iPads, which are made by Apple, have artificial intelligence in them that allow things to be viewed through three-dimensions and logarithms,” defense attorneys insisted. “It uses artificial intelligence, or their logarithms, to create what they believe is happening. So this isn’t actually enhanced video, this is Apple’s iPad programming creating what it thinks is there, not what necessarily is there.” Schroeder agreed.
- Kept forgetting to silence his phone, whose ringtone is the Lee Greenwood song “God Bless the USA.” The song is the anthem of the tea party/“Patriot” right, and is used at Trump rallies as his entrance theme.
- Refused to permit prosecutors to ask defense witness Drew Hernandez, a pseudo-journalist who specializes in filming and posting misleadingly edited videos about antifascists and anti-police protesters, about his work for former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s Real America’s Voice network. Hernandez also was present at the Jan. 6 insurrection inside the Capitol, before which he had spoken at the “Stop the Steal” rally, telling the crowd: “We punch back, we fight back. Because we will not go down without a fight. We will not go down without bloodshed. If they want a second civil war, then they got one. I will fight to the very last breath.” Schroeder ruled that the jury could not learn about his background because “this is not a political trial.”
- Tried to make a joke to the court, after the jury had filed out, about the lunch that had been ordered that day: “I hope the Asian food isn’t coming … isn’t on one of those boats from Long Beach Harbor.” (The joke went over the heads of everyone who wasn’t a regular viewer of Fox News, which has repeatedly run stories about supply chain issues for Asian goods coming in to Long Beach—issues that in fact are primarily the result of Donald Trump’s trade wars with China and other nations.)
Most legal observers have observed that the trial’s outcome is a foregone conclusion, and many believe the primary blame lies with Schroeder and his handling of the proceedings—particularly how he has intervened at every juncture when the prosecutor has trapped Rittenhouse in a lie. Some observers describe this style as “pro-defense”—which is consistent with the judge’s record—but family members of the victims surrounding the Kenosha unrest are outraged.
“It seems like he’s aiming to let this man out of this courthouse scot-free and we’re not going to let that happen,” Justin Blake, the uncle of Jacob Blake, whose shooting by a police officer sparked the Kenosha protests, told The Washington Post. “If it happens, we’re not going to be quiet about it.”
Right-wing extremists are already stepping up their threatening behavior, and doing so with apparent confidence that they will face no consequences for doing so. A militia group called the Kenosha Strong Patriots posted the name, photo, and home address of Rittenhouse’s chief prosecutor on Telegram. A participant disingenuously claimed: “This is absolutely not an encouragement to violence. Just would be nice to see a peaceful protest outside his home like the left does every time they don’t like something.”
Greg Sargent of The Washington Post observes that the embrace of Rittenhouse’s vigilantism is occurring in the context of a general absorption of a violent ethos into the fabric of the Republican Party, which includes their ongoing valorization of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and Congressman Paul Gosar’s recent anime video portraying a fantasy in which he kills his Democratic colleague.
The thread running through all these events and controversies is the belief that liberals are so wicked that violence and the threat of violence are reasonable responses to the possibility of them getting their way. Right along with that belief is a fantasy, that of a man (almost always a man) who rather than being an ordinary schlub at the mercy of a world in which he has no power is actually bursting with testosterone and potency, someone who can and perhaps should become a killing machine.
That’s the story of the Jan. 6 rioters, who believed they could break down doors and smash windows and the American system of government would bend to their will.
It’s Rittenhouse’s story, too: When you go to a protest with a rifle, you’ve cast yourself as a potential killer in a righteous cause, and a killer was what he became. He’s now being cheered on by all those who stockpile weapons and say our country is headed for a civil war.
The larger narrative being spun out of the Kenosha courtroom is chilling to anyone who believes in American democracy: Armed vigilantes not only are justified in opening fire on protesters, but more of them are needed in every place where there is an anti-police protest. As Josh Marshall observes at Talking Points Memo, this is inexorably where the legal logic being used to free Rittenhouse—as well as the raging rhetoric of his right-wing supporters—inevitably leads.
The aggression carries the seeds of justification within it. You show up looking for trouble on yet another of these right wing murder safaris like Rittenhouse, with his mother chaperoning, was taking part in. You’re looking for trouble and when you find it that’s your justification for taking the next step. That’s not how self-defense is supposed to work. But we can see in this case how the interplay of open carry and permissive self-defense statutes do just that.
Perhaps the most telling factor is that the self-defense arguments raised by Rittenhouse’s defenders are clearly not applicable, in their worldview, to left-wing activists who engage in violence. We already know this from the case of Michael Rienoehl, the antifascist who gunned down a Proud Boys supporter on the streets of Portland last summer, shortly after Rittenhouse’s rampage.
Rienoehl, too, had claimed that he acted in self-defense. But because he went on the lam, federal marshals hunted him down and killed him in cold blood, under dubious circumstances that nonetheless ended in the officers’ exoneration. Rienoehl’s guilt, however, was proclaimed by Trump and Attorney General William Barr beforehand, and Trump later bragged about how he was summarily executed: “They didn’t want to arrest him,” he told a rally.
Pseudonymous pundit Julius Goat adroitly observed on Twitter:
One thing that the Rittenhouse trial throws into stark relief is a strongly held belief among a huge percentage of white conservatives that people protesting for Black lives should be killed, and that white conservatives should be allowed to personally do it.
They are protecting their right to self-defense as exclusive to white conservatives.
No white conservative with a gun can ever be deemed a threat worthy of self defense.
It’s also not difficult to see where this all leads: To a fresh wave of eliminationist vigilante violence mounted by the American right, directed at anyone they deem their political enemies. It’s no longer a question of if, but when.
And when they “get to use the guns” may come sooner than we expect.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.