Republicans took a victory lap on Friday after Kyle Rittenhouse, who fatally shot two people and injured a third amid a night of racial justice protests that devolved into mayhem in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year, was declared not guilty. Donald Trump offered his congratulations. Reps. Paul Gosar, Madison Cawthorn, and Matt Gaetz offered Rittenhouse congressional internships. Fox News, not missing a beat, announced that Tucker Carlson would be conducting an “exclusive interview” with Rittenhouse, airing Monday night, followed by a feature-length documentary for Fox Nation, the network’s streaming service, in December. If there was anything surprising about the reaction, it was only how seamlessly Republicans adopted the militant posturing of the good-guy-with-a-gun fantasy to which Rittenhouse aspired. “You have a right to defend yourself,” Cawthorn posted on Instagram. “Be armed, be dangerous.”
I’ve been following the Rittenhouse saga since the beginning, and these troubling dynamics were on my mind throughout the trial. Prosecutors described Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time, as a vigilante who crossed state lines with an AR-15 looking for trouble. The defense argued he was merely a concerned citizen who was forced to defend himself while trying to protect private property from left-wing agitators. Indeed, self defense laws in the United States are remarkably expansive, even in cases where the defendant may have provoked the fatal altercation, if they reasonably feared for their life.
I’m not qualified to speak to the specific legal questions that arose during the trial, or whether the presiding judge was justified or biased when he dismissed a related gun charge, or whether the prosecution made unforced strategic jurisprudential missteps. But the broader political context that produced Rittenhouse is in many ways more disturbing than the Rittenhouse case itself.
It has become practically impossible in the post-Michael Brown, post-Trump era to separate the prosecution of high-profile crimes featuring white assailants or black victims, or vice versa, from the political tribalism that has overtaken our media and political culture. On the left, all analysis now is refracted through legitimate concerns about structural racism in the legal system. On the right, there is commensurate fear of a perceived overcorrection. Overhanging it all is the increasingly potent threat of political violence, whether in the form of anarchic riots or organized militia activity. Antifa and Proud Boys brawling in the streets of major American cities is just the latest, most visible expression of this country’s partisan dysfunction, which came to an apotheosis on January 6th.
As Donald Trump’s approval rating collapsed during the pandemic spring of 2020, various Republican constituencies seized on the explosion of racial unrest and street protests, following the death of George Floyd, to boost his reelection campaign. Crime and disorder have always provided powerful dog whistles for conservatives, but Trump—calling himself “your law and order president”—was particularly transparent in his effort to group together legitimate Black Lives Matter demonstrators and progressive activists with fringe Antifa agitators, anarchists, and other elements who turned up at peaceful protests, smashing windows and setting fires. Progressive calls to defund or abolish the police only reinforced the Trumpian narrative that Democrats had become the party of protest over property rights. In Seattle, the Democratic mayor largely ignored Trump’s challenge to “take back your city” after protesters permanently occupied several blocks of prime real estate, transforming a chunk of downtown into a self-declared autonomous zone. In Minneapolis, Trump threatened to send in the military as the Floyd unrest escalated. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he tweeted. Some on the right took it as an invitation.
In the process, Trump turned America’s suburbs—the geographic zones between America’s liberal cities, where the Black Lives Matter movement was most visible, and rural Republican areas, where militia culture has its strongest foothold—into a live, culture-war battlefield. And just as the left gathered around the horrific murders of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor, the right looked for its own martyrs. And it found them in peculiar places. Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the pair of gun-toting homeowners who faced off with BLM protesters in St. Louis, became minor celebrities, even delivering remarks at the 2020 Republican National Convention. Mark McCloskey has since announced he is running for the U.S. Senate in Missouri.
But it was Rittenhouse, the teenage “Blue Lives Matter” supporter, who best fit the conservative media casting call within weeks. As quickly as progressives deemed Rittenhouse a racist murderer, Republicans of all stripes—from Never Trumpers to diehard MAGA supporters to even hedge funder Bill Ackman—placed him in a more sympathetic light, as a kid merely trying to maintain civility in a protest gone awry. (As one red state Republican told me, Rittenhouse would never have to pay for dinner at a restaurant again.) Cementing his status as a culture warrior, a cadre of wealthy right-wingers, including MyPillow C.E.O. Mike Lindell, put together $2.4 million dollars to post Rittenhouse’s bail.
Militia groups, from white supremacists to followers of the American Redoubt, the out-there philosophy that espouses the Pacific Northwest as an idyl for conservative Christians as society crumbles, have been a phenomenon long before Trump came onto the political scene. Over the decades, they’ve developed a philosophy of “sovereign citizenship”—the idea that, if they believe that the government is enforcing the law and Constitution in a way that contradicts their own views, individual citizens can not only interpret the law in their own way, but have a duty to enforce said interpretation. In other words, they have afforded themselves the license to do whatever they want, legal or otherwise.
In the years between Trump’s election and 2020, they were fairly inactive, save for a handful of high-profile clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Portland, Oregon. But the chaotic nature of 2020, with lockdowns and massive street protests, fed into some of their collective deepest fears: that governmental overreach was robbing citizens of their freedom of movement and the ability to make a living, and that leftist calls to eliminate the police would lead to lawlessness. (This latter logic, if you can call it that, is particularly relevant in the Pacific Northwest, where I am writing this piece.) Thus, with a bit of a creative interpretation of the Second Amendment and the “well-regulated militia” clause, a true Patriot could put together their own law-enforcing posse, either to assist what they believed was a police force neutered by political leadership, or, if needed, to fight against said police force.
Despite the philosophical roots that the current anti-government, anti-vax, anti-mask and anti-protester right shares with militia groups, there’s still an awkward relationship between the mainstream right and the gun-toting, Punisher Skull-wearing aesthetic of the Three Percenters, Oathkeepers, Patriot Prayer, and the more vocal supporters of Blue Lives Matter.
Which leads us to Rittenhouse, who had read a Facebook post from the Kenosha Guard, the city’s local militia to protect its property from potential protesters, and crossed state borders with an AR-15 in response. His legal team, which had initially weighed a defense claiming he was part of “a well regulated Militia,” pivoted during the trial by claiming that “Kyle’s not a member of a militia”. Legally, this helped Rittenhouse’s case by steering it away from the highly politicized Second Amendment debate (and the paramilitary cosplaying of militia groups) and focusing it on the simple facts of Wisconsin law: in a state with open-carry laws that allowed a 17-year-old to bear an AR-15, Rittenhouse could justifiably use deadly force to ward off three assailants. But this legal ruling now has a political implication for the right, one that shows the “sovereign citizen” mindset leaking into their actions: perhaps one can use guns in response to any perceived threat from protesters they dislike.
In the weeks before the January 6th insurrection, I’d been watching with increasing alarm the presence of militias, Western chauvinists, and street-brawling groups like the Proud Boys at various pro-Trump, election fraud-promoting rallies. All these groups tended to assemble under the pretense of protecting Trump supporters from violent counter protesters, inevitably labeled “antifa” or “BLM,” as well as aiding police. But the historical differences between these factions have been meaningful. While the Proud Boys have tended to instigate fights, the militias normally took defensive postures, rarely engaging in outright conflict unless provoked by outside forces—or, in the case of January 6th, targeting oppressive governmental institutions, such as federal law enforcement. (It was no surprise that, just hours after Congress reconvened to confirm Biden’s election, Rep. Gaetz claimed that members of the mob were actually Antifa agents “masquerading as Trump supporters.”)
What the Rittenhouse saga illustrated, however, was the degree to which the tactics and aims of these disparate groups—from right-wing gangs and patriot militias, to conservative politicians, think tanks and media personalities—are converging in aggressive opposition to “the left,” as personified by last year’s riots. That message has electrified the Trump base but it is also a divisive and polarizing tactic for the G.O.P., which still needs to keep moderates from fleeing the tent. (Just yesterday, the Bush-era conservatives Stephen Hayes and Jonah Goldberg to publicly sever ties with Fox News over the network’s decision to air Carlson’s conspiratorial Jan. 6 special, “Patriot Purge.”) But many Republicans, including many in Congress, appear to coalescing around another strategy: reframing the rhetoric of extrajudicial violence as the lawful, patriotic alternative to radical leftist chaos. It’s the party of Rittenhouse now.