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.