In a country with sane politics, the most generous thing an elected official could say about Kyle Rittenhouse is that he made a string of terrible decisions and then tragically killed two people in self defense. The other option would be to accuse him of murder.
But the United States of 2021 is not a country with sane politics, and so for a significant chunk of the country that includes several prominent figures from one of its two major parties, Kyle Rittenhouse is a hero.
Consider: In August of 2020, a then-17-year-old Rittenhouse traveled to Kenosha, Wisc., picking up a military-style semi-automatic rifle along the way. He made the trip to oppose Black Lives Matter protests in Kenosha that followed a city police officer shooting Jacob Blake seven times in the back. Rittenhouse shot three people that night, killing two of them. He claims it was self-defense. A jury agreed with him on Friday, finding Rittenhouse not guilty on all five counts on which he was charged.
It’s terrifying for the nation’s future that a political movement is glorifying the extrajudicial killing of two human beings — but it’s not surprising. A lust for violence has been simmering throughout the right for years, and there’s little evidence to suggest we’re anywhere near its peak.
The Tea Party warned a decade ago that the conservative (i.e. white) way of life was under assault and that action must be taken to protect it. There were protests, there was synergy with the NRA, there was talk of taking the government back. Trump brought this message to the Republican presidential platform in 2016, peppering in nods to actual violence. He at one point called for someone who disrupted one of his campaign rallies to be carried out on a stretcher. “We’re not allowed to punch back anymore,” he said in lamenting that no one was able to assault the protester. Supporters pumped their fists in the background. It was just what they wanted to hear.
The idea of taking up arms against everything Fox News says is destroying the country – from Black Lives Matter, to vaccine mandates, to Democrats themselves — has been growing more visceral as the MAGA movement has subsumed the party. Someone sent bombs to top Democratic Party figures and media entities. Domestic terrorists plotted to kidnap and potentially kill Michigan’s Democratic governor. Death threats to liberal lawmakers have become commonplace. So too have threats to school board members, election officials, and Republicans who dare buck the MAGA orthodoxy. Trump has tacitly condoned all of this by not doing more to denounce it, and Republican lawmakers have followed suit. Some have condoned it more explicitly. Marjorie Taylor Greene last month justified the riot at the Capitol as patriots working to “overthrow tyrants.”
The prospect of violence has been coursing through conservative culture, too. Black Rifle Coffee Company, which a New York Times Magazine profile recently posited could become the “Starbucks of the right,” has built its brand around the glorification of guns, selling products with names like “Combat Cocoa” and “AK 47 Espresso” and merch adorned with gun imagery. Rittenhouse testified last week that he got his friend to buy him the AR-15-style rifle he used to kill Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber last August because he thought it looked “cool.” Rittenhouse’s is one of 20 million such rifles in the United States. It’s a safe bet a good chunk of them were bought for the same reason.
The Black Rifle brand was part of the initial celebration of Rittenhouse following his arrest. The host of a podcast that partners with the company posted an image last November of a smiling Rittenhouse wearing a Black Rifle shirt, along with the caption: “Kyle Rittenhouse drinks the best coffee in America.” The company later denied it was sponsoring Rittenhouse, with its CEO saying they are “not in the business of profiting from tragedy.” Many of the brand’s fans were pissed. They were pissed again after the Times profile came out this summer, this time because the brand denounced violent extremist groups like the Proud Boys, which played a large role in the insurrection.
Black Rifle may have been profiting off guns, but Rittenhouse actually used one. He took a semi-automatic rifle into the street and killed people. He did the thing. It’s why many on the right were apoplectic not only at the prospect of Rittenhouse being convicted of murder, but at the very fact that he was even on trial. “It’s child abuse masquerading as justice in this country,” Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance, who’s been trying to use the Rittenhouse trial to carve out a lane for himself in a crowded Republican primary, told Tucker Carlson last week. “This entire trial, this entire farce is an indictment on every institution in our society.”
Greene and other Republican lawmakers — including some of those Rolling Stone reported to have played a role in planning the White House rally to challenge the results of the 2020 election on Jan. 6 and later voted against certifying Biden’s victory — have made similar claims about the Justice Department’s treatment of those who were arrested for participating in the riot at the Capitol, a cataclysmic act of political violence that was goaded on by Trump and his circle through a disinformation campaign about the 2020 election results and the need to take action to avenge them. The rioters, like Rittenhouse, also did the thing, and Trump’s bare-minimum, wink-and-nod condemnation of the violence was akin to stamping it with his seal of approval. He was reportedly “delighted” that his supporters were breaking into the building.
Democrats have been trying to frame the attack as a wake-up call and a warning that something needs to be done about the idea building throughout the right that violence is a legitimate means for political action. Some Republicans were spooked, too. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly discussed ways to oust Trump from office after the attack. Others in the administration resigned. But the MAGA movement no longer has patience for these sorts of nods to civility, from government officials or from Black Rifle or anyone else who wants to be on their side. Jan. 6 served to smoke out the uncommitted, and accelerate the push for violence from those who have been thirsting for it all along.
The calls are coming from everywhere. Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who has become an influential conspiracy theorist, suggested in the ensuing months that the United States should have a violent military coup like the one in Myanmar (He later claimed his remarks, caught on video, were misrepresented). Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) noted recently that people “are prepared to carry that fight with every drop of our blood” and that “oppressors” have “drawn a line in the sand” and need to be prepared to defend themselves, over vaccine mandates. An audience member at a Turning Point USA event last month also spoke of a line to be crossed. “When do we get to use the guns?” he asked host and TPUSA founder Charlie Kirk. “I mean, literally, where is the line? How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?”
Kirk tried to shut down the idea of using violence, not because it’s wrong, necessarily, but because, he said, it’s what the left wants. It’s unlikely that Democratic lawmakers want their lives threatened, but violence does indeed seem to be what the right is craving: The TPUSA audience member was cheered as he asked about when the time is going to be right to take up guns and kill. One of the reasons so many on the right have celebrated Rittenhouse’s exoneration is because it signals the time can be now.