The alarming message behind the GOP's embrace of Kyle Rittenhouse

·6 min read
Kyle Rittenhouse.
Kyle Rittenhouse. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

America's political violence problem took a dramatic turn for the worse on Friday when Kyle Rittenhouse — who shot three people during riots following police reform protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Aug. 25, 2020, killing two — was acquitted of all charges in what had become the latest in a series of nationally-watched trials related to the country's racial justice movement.

Yet the verdict, whatever you might think of it, was far from the most worrisome aspect of this affair. Instead, it is the unhinged Republican embrace of Rittenhouse as a hero, and the right's glorification of vigilante gun violence, that raises serious alarm about the direction of our politics.

It is one thing to argue the jury reached a defensible verdict given the facts of the case, Wisconsin law, and the particulars of the trial. But prominent Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, have all but endorsed Rittenhouse's actions. As J.D. Vance, the one-time liberal darling and now fully Trumpified GOP Senate hopeful in Ohio, put it on Twitter prior to the verdict: "Our leaders abandoned this kid's community to lawless thug rioters and he did something about it."

Leaving aside the fact that Rittenhouse lives in Illinois and that Kenosha was not in any way "his community," Vance was merely echoing a sentiment that has become conventional wisdom in GOP circles at the exact moment that the party's far-right has consolidated its control over the establishment. It is shared not only by Vance and his main rival in Ohio, Josh Mandel ("Kyle Rittenhouse saved lives," he wrote on Friday. "Pray for Kyle"), but also by a not-insignificant number of elected Republican officials and 2024 hopefuls.

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) offered Rittenhouse an internship and told his followers to "be armed, be dangerous, be moral" after the verdict. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), whose status as the GOP's leading gadfly is in danger of eclipse by his loopier colleagues, also floated the possibility of bringing the 18-year-old high school dropout just acquitted of double homicide onto his staff. And Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), not to be outdone, challenged Gaetz to an arm-wrestling session for the right to hire Rittenhouse. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) wrote that "Kyle is one of the good ones."

Maybe it's just primary-season extremists and goofy backbenchers? you might ask hopefully. Sadly, no. Cheering on a horrific act of violence goes straight to the top of today's Republican Party. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, currently the party's 2024 favorite if Trump decides not to run, said that Rittenhouse "did what we should want citizens to do in such a situation: step forward to defend the community against mob violence." And of course, Trump himself has been a vocal supporter of Rittenhouse from the jump. On Friday night, he appeared on Laura Ingraham's evening Fox News show and took time out from his usual grandiose hallucinations to call Rittenhouse "brave." "If you're talking about innocence based on self-defense, this was the poster boy," Trump raved.

Chilling stuff. But it gets even worse inside the right-wing media complex. Leading the charge to beatify Rittenhouse is Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, without question the most powerful Republican in the country not named Donald Trump. Last night, Fox aired Carlson's fawning interview with Rittenhouse, whom he called "exactly the kind of person you would want many more of in your country." Rittenhouse claimed to Carlson, absurdly, that he "supported the BLM movement" and complained about his unfair media coverage. "Imagine putting this kid in jail," Carlson quipped, like the idea is preposterous and didn't just tie a jury up for days.

Not all Republicans are rushing to sanctify Rittenhouse, of course. But no one, either, has seen fit to publicly distance the party from its most outrageous voices or to push back against the effort to turn Rittenhouse into a heroic symbol of the MAGA movement. Where are the voices on the right apart from thoughtful anti-Trump Republicans like David French to point out the obvious logic that sending trigger-happy children armed with AR-15s into already tense situations might not be the best way to avoid violence? Instead, Republicans are content to ride their base's enthusiasm for the verdict, just as they were — with a few notable exceptions — during the countless indecencies of the Trump era.

Even by the extremely low standards of our age, this marks a dark turn. GOP elites have graduated from ignoring gun violence and thwarting any effort to address it to actively encouraging and reveling in it. Worse, they are doing so in a highly-charged national atmosphere, punctuated by loose talk of secession and a second civil war, most of which is coming from the far-right but is increasingly being felt and pondered on the left.

Rittenhouse certainly won't be the last amped-up, untrained gun aficionado with a Red Dawn hero complex to show up at a protest in the hopes of imposing his own version of law and order on the gathered throngs. The Kenosha violence is sure to be repeated ad nauseam, given that the country has failed even to try to address its root causes. Only next time, there are likely to be more heavily armed protestors on high alert for the Rittenhouses of the world. It's a tinderbox Republicans seem all too eager to light.

And where are the Democrats in all of this? Party leaders were quick to announce their disappointment in the verdict, or to call for criminal justice reform. But none of them were willing to say what most activists feel: that Rittenhouse is emblematic of the new GOP, and that the Republican Party's embrace of his actions should be outside of the mainstream.

President Biden and his allies need to do more than express their reluctant trust in the jury system and hope that this doesn't happen again. They need, instead, to plainly communicate the danger that ascendant right-wing authoritarianism poses to public safety and to the American experiment itself, to tell voters that the stakes are higher than whatever provisions end up in the Build Back Better bill. Democrats need to stand up for the right to protest and the right to do so safely, and they need to say the name of the political party that supports murdering those who dare to dissent.

Republicans have passed up yet another opportunity to look themselves in the mirror and ask where all of this is headed. Again, it is one thing to believe that Rittenhouse should not necessarily have been convicted of murder in Kenosha. But what kind of bloodlust would lead someone to celebrate his decision to be there in the first place, knowing the tragedy that followed?

What else might people like that be capable of? Voters might want to deliberate on that one a bit before turning power right back over to the GOP next year.

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