How Kyle Rittenhouse went from killing protesters in Kenosha to becoming a right-wing influencer
“I don’t think my life is that interesting to be honest,” a young man told a small crowd last week at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in Conroe, Texas. “I was waiting back there and I was playing Minecraft before we came over here. I’m 20 years old. I don’t know why the media is so focused on me.”
This is a bit of theatrical understatement. Some in the crowd had paid $500 for VIP passes just to get extra facetime with him ahead of the main event, the 2023 Rally Against Censorship from Defiance Press, a conservative publisher. The 20-year-old is named Kyle Rittenhouse.
The reason the media, the right-wing political world, and large parts of the US population at large have been so focused on him in recent years is both simple and complicated.
The simple version is in 2021, Mr Rittenhouse was acquitted on five charges for fatally shooting two people – Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber – and seriously wounding a third at a 2020 racial justice protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. No matter what else he is or isn’t, Mr Rittenhouse is someone who, as a teen, shot three people with an assault rifle at a Black Lives Matter demonstration and didn’t go to jail for it.
The more complicated version is, since before his murder trial was even finished, Mr Rittenhouse became a strange, uniquely American kind of famous: reviled by many, but beloved on the right, where Donald Trump defended him and Tucker Carlson lavished him with documentary-style coverage. Using crowdfunded donations and merch like t-shirts and sports bras, the Illinois teen raised more than a million of dollars in crowdfunded donations for his legal defence.
Since he’s been acquitted, the spotlight has only brightened. Under the banner of a purported campaign to clear his name, facing a sprawling civil lawsuit from the family of one of the people he shot, Mr Rittenhouse has become a full-blown right-wing influencer, garnering money and influence through brand collaborations, a video game, a media watchdog organisation, a speaking slot at CPAC, meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, visiting Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, and appearing as the draw at various conservative events around the country.
Only unlike most influencers, who trade on their pre-existing fame from sports or the entertainment world, Mr Rittenhouse, the self-described uninteresting kid from Antioch, Illinois, is trading on the long tail of what happened on 25 August 2020. As experts, observers, and allies of Mr Rittenhouse reveal, the legacy of the shootings that night remain highly contested.
‘What happened in Kenosha cannot happen again’
To the parents of Anthony Huber, there’s no mistaking what Kenosha was all about to them: a teenager tried to take the law into his own hands and act as a vigilante. Their son heroically tried to intervene, and Mr Rittenhouse shot him for it, before being allowed by police to flee the scene. The criminal system failed to prosecute the gunman, but maybe the courts could another way.
In January of 2022, they named him in a lawsuit alleging that a number of police agencies on the ground that night in Kenosha failed to stop pro-police militia men from roaming the streets, negligently and intentionally funneling protesters to an area where Mr Rittenhouse and others were heavily armed and waiting for an excuse to use their long guns.
“There has to be a right way to handle this. What happened in Kenosha cannot happen again,” Anand Swaminathan, an attorney for the Hubers, told The Independent. “As police, you don’t get to pick sides. You don’t get to say, ‘I’m going to side with the counter-protesters, the militia men, because they’re pro-police.’”
Mr Rittenhouse did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Independent.
More than scrutinising the police, who were filmed praising militia men that night and had been warned of a large vigilante presence, the Hubers argue their suit is about personally holding Mr Rittenhouse accountable for what he did.
After the teen shot Joseph Rosenbaum, who had lunged at Mr Rittenhouse just as a shot went off near by, Anthony Huber rushed towards the gunman as a crowd yelled Mr Rittenhouse had just shot someone. The 26-year-old hit Mr Rittenhouse with a skateboard. The Illinois teen shot him in the chest, testifying that Huber reached for his gun.
The Hubers say that compounding the grief of losing a son, Mr Rittenhouse has gone on to profit off this killing. Courts will likely decide in the next few months whether the part of the suit concerning Mr Rittenhouse goes forward.
“He has absolutely been able to profit from the death of the Hubers’s son,” Mr Swaminathan added. “He’s become a media star and a star of the right-wing scene. He has all kinds of financial opportunities that all emanate from the fact that he killed Anthony Huber in Kenosha. That’s extremely painful for the family and it really is the opposite of accountability, and that’s why they brought him into this lawsuit.”
‘The kid’s gotten a raw deal’
To Mr Rittenhouse and his backers, the Illinois man has only ever wanted to clear his name, but can’t thanks to the multi-layered influence of the courts, the media, social media, and the left painting him as a racist mass murderer, an extreme magnification of the alienation they feel their views get from the political and cultural mainstream.
“We still hear him referred to in major media as a murderer. We’ve heard him still called a white supremacist, even though the people that were killed weren’t people of colour,” David Roberts, founder of Defiance Press, which put on the Texas rally, told The Independent. “The kid’s gotten a raw deal. He’s 20 years old. He can’t enroll in college. He’s probably never going to have a normal life. He’s kind of the extreme example of what we’ve experienced, just in a much more public, wide forum.”
It’s a misconception so great, Mr Rittenhouse claims, it threatens his life and requires him to travel with security.
“There are people that want to kill me because of what the media has said,” he told the crowd in Texas.
And indeed, Mr Rittenhouse did experience some things which few have ever experienced, though these exceptional moments all flowed downstream from his equally exceptional choice to grab an assault rifle, take it to a powder keg of a protest, then shoot three people.
After the shootings in Kenosha, Facebook and Instagram took down posts praising him and blocked him from searches, officially designating him a “mass shooter.” (Facebook also ignored 455 user warnings and allowed a militia group to organise its Kenosha event using the service, despite commentators openly describing plans to shoot protesters.) Joe Biden, then a candidate for president, suggested the Illinois man was a white supremacist, which he insists he is not. His criminal case was on the verge of being declared a mistrial, amid arguments officials kept exculpatory video from his defence. (Officials say they shared a version of the video, just a lower-quality one, due to a technical issue.)
In the end, however, none of Mr Rittenhouse’s legacy is all that complicated, according to journalist and researcher Talia Lavin, who writes about right-wing extremism on Substack and is the author of the undercover investigation Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy.
“His audience sincerely sees him as a hero in a race war. What they’re doing is winking,” she told The Independent, adding, “That’s why he’s in demand. That’s why he has followers. It is because he killed people and got away with it. It’s pretty stark and to me also very indicative of a kind of deeply punitive, sort of vengeful and ultimately violent culture that is emblematic of the American right.”
What’s more, according to Ms Lavin, there’s a unique infrastructure of conservative conferences, media outlets, think tanks, and even consumer brands that allow seemingly obscure right-wing figures to achieve a kind of demi-fame – not quite the stuff of Hollywood, but enough to make some money and have a sizeable following online.
“There’s just a whole universe of conservative influencers and just outright grifters selling supplements and scam health machines and various anti-vax miracle cures. There is a line between the modern religiously flavored GOP conferences and the old-timey medicine show,” she said. “There’s just a lot of grift, and figures like Rittenhouse who have achieved national fame are big draws.”
Mr Rittenhouse isn’t the only one to ascend to this status. Mark and Patricia McCloskey, a wealthy St Louis couple who went viral for waving guns at Black Lives Matter protesters marching past their mansion in 2020, went on to get a pardon from the governor, speak at the Republican National Convention, and run for US Senate.
These two tracks, the conservative feeling of grievance, cancellation, and conspiracy, as well as the right-wing influencer infrastructure, can coincide perfectly, as revealed at the Texas event where Mr Rittenhouse appeared.
When a brewery pulled out of hosting the event, Defiance Press racked up thousands of views framing it as a Watergate-style scandal, complete with a whistleblower tape. When your business is controversy, cancellation is both an enemy and an opportunity.
BREAKING: A whistleblower associated with Southern Star Brewery has come forward corroborating our press release that HEB directed Southern Star Brewery to cancel the event with @ThisIsKyleR. pic.twitter.com/RAa3ShSeT0
— Defiance Press (@DefiancePress) January 16, 2023
Once the event actually started at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, these two tracks seemed often to coexist in Mr Rittenhouse’s mind at the same time. He spent much of his appearance complaining that the media was both giving him too much and not enough attention, that he wanted a normal life but also more reach for his business and media endeavours.
“The lawsuit isn’t getting reported on very much. People aren’t reporting on it. I think it’s another tactic because they know I have a lot of supporters,” he told the crowd, adding, “They’re not pushing any of my fundraising. The media…they’re not talking about it. They just want to be silent about it.”
Speaking of Instagram, he complained, “I get no traction. I can’t really promote anything,” adding, “I do think I’m still being censored.”
Speaking of Twitter, he complained, “I didn’t know it would be to the point where if I post something on my Twitter, the entire left is going to blow up and try to cancel a speaking engagement event for me and Defiance Press.”
Later, recounting how he met a makeup artist at a photoshoot with his girlfriend who initially held negative views about him, but changed her mind after the two spoke, Mr Rittenhouse claimed, “The media used me.”
Though it’s clear, in any fair accounting of Mr Rittenhouse’s public trajectory since Kenosha, he used the media right back.