Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old gunman who shot and killed two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Tuesday night, is now a folk hero for some conservatives even as he awaits trial for murder. “I want him as my president,” Ann Coulter, referring to Rittenhouse, wrote on Twitter. “Kyle Rittenhouse is about to be 18, wealthy from all the lawsuits (“WHITE SUPREMACIST!!”), AND with a couple pelts on the wall,” Jesse Kelly, a right-wing radio host, claimed. “Dude is gonna have to fight off hot conservative chicks with a bat.” Baseball player Aubrey Huff wrote that Rittenhouse was “a national treasure.”
Others tried to blame his actions on the protesters he shot, or on the movement itself. “Two people died in [Wisconsin] last night because of rioters, & its governor still turned down help,” Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler, a Republican, wrote on Twitter. Charlie Kirk, who delivered the first speech at the Republican National Convention on Monday, was even less subtle. “Democrats in Wisconsin are now directly responsible for the two deaths in Kenosha,” he wrote. “The only solution to this massive terrorism is to defeat these insurrectionists at the ballot box—vote Trump!”
Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host who regularly espouses white nationalist views, even offered a forceful defense of Rittenhouse’s motives in his Wednesday broadcast. “Kenosha has devolved into anarchy because the authorities in charge of the city abandoned it. People in charge, from the governor of Wisconsin on down, refused to enforce the law. They stood back and they watched Kenosha burn,” Carlson said. “So are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder? How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”
The reactions are jarring in isolation: a host of prominent conservatives praising, excusing, or justifying an apparent vigilante for opening fire on Black Lives Matter protesters. They are even more troubling in context. For years, many right-wing leaders and commentators have slowly legitimized the use of political violence against their ideological adversaries, often under the guise of stopping “tyranny” or defending American values. As political tensions rise ahead of the November election, these tacit calls for bloodshed could have deadly and disastrous consequences.
Rittenhouse offered some insight into his own views during interviews in Kenosha shortly before he opened fire. “People are getting injured, and our job is to protect this business, and part of my job is also to help people,” he told a Daily Caller video producer. “If someone is hurt, I’m running into harm’s way. That’s why I have my rifle. I’ve got to protect myself, obviously.” There is no evidence Rittenhouse works for any business in Kenosha; he lives more than 20 miles away, in Illinois. His rifle, and the tacit support he received from local police, was all he needed to justify his involvement.
After his arrest, news outlets found that Rittenhouse was an enthusiastic admirer of law enforcement and the military. The Washington Post’s Teo Armus found that his social media posts were “almost entirely dedicated to honoring police, with Blue Lives Matter graphics, photos of officers killed in the line of duty, and the ‘thin blue line’ flag associated with support for law enforcement.” According to BuzzFeed, a video on Rittenhouse’s TikTok page showed him in the front section of President Donald Trump’s rally in Des Moines, Iowa, earlier this year.
Perhaps no single person has done more to normalize political violence than Trump himself. As I noted in May, he appears to see physical violence as a means to demonstrate strength, as well as a source of psychological comfort. “It makes me feel so good to hit ‘sleazebags’ back—much better than seeing a psychiatrist (which I never have!),” he claimed on Twitter in November 2012. As civil unrest spread earlier this year after the police killing of George Floyd, Trump inflamed the situation by tweeting “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” and threatening to send the military into major U.S. cities to suppress the protests.
Trump’s tendency toward hyperbole only makes things worse. He casts every political setback or policy defeat as part of a nefarious threat against the country and his presidency. During the impeachment saga last year, Trump described the proceedings as part of a “coup d’état” and shared warnings that his removal from office could lead to “civil war.” As his poll numbers plummeted earlier this year, he grew increasingly strident in falsely claiming that Democrats would rig the November election through mass voter fraud. The underlying message appears to be that he is the only rightful leader of the nation, and that any efforts to remove or replace him are not only inherently illegitimate but an attack on the United States itself.
But Trump did not invent the growing right-wing affectation with political violence. Gun-rights activists and some elected officials have claimed for years that the Second Amendment is a defense against tyranny and that any major gun-control efforts would be met with violence. As I noted last September, the logical conclusion is that gun owners are entitled to shoot and kill civil servants, including police officers, who try to enforce gun-control measures. At first glance, this may seem at odds with the Trumpian mantra of “law and order” and the steadfast deference to police departments that accompanies it. But “law and order,” to many conservatives, does not mean law and order, but a partial approach to the law—and a certain kind of racial order.
One day before Rittenhouse opened fire, the RNC gave a prime-time speaking slot to Mark and Patricia McCloskey. The wealthy St. Louis couple rose to national prominence earlier this summer after they pointed firearms at Black Lives Matters protesters who were marching through their neighborhood. Local prosecutors charged them with felonies for pointing their guns “in a threatening manner” at the crowd even as they became folk heroes on the right. “What you saw happened to us could just as easily happen to any of you who are watching from quiet neighborhoods around our country,” Patricia told viewers.
Underscoring the racial dynamics at play, the McCloskeys praised Trump for blocking fair-housing policies aimed at reducing residential segregation. “They’re not satisfied with spreading the chaos and violence into our communities,” she claimed. “They want to abolish the suburbs altogether by ending single-family home zoning. This [family] zoning would bring crime, lawlessness, and low-quality apartments into now thriving suburban neighborhoods. President Trump smartly ended this government overreach, but Joe Biden wants to bring it back. These are the policies that are coming to a neighborhood near you. So make no mistake, no matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.”
Over the past few years, a few Americans have used similar fears to justify mass murder. In 2018, an anti-Semitic gunman who had criticized a Jewish organization that helps resettle refugees killed 11 congregants at a Pittsburgh synagogue. The gunman who killed 20 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, last year released a manifesto that largely mirrored right-wing talking points on immigration, including fears of a “Hispanic invasion of the United States” that would replace white Americans. Shortly before the 2018 midterms, a Trump supporter in Florida sent mail bombs to mainstream news outlets and Democratic leaders, including former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. After the Democrats won the House, federal prosecutors arrested a Coast Guard lieutenant in Maryland before he could carry out a planned wave of assassinations against Trump’s perceived enemies.
Many conservatives who own guns likely wouldn’t use them to slaughter fellow Americans. But their embrace of rhetoric that legitimizes acts of violence against Black Lives Matter protesters, Democratic opponents, and other perceived opponents only helps those who might take things to their logical, bloody conclusion. As the November election grows closer, the economy struggles, and the nation’s political temperature rises, the risk of further bloodshed may get worse. Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s top White House advisers, suggested that the White House has no interest in trying to lower political tensions any time soon. “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety, law and order,” she explained. It might as well have been an endorsement of Joe Biden.