Kyle Rittenhouse, the Illinois teen charged with shooting three protestors in Kenosha, Wisconsin, gets the fanmail congratulating him on his heroic exploits in juvenile detention, because he is 17 years old. Most stories coming from the Right, which render the kid as a righteous arbiter of justice, bury this fact. There’s less valor in juvie, after all.
Rittenhouse is being tried as an adult and the press releases and memes that celebrate him, saying he “policed his community” or rattled off “well-placed shots,” the legal defense that paints him as a righteous member of America’s implicit militia, all seem to intentionally downplay the reality that he is not, in fact, a trained assassin. At the very most, he’s a child soldier. Only the president and his son have doubled down on Rittenhouse’s age, a politically prudent endorsement of two murders reimagined as the folly of youth.
But if you watch the 19-minute video the Daily Caller recorded of Rittenhouse before he shot three people, two of them fatally, the full force of his teenagehood is startling. A doughy kid, he speaks with the unmistakably reedy voice of puberty, plunging into crowds to offer medical care with the rigid vigor of an Eagle Scout. He tells the Caller he’s an EMT—which he can’t be, technically, given his age—before adding he’s “usually a lifeguard.” But he’s had some additional training, he says. He worked part-time at a local YMCA.
Rittenhouse’s big thing was loving cops, which appeared to manifest the way some kids obsess over a particular band. He was enrolled in the local cadet program and emblazoned his social media accounts with Blue Lives Matter posts; he raised money for an “organization seeking to show the human side of the men and women behind the badge.” The teenager’s decision to travel out-of-state to “defend property” against protestors is the product of decades of white supremacist militia activity in the States; his very public valorization is an acknowledgment that these days, sympathizing with the cops is basically to become one yourself.
In the week after the shooting, statements of support for Rittenhouse were fired off as if pre-written: David Clarke, the brutal former sheriff of Milwaukee, said the killings were justified and Americans “have the right to defend yourself.” Tucker Carlson did a characteristic bit about the protest devolving into “anarchy:” the kid is “not the bad guy here,” he said. In the week after the shooting, half a million dollars donated towards Rittenhouse’s legal defense came through his lawyer’s nonprofit, several hundred thousand more were raised separately through a Christian crowdfunding site, bringing the teenager’s exoneration fund to over $1 million. The man Rittenhouse was prowling the streets with said he and the militia had been acting with the approval of the police.
The 17-year-old, overnight, transformed from a kid clumsily play-acting at war into a tactical mastermind. “We fully support law-abiding citizens and their right to defend themselves against violent Antifa thugs,” the executive director of the National Foundation for Gun Rights wrote in a rather remarkable statement. “Unfortunately for them, Kyle was armed with an AR-15 and their rocks, skateboards, and handguns stood no chance against his well-placed shots.” Memes of a strapped Rittenhouse placed him in opposition to hypocritical protestors calling to police their own communities, telegraphed a certainty that without the AR-15, which he was almost certainly carrying illegally, he’d have been ripped to shreds. They were shared, respectively, by a Maryland public official and a Republican Congressional nominee.
The reimagining of a teenage lifeguard as living Punisher meme feels a bit discordant, if only because of how clearly ill-equipped Rittenhouse is for the job. But the mental acrobatics required to render unsympathetic characters as defenders of the Republic has been in motion for quite some time. After all, you need martyrs if you want people to go to war. The St. Louis couple brandishing guns at protestors, the guys who arrive at peaceful protests with plate carriers and radios and call signs, the organized militias “lending a hand” to Border Patrol—they all share the delusion that the blind terror driving them to bring a gun to a fist-fight is actually bravery, and that when they do kill someone it will be not just be justified but heroic. That fantasy needs examples to fuel it, in the absence of an enemy more tangible than a Facebook post.
Rittenhouse’s alignment with the symbols of Blue Lives Matter was all the far-right needed to adopt him as an icon. The longstanding affiliation (and cross-pollination) between the police and the right’s armed supporters is becoming more explicit: Shortly after Rittenhouse was arrested, a Virginia county held a discussion on whether to formalize a relationship with their local militia, which isn’t even a first-time occurrence for advocates of supplemental force. At rallies, protestors are reporting being assaulted by “back the blue” activists while the police look blithely on.
It was inevitable that the first person to kill a protestor would become a vessel for this roiling conflict, regardless of age or suitability for the job. Having failed to find a single Antifa supersoldier, the right has anointed them in death, painting an activist executed while eating gummy worms as a criminal mastermind and two people attending a protest as “Antifa thugs.” It’s part of an insidious monopoly on political violence, an uneven war between one establishment party obsessed with the idea that a single rioter could tarnish its reputation and another willing to expand its ideological army to include any asshole with a thin blue line bumper sticker and a gun.
As the left circulates images memorializing the victims of state violence—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Layleen Polanco—the right holds up the people who commit murder, and increasingly, those who commit it in the state’s name.
The Right’s composite enemy, stoked by the tacit endorsement of the Trump administration, has solidified since George Floyd was killed by police. You hear it in the assertion that New York, a city in which I live, is burning, and the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories about busloads of armed activists descending on rural communities en-masse. You see it in the militia-style checkpoints set up in Oregon to interrogate out-of-town “looters” based on lies spread by a local sheriff. Antifa are criminals, are Black Lives Matter protestors, all folded into an omnipresent and singular threat that leans heavily on decades of Republican talking points about race and crime and the militant rhetoric of the far right. With a common enemy, the longstanding affiliations between the police and “citizen patrols” have further solidified, too, the boundaries between a good guy with a gun and a good guy with a badge diffused to the point where a 17-year-old kid fires off a round and becomes, ostensibly, an agent of the state.
It should be absurd for Rittenhouse to claim self-defense for shooting and killing two people, one of them brandishing nothing but a skateboard. From the videos posted of that night in Kenosha, it appears the “mob” chasing the teenager did so after he’d already shot and killed one person. But the narrative was already written for him, so his actions are hailed as consummate with the uniquely American privilege to take up arms for your country and fight, part of an equally American confusion between a military and a mercenary force. In this way of imagining the world, stand your ground laws have expanded to apply to entire American cities. The border is everywhere now. Gun advocates are reaching back into history to reclaim the “well-regulated militia” clause of the Second Amendment, once scrubbed from the walls of NRA HQ and downplayed to advocate a once more politically more feasible ideal of home defense.
Rittenhouse almost certainly thought of himself as a cop when, in the hours before the shooting, he was thanked by police, and when, as he told the Caller, he warned protestors that if they “didn’t disperse” immediately they would be detained. In an awful way, even Rittenhouse’s escalation of tactics under the guise of keeping order are familiar: Killing someone for hitting you with a skateboard isn’t too far removed from tear-gassing a crowd because someone lobbed a bottle of piss. Rittenhouse was able to believe he could do all that because he and the middle-aged veteran he was stalking the streets with had been encouraged, by elected officials and the police, to think of themselves as part of the composite force supplementing local authorities. They were able to do it because they knew their violence would be celebrated by their side.
The public-facing messaging among militia movements has changed over the years, but the impulse is always some version of defending the idealized white state from a racialized agitator. It’s no different now, just endorsed with less ambiguity by the people who are ostensibly enforcing the law. White supremacy undergirded the Bundy’s land dispute. It’s the engine of the citizen militias patrolling city streets. It’s at the heart of Blue Lives Matter. Whether Rittenhouse knew it consciously, it was what brought him to Kenosha, too, to join up with a white militia and keep property safe from “Antifa” and the rioting “thugs.”
It would be easy to claim that the right is inherently more aggressive, more enamored with gun culture, more interested in vigilante justice. But they’re crucially more willing to shove ideology into whatever receptacle presents itself for the cause, a mission that long predates this moment and should probably scare us more than a gun. Democratic politicians, believing they’ll be spared from the consolidation of the right’s enemies, are eager to condemn violence, distancing themselves from the “rioters” and “looters,” adopting the protagonists of the right’s paranoia as their own.
But there is an entirely different game being played, and it’s not about order. The eagerness to make an example of a 17-year-old lifeguard foreshadows, a few months before an election, a world in which anyone waving the right flag and carrying gets to be an honorary arm of the state.