In the apocalyptic imagination of the American far-right, violence plays a central role. The right’s radical extremists believe that mainstream American institutions have been rotted from within, undermined by the nefarious influence of Blacks, Jews, and liberals. White Americans are justified — maybe even obligated — to take up arms to protect their people and their culture.
Immediately after Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal on Friday, the fringe right’s online forums lit up with celebration — and among some, a belief that they too can kill without legal consequence. On Telegram, a secure messaging app popular with extremists, the leader of a neo-Nazi group wrote that the verdict gives “good Americans legal precedent and license to kill violent commies without worrying about doing life in prison if we defend ourselves in a riot.”
There is every reason to take such rhetoric seriously. “It has never taken more than a whisper of approval to fan the flames of militant right action. The Kenosha acquittal is a shout,” writes Kathleen Belew, a historian of white power movements at the University of Chicago. Based on how it’s been cheered in some quarters, the verdict is potentially setting the stage for future violence.
Data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project shows that, between January 2020 and June 2021, there were 560 protest events where either demonstrators or counter-demonstrators showed up with guns — about 2 percent of all protests in the United States during the studied time period. The data also shows that these demonstrations are more than five times more likely to involve violent or destructive behavior as compared to unarmed ones.
Johns Hopkins political scientist Lilliana Mason — the co-author (with Nathan Kalmoe) of the forthcoming Radical American Partisanship — worries that this trend will escalate. At future protests on charged issues like racial justice and voting rights, armed right-wing counterprotesters may continue to descend on America’s cities, in increasingly large numbers. “The January 6 folks coming by, Kyle Rittenhouse-style,” as she put it.
Mason and Kalmoe’s research documents rising support for political violence in the US, prompting worries that eventually, the killing in Kenosha will repeat itself elsewhere. The more it does, the more likely it is to lead to retaliatory violence from the other side. The ultimate risk may be what Mason terms “an endless cycle” of partisan killing, like Italy’s Years of Lead or pre-Civil War Bleeding Kansas.
Looking at the reaction to the verdict from mainstream conservatives makes the current predicament even scarier. Far from cooling the passions of the fringes, mainstream Republican politicians and allied media are canonizing Rittenhouse, elevating him into a model for ordinary conservatives to follow.
Rittenhouse’s acquittal is in a certain sense unsurprising: America’s self-defense laws are incredibly permissive, making it difficult to convict someone in a violent situation who claims to fear for their life. Yet it is one thing for conservatives to say the jury reached the legally correct verdict and another thing entirely to describe Rittenhouse as a moral exemplar: a gun-toting American standing guard against the country’s internal enemies.
“By suggesting he is a hero,” Mason tells me, “the implication is that what he did was not a tragedy at all. It wasn’t a conflict gone lethally wrong, it was a good lethal conflict.”
A bloody turn in this deeply polarized moment for American democracy need not be inevitable. But the Rittenhouse case has revealed a scary convergence between the fringe and the mainstream on the wisdom of turning guns against their political enemies. Its resolution validates that belief in ways that challenge the basic nonviolent compact at the heart of democratic political life.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish nonprofit that tracks the fringe right, extremists have spent the past year lionizing Rittenhouse as an example of a white man taking the struggle against the left into his own hands. The “not guilty” verdict was, for them, a kind of vindication.
“As soon as the jury announced its verdict, online extremist spaces erupted in cheers and self-congratulatory rhetoric,” the ADL explained in a Friday blog post. “Supporters heralded the Rittenhouse verdict as a victory for the principle of self-defense and providing legal precedent for violent responses to perceived threats, and some argued that people no longer need to avoid acting during tense situations for fear of legal repercussions, a potentially dangerous development.”
The ADL documented a wealth of examples, including a large number of right-wing extremists interpreting the ruling as a license to engage in intimidation or violence at future Black Lives Matter protests:
- A user on a chat room called “Warriors for America (Oath Keepers)” wrote that it was “open season on lib trash commies!”
- A Twitter user affiliated with the extreme right boogaloo movement — which reportedly seeks to foment civil disorder — wrote “WE CAN PROTECT OUR COMMUNITIES NOW REFERENCING RITTENHOUSE V. Wisconsin.”
- One member of patriots.win, a pro-Trump web forum, wrote that “BLMKKK gotta be shitting. We have permission to defend ourselves now.”
The ADL is not the only organization or expert to notice a surge in right-wing calls to arms on Friday.
Within minutes of the jury’s announcement, “the verdict [was] already being rallied around as justification for racial violence” writes Alex Newhouse, the deputy director of the extremism research center at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “Rittenhouse has been ‘sanctified’ (joining the ranks of mass shooters like the Christchurch, El Paso, Norway shooters).”
Over direct message, Newhouse pointed me to a group of extremist Telegram channels, frequented by people he called “the absolute worst of the worst.” Perusing these forums, I found memes celebrating Rittenhouse’s violence, dancing on the graves of those he killed, and a sense that the ruling was a real victory for their movement.
“Hey parasites, Kyle Rittenhouse killed 2 of your friends and got away with it. Now he’s celebrating life as a free man, and being showered with praise,” one Telegram extremist wrote. “Your impotent rage only makes the victory all the more sweet for us. Literal National Socialists are celebrating your failure. … Hail Rittenhouse.”
Another far-right group claimed to be “monitoring” a protest in Boston after the verdict, vowing that “our activists will intervene if senseless attacks are carried out by Antifa on white civilians.”
As of Monday, there haven’t yet been national media reports of deadly far-right violence in Boston or other parts of the country since the verdict. This reflects the fact that many of these Telegram posters are just that: posters. They talk tough on the internet but don’t actually plan to act on it in practice.
But all it takes is one to really mean it: The Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, for example, posted about his plans on the social media site Gab before he killed 11 people in 2018. And for that reason, experts are warning that the Rittenhouse verdict could have far-ranging consequences for the safety of American protesters and American politics more broadly.
“We’ve already seen a lot of armed activity around protests over the last couple years,” J.M. Berger, an associate fellow at the International Center for Counter-Terrorism at the Hague, tells me. “This verdict likely ensures that those armed people will feel more comfortable taking a much more confrontational stance.”
This is how the country could start drifting in the direction of Mason’s nightmare scenario. The more Rittenhouse’s acquittal inspires armed right-wingers to take it on themselves to “police” liberal protests, the more likely it is that there is another deadly incident. This is especially the case when far-right extremists who’ve been marinating in fantasies of violence get involved, as the country saw in the murder of Heather Heyer during the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, far-right rally.
In their studies of previous episodes of political violence, Mason and Kalmoe document a self-perpetuating effect: “Violent episodes tend to increase support for violence,” as Mason puts it. People see their side being killed and see violence against their enemies as a justified response.
Rittenhouse’s acquittal might not be the end of the story. It could be the beginning of a bigger and scarier one.
Violent white nationalists on the internet’s fringes weren’t the only ones to immediately celebrate Rittenhouse’s acquittal. Within minutes of the not-guilty verdict, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) had already offered him an internship.
“Kyle, if you want an internship reach out to me,” he wrote on Instagram, adding that his supporters should “be armed, be dangerous, and be moral” — like Rittenhouse, presumably.
Cawthorn has competition. Two other House Republicans, Reps. Paul Gosar (AZ) and Matt Gaetz (FL), have also suggested they want Rittenhouse in their office. Gosar, fresh off of an official censure for posting a video in which he is depicted killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), tweeted that “I will arm wrestle Matt Gaetz to get dibs for Kyle as an intern.”
The celebrations in conservative media were, if anything, even more effusive.
“Not only did Kyle Rittenhouse have the right to do this, I encourage you to do it,” said Steven Crowder, a popular right-wing YouTube host. “Some people needed a catalyst, let today be the day,” he continued — adding that conservatives will make sure “there will not be another town burned down” if they take up arms against “this evil of the left.”
“Kyle Rittenhouse wound up on the streets in Kenosha with a gun in the first place for one reason. He was there because, in the summer of 2020, the leadership of the Democratic Party endorsed mob violence for political ends,” Fox’s Tucker Carlson said on Friday evening, while touting an exclusive interview to air on Monday night.
“If Kyle Rittenhouse can save his own life, you can too,” he said.
In theory, it would have been possible for conservatives to say the verdict was the right one without lionizing Rittenhouse. A handful of anti-Trump conservatives — like David French, who is also a staunch Second Amendment supporter — did just that.
But that’s not the tack that much of the mainstream right has chosen. They sound less like French than they sound like the extremists on Telegram — turning Rittenhouse into a hero, a model to be emulated, rather than a cautionary tale.
“The rhetoric is stated slightly differently, but the end result is the same: This is a young man who did the right thing,” Art Jipson, a professor at the University of Dayton who studies white racial extremism, told the Washington Post. “The arguments start from different origin points, but they create an almost iconic, or at least a powerful, symbol.”
In some cases, there are ties among the Republicans celebrating Rittenhouse and parts of the violent fringe. Gosar met with an Arizona chapter of the Oath Keepers militia and, according to one participant, said that America was already in the midst of a civil war. Gaetz attended a rally where the Proud Boys, a “Western chauvinist” street brawling group, was providing security — and then praised them on his podcast. In this, they were following former President Donald Trump’s praise of the fringe, referring to the “very fine people” at the Charlottesville rally and telling the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” during a 2020 presidential debate.
The fringe and the mainstream right differ on many key points — among others, the bigotry of the extremists is far more naked and eliminationist — but they agree on a conspiratorial worldview in which liberals are not mere political rivals but existential threats to the American way of life.
“One of the biggest problems this country faces is perceived polarization, driven by misinformation on the right [claiming] leftist extremists want to destroy our way of life and, thus, it is reasonable to do everything in our power to stop them,” writes Yphtach Lelkes, a scholar of political rhetoric at the University of Pennsylvania.
In this narrative, every illiberal move Republicans and conservatives make is a form of self-defense. Seizing partisan control of vote counting is justified as a means of stopping Democratic fraud. Banning school libraries from carrying books by Black and LGBTQ authors is a means of stopping liberal indoctrination. Laws that protect drivers who run over protesters from lawsuits are a way of protecting communities from rioters.
Rittenhouse is a powerful symbol for the right because he acted out a long-held fantasy — a man with his gun, standing up to the liberal hordes. That he was found not guilty is validation that fantasy could be made reality, a godsend to genuine extremists.
But his acquittal’s celebration across a much broader spectrum of the right is perhaps even more troubling. It threatens the mainstream consensus that political violence has no place in a democratic society — and the related notion that Americans need to share a country with people who disagree with them.