Kenosha gunman, Kyle Rittenhouse (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

What the Kenosha shooter tells us about Donald Trump's America

Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly killed two people in Kenosha this week. He was acting out Donald Trump's violent script



Chauncey DeVega
August 28, 2020 11:00AM (UTC)

Events this week in Kenosha, Wisconsin, are no surprise. They follow an all-too familiar social script in America.

On Wednesday, a 17-year-old  named Kyle Rittenhouse traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin from his home in Antioch, Illinois, not far away. Rittenhouse did this in response to online appeals from a right-wing militia group to "protect" businesses, property and lives in Kenosha from "rioters." In reality, the protests in Kenosha over the last week have come in response to the shooting of Jacob Blake, a black man who was unarmed and shot seven times in front of his children. Blake is reportedly now paralyzed and handcuffed to a hospital bed. There are credible reports that at least some of the violence in Kenosha has been committed by white supremacists or other right-wing agitators who are trying to discredit and undermine peaceful protests against police brutality and other forms of social injustice.

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Rittenhouse was armed with an AR-15 military-style rifle. Under the laws of Illinois, where he lives, Rittenhouse is too young to own such a weapon. He also violated the law by traveling across state lines with a firearm.

As shown by his Facebook page and other social media, Rittenhouse was obsessed with guns and the police. He also supports the Blue Lives Matter movement — an implicitly racist response to the human and civil rights campaign Black Lives Matter.

Rittenhouse is also an ardent Trump supporter. There is evidence that he was in the front row at a Trump rally in Des Moines, Iowa

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Vice interviewed several former high school classmates of Rittenhouse and they describe a young person indoctrinated by the right-wing media machine:

Kyle Rittenhouse loved cops, guns, President Trump, and "triggering the libs," according to some of his former classmates at Lakes Community High School in Lake County, Illinois. His clothes were often branded with pro-police slogans, and he carried a Blue Lives Matter phone case, one student said.

Some of his classmates joked that he'd be a mass shooter one day. "I personally believe he went to Wisconsin with the intent to kill," said one former classmate, who asked not to be identified out of fear for their safety....

Rittenhouse was also known as a "ride or die" Trump supporter. "If you said anything bad about Trump, he'd threaten you," Joe said. In January, Rittenhouse even traveled to Iowa, where he had front row seats at a Trump rally, Buzzfeed reported. "Kyle was the type of kid to wear a MAGA hat or other apparel just for attention, or to "trigger" people," Joe added.

Another one of Rittenhouse's classmates said he used to refer to the school, located in a Chicago suburb, as "libtard af."

"Kyle was kind of shy from what I remember, but he was definitely in your face and pushed his views hella," they said. "Like one of those kids that liked 'triggering libtards.'"

In Kenosha, Rittenhouse wandered through the crowds of protesters and sought to ingratiate himself with local police officers and other law enforcement. They appeared to be receptive to Rittenhouse's overtures. As police have consistently done when white right-wing militias and other white right-wing extremists have appeared at protests against police brutality or the Trump regime, local cops evidently viewed Kyle Rittenhouse as one of the "good guys."

Later in the evening, Kyle Rittenhouse allegedly shot and killed two protesters, and injured another, in a series of confrontations whose precise details remain unclear. It appears from video collected by the New York Times that the second and third shootings occurred as people tried to detain him for having initially shot a man in the head, killing him.

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After these shootings, Rittenhouse ran away and apparently trying to surrender to police, who ignored him. He then escaped to his mother's home in Illinois, where he was arrested on Thursday by local law enforcement.

Rittenhouse's right-wing defenders are predictably claiming that his actions were all in "self-defense." As legal experts have pointed out, Rittenhouse acted in a premeditated manner by going to Kenosha with a high-powered rifle and looking for trouble. Any such claim of self-defense is highly dubious.

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Can you imagine what would have happened if Kyle Rittenhouse were Black or brown or Muslim? Again, the script is well-worn and obvious, but its truth must still be highlighted because of what it says about the color line and justice in America. In that scenario, the mainstream media, (white) politicians and others would of course be summoning a great moral panic about "bad culture" and "terrorism" and "social pathologies."

With Kyle Rittenhouse there will be no such breathless news coverage with its questions such as:

  1. Who, how and what is radicalizing white men to commit such acts of domestic terrorism and mass shootings?
  2. What is Donald Trump's role in encouraging political and other violence by white men and boys? What of Fox News and the broader right-wing echo chamber?
  3. Is something wrong with the white family? Why are their sons and men so violent?
  4. What should law enforcement and white politicians do about white crime?
  5. Where are the white fathers in the white home?
  6. When will white leadership step up and stop white right-wing domestic terrorism?
  7. Is white American culture pathological? Why are white people so violent?

There are other parts of this cultural script as well.

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When innocent Black and brown people are killed by police or white vigilantes, every part of their lives is publicly scrutinized in order to make them, the victims, responsible for their own murders.

Kyle Rittenhouse will be humanized and depicted as a tragic soul. Perhaps as a cherubic innocent or a "good kid" who somehow went wrong despite his parents' best efforts. There will be calls for empathy and sympathy because Rittenhouse is "just a child" and we should respect his and the family's privacy during this horrible time.

Trayvon Martin was 17 years old, the same age as Rittenhouse is now, when he was killed. Tamir Rice was only 12. Black children and other young people are seen, in the white gaze, as somehow always being "adults."

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The "adultification" of Black children and the infantilizing of white men — Donald Trump's adult sons are frequently described by the news media as "kids" or "boys" — is one of the most obvious and insidious ways through which white privilege works in America for the purposes of legitimizing police and other violence against innocent people.

As I wrote here at Salon in 2015:

When a white person commits an act of mass violence he or she is "a lone gunman," "mentally ill" or "disturbed." White men commit a disproportionate percentage of the mass shootings and domestic terrorism in the United States. Yet their actions are never taken to be reflective of white men as a group. The mere suggestion of this basic fact is met with outrage by Republicans and the right-wing news entertainment complex. However, when an "Arab" or a "Muslim" commits a crime, said event is processed by the White Gaze as an indictment of an entire population and to summon the bogeyman of "Muslim terrorism." In all, whiteness is freedom from collective responsibility and indictment; to be the Other is an a priori assumption where the actions of one non-white person means that all members of the group should be punished and made suspect.

Kyle Rittenhouse's apparent vigilantism and political violence are the logical and predictable result of the energies summoned up by Donald Trump and his agents.

Trump, his regime and their compliant news media have repeatedly depicted nonwhite people, Democrats, liberals, progressives, Black Lives Matter supporters, anti-fascists and the majority of Americans who oppose him as un-American "terrorists" who should be destroyed.

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Trump, the Republican Party, and their media use "stochastic terrorism" to encourage such violence while denying responsibility for what follows.

The shootings in Kenosha occurred simultaneously with this week's ghoulish, racist, lie-filled, death-cult celebration at the Republican National Convention, which should be no surprise. Kyle Rittenhouse may have imagined himself to be a great soldier in Trump's personal army as he waded through a sea of "evildoers."

New York Magazine's Eric Levitz describes this dangerous situation:

Before Trump's emergence, some of the most powerful interest groups within the GOP coalition already viewed the Democratic Party as a threat so catastrophic the imperative of keeping it away from power would justify most any means of resistance.

Trump has certainly cultivated his party's authoritarian elements more energetically — and delegitimized his opposition more shamelessly — than any other 2016 presidential candidate was liable to do. But regardless, the basic fact remains that the GOP is — and has been — dominated by a movement that sees the Democratic Party as an internal enemy of the United States and any election that a Democratic president wins as illegitimate by definition

In sum, Kyle Rittenhouse channeled the juvenile, lethal, immature and simple-minded masculine fantasies of fascism — and he represents a broader cultural and political crisis in America in other ways as well.

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Rittenhouse's apparent shooting spree in Kenosha exemplifies the way that Donald Trump has served as a type of permission function for the darkest forces in American society by continually encouraging violent and other anti-social behavior by his followers. It would seem that Kyle Rittenhouse was listening closely.

As the United States further succumbs to Trump's neofascist authoritarian movement, historian Timothy Snyder's warnings about paramilitaries and police become even more ominous. He wrote this in his recent book "On Tyranny":

Be wary of paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.

Kyle Rittenhouse is only 17, but that too is instructive. He is an example of how the average age of right-wing extremists is decreasing. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that recent incidents of far-right violence have involved perpetrators with an average age of about 26, "markedly younger than white supremacist killers who came before them." As with radical Islamic terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaida, social media and other online technologies are being used to radicalize (white) right-wing extremists in the Age of Trump.

Christian Picciolini, a former extremist and the founder of the global disengagement network called the Free Radicals Project, explained this process of radicalization to Salon via email:

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The pressure cooker America is dealing with today is the culmination of 400 years of human rights violations by white supremacists against marginalized and disenfranchised American people being swept under the rug. To top it off, for the last four years we have an administration that is working against any progress that has been made toward equity and a dialogue of progress, in many cases putting forth outright white nationalist policies in the face of that progress. Now, we're facing a dire multi-layered situation with protests against those racist policies and the killing of unarmed black Americans, a heated election coming up, mass job loss and economic hardship, and a pandemic with no real end in sight.

All this uncertainty and raw emotion and fear, not to mention the plethora of guns and vigilantism occurring on the streets, plus the propaganda, fake news, and misinformation radicalizing people who are spending most of their time online these days, I fear we are in a critical juncture for the future of our nation.

As Election Day 2020 approaches, there will be more political violence by right-wing extremists. Such violence will be committed by random individuals, as well as coordinated by militias and other paramilitary groups. The goal will be to create widespread mayhem and upheaval in order to keep Donald Trump's white supremacist, authoritarian regime in power indefinitely.

Even if Trump is defeated on Election Day and leaves office peacefully in January, his foot soldiers and other fanatics will not go away. They will fight a rearguard action against Joe Biden's administration and the multiracial democracy it represents. Kyle Rittenhouse's alleged actions are another warning of what awaits us in the months and years ahead, a reality for which most Americans are not prepared. Whether Donald Trump wins or loses in November, his most extreme loyalists will still be with us, seeking to exact revenge and make Trump's nightmarish vision of America into reality.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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