Beneath the Rittenhouse trial: Grim truths about the state of America

If the Kenosha killer gets off, it won't be because of this trial. It will simply reflect what America has become

By Heather Digby Parton

Published November 12, 2021 9:45AM (EST)
Updated December 2, 2022 1:34PM (EST)
Kyle Rittenhouse waits for the jury to enter the room to continue testifying during his trial at the Kenosha County Courthouse on November 10, 2021 in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  (Sean Krajacic-Pool/Getty Images)
Kyle Rittenhouse waits for the jury to enter the room to continue testifying during his trial at the Kenosha County Courthouse on November 10, 2021 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. (Sean Krajacic-Pool/Getty Images)

The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who brought an illegally obtained AR-15 semiautomatic rifle to a chaotic street protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and shot three people, killing two of them, has the country riveted this week. The judge and the prosecutor have been at each other's throats, the top prosecution witnesses turned out to be more helpful for the defense, and defense attorneys unexpectedly put the baby-faced Rittenhouse on the stand, where he breathlessly sobbed like a toddler. Meanwhile, the judge got a phone call as he sat at the bench, revealing his ring tone to be Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA," an unofficial Republican theme song. So the trial has been both dramatic and bizarre in equal measure.

The case is important for many reasons having to do with policing, guns, politics and the growing acceptance of right-wing vigilantism in America. Rittenhouse has somehow become a symbol of all those issues, with the country split down the middle on whether he should be condemned for carrying an illegally obtained assault weapon and killing people, or should be viewed as a hero for standing up to the left-wing mob and defending himself when challenged. His childlike demeanor confuses the issue even more. How could such an innocent-looking boy have done either of those things?

The facts of the case are well known, so I won't go into it in detail. Suffice it to say that Rittenhouse fashioned himself as a "medic" (a role for which he was entirely untrained) as well as a sort of adjunct militia member, protecting private property and supporting the police when he drove into Kenosha that night and ostentatiously patrolled the streets with his long gun. He was confronted by Joseph Rosenbaum, an ex-convict with a history of mental illness who threw a bag of toiletries at him. Rittenhouse fired his gun, mortally wounding Rosenbaum. He called a friend and said, "I just killed somebody," as he jogged away from the scene. 

Rittenhouse was chased by several people, including one man who tried to hit him with a high kick. Rittenhouse fired at that person but missed. Another protester, Anthony Huber, attempted to bring him down with a skateboard and Rittenhouse shot and killed him too. Gaige Grosskreutz, an armed protester and trained paramedic who also chased Rittenhouse, testified that the two men aimed their guns at each other and Rittenhouse shot him as well, wounding him in the arm. Then Rittenhouse simply walked away from this bloody scene, walking right past police lines, and went home. He turned himself in the next morning. At no point did the self-styled medic try to help any of the people he shot.

Donald Trump defended Rittenhouse's actions at the time, saying that Rittenhouse was "trying to get away from them, I guess, it looks like. I guess he was in very big trouble. He probably would have been killed." The Trump administration distributed talking points urging officials to say to characterize Rittenhouse as "taking his rifle to the scene of the rioting to help defend small business owners."

As for the MAGA crowd, the Washington Post's Paul Waldman observed that Rittenhouse has been extolled as a hero from the very beginning, with Trump supporters raising most of the $2 million for his bail with online appeals:

On Fox News and other conservative media, one personality after another rushed to his defense....

Rittenhouse "should walk away a free and rich man after suing for malicious prosecution. That would be true justice in this case," said Matt Walsh of the Daily Wire. "Kyle Rittenhouse went to Kenosha to clean up the filth left by the rioting Biden voters," said Tucker Carlson ....

So try to imagine what will happen if Rittenhouse is acquitted. Trump will issue a statement somehow taking credit for it. Fox News will fly Rittenhouse to New York for triumphant interviews. Social media will erupt with joy, as millions of conservatives cry "Suck it, libs!" He'll appear on T-shirts and bumper stickers; maybe he'll speak at the next Conservative Political Action Conference. And don't be surprised if Trumpist candidates start seeking Rittenhouse's endorsement and asking him to appear on the campaign trail with them.

The trial isn't even over yet and that's already happening. Here is Rittenhouse's mother on Sean Hannity's Fox News show Thursday night:

This could be the beginning of a very successful career for young Rittenhouse. He's already shown that he has an instinct for it. After his arraignment and not-guilty plea he was seen numerous times wearing a "Free as Fuck" T-shirt in public, accompanied by his mother and greeted with cheers from his MAGAworld fans.

This sort of vigilantism is routinely celebrated on the right these days. From the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida to the trial of Ahmaud Arbery's killers now unfolding in Georgia, they have lined up in support for citizens who take the law into their own hands — as long as the targets are left-wing protesters and Black people. They aren't so keen when the shoe is on the other foot.

You may recall another very similar case in Portland, Oregon, last year when Michael Reinoehl, an armed antifa supporter, got into a beef with Aaron Danielson, a supporter of the far-right group Patriot Prayer. In this case, the leftist shot and killed the MAGA supporter and Trump, according to his own account of events on Fox News, personally ordered U.S. marshals to hunt Reinoehl down:

Now we sent in the U.S. marshals for the killer, the man that killed the young man in the street. Two and a half days went by, and I put out, "When are you going to go get him?" And the U.S. marshals went in to get him, and in a short period of time, they ended in a gunfight. This guy was a violent criminal, and the U.S. marshals killed him. And I'll tell you something — that's the way it has to be. There has to be retribution when you have crime like this.

According to this rundown of the events by the New York Times, it's clear that Reinoehl was unarmed at the time of his death and that marshals opened fire without warning as he walked to his car. It was an extrajudicial execution, apparently ordered by the president of the United States

It may be that Kyle Rittenhouse will be seen in the eyes of the law to have fired in self-defense. After all, he's being tried for murder, not for being a reckless fool who should never have carried a firearm anywhere near the melee that night. Many of the TV lawyers analyzing the case believe the prosecution has not made the case for a homicide conviction. If that's the way things play out, that won't be the fault of the lawyers, the judge or the jury. It will be the direct result of laws that allow teenage boys to wander the streets with loaded assault weapons slung over their shoulders, as if that were perfectly reasonable in a civilized society.

Vigilantism, extrajudicial killings by federal authorities, violent insurrections, threats and harassment of public officials, and rejection of election results and the democratic process are all hallmarks of authoritarian movements. Coddling the gun fetishists and allowing right-wing extremism to fester over many years has brought us to the point when we must ask ourselves if we're no longer a country where politics is war by other means — it's just plain old war.

CORRECTION: This article originally stated that Rittenhouse "may have transported the gun across state lines." According to court testimony and police records, the gun, purchased on his behalf by a friend, was already in Wisconsin when Rittenhouse arrived. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Black Lives Matter Commentary Kenosha Kyle Rittenhouse Political Violence Wisconsin