Investigative reporter David Neiwert: Rittenhouse verdict a "green light for right-wing extremists"

Expert on right-wing extremism has a warning for America: "Normal is gone — and it's not coming back"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published November 30, 2021 6:00AM (EST)

Neo-Nazis hold flags during a National Socialist Movement rally at Greenville Street Park in Newnan, Georgia, USA | Kyle Rittenhouse (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Neo-Nazis hold flags during a National Socialist Movement rally at Greenville Street Park in Newnan, Georgia, USA | Kyle Rittenhouse (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Democrats are being encircled by a radicalized Republican Party increasingly committed to fascism. Instead of organizing their forces and launching a coordinated counterattack, the Democrats are fighting many battles at once — and losing most of them.

Donald Trump and his followers launched a coup against American democracy and the rule of law on Jan. 6. It may have slowed or stalled after the assault on the Capitol, but it definitely has not ended. Trump, the planners of the attack and their other high-level allies and collaborators have not been punished or in any way held accountable. This outcome almost guarantees that the Republican-fascist movement will attempt another coup the next time it loses a national election.

Fascist militias and other right-wing paramilitaries are growing in strength and numbers. Domestic terrorism experts are warning that the U.S. may experience a prolonged violent right-wing insurgency. Some observers have suggested that such right-wing extremist violence could even escalate into a second American civil war.

Republicans are systematically restricting Black and brown people's right to vote, with the apparent goal of creating a new apartheid Jim Crow-style system where the Democrats will effectively never win "free and fair" elections. This plot against democracy involves voter exclusion, voter suppression, extreme gerrymandering, the Big Lie and intimidation of election officials on the local level. 

Republicans are also deploying their street thugs and other foot soldiers to disrupt civil society, targeting school board meetings, library oversight boards and other ground-level government bodies. These attacks involve both violent intimidation and a proactive strategy to infiltrate local government and weaponize it in service to the Republican fascist movement. 

The Republican fascists and larger "conservative" movement are continuing their "culture war" attacks. Their newest weapon is the right-wing moral panic about "critical race theory," against which Democrats have been largely defenseless.

Donald Trump and his movement command an extensive propaganda and disinformation machine. Its power is so great that it has effectively created an alternate reality for the tens of millions of Americans and others who have surrendered to it. The Republican fascist movement is successfully attacking truth and reality, and once again, liberals and progressives have no remotely equivalent propaganda machine.

Here the Democrats are at another disadvantage: The mainstream news media is a de facto ally and enabler of the Trump movement, having consistently normalized its excesses through chronic both-sides-ism and cynical horse-race journalism.

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Instead of leading a counterattack and rallying his supporters, Joe Biden has sought consensus. This may be a historically dreadful decision. A new essay at Politico elaborates:

With the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law, Democratic lawmakers and party leaders say Biden needs to relentlessly hammer GOP lawmakers for opposing his economic priorities and hampering progress on the pandemic and inflation….

But Biden has largely shied away from leveling broadsides at Republicans on Capitol Hill, though he's been less sparing with his predecessor and GOP governors who've stood in the way of federal aid to combat the pandemic. Long-time Biden observers and confidants aren't sure that the attack dog role suits him, or that he will commit to it.

"It's not [Biden's] style" to lambast Republicans, said John Podesta, Bill Clinton's former White House chief of staff and founder of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress. "I think for the president it's not where he's comfortable."…

Behind closed doors, Biden does not mince words about his frustration with the Republican party, which he believes, due to Trump's grip, has become a threat to the nation's democracy itself. But he has warned off both [chief of staff Ron] Klain and the White House communications shop from too many direct swipes at the GOP ...

Biden's infrastructure bill is likely to improve the lives of the American people substantially, but no one will feel its impact immediately. Time is not on the side of the Democrats in their defense against the Republican fascist assault(s).

In all, Biden and the Democratic leadership have not fully committed to defending American democracy against the fascist insurgency, and unless they do that, all their grand ideas and transformative legislation will come to nothing.

As shown by their behavior and language, Republicans and their supporters are prepared to fight a life-and-death battle to end multiracial democracy in America. In response, Democrats are giving stern lectures about proper comportment and the importance of so-called democratic institutions. It would be laughable if it were not tragic. 

As political scientist Lee Drutman recently told the New York Times, American democracy is in the midst of an existential crisis and near a tipping point: "I have a hard time seeing how we have a peaceful 2024 election after everything that's happened now," he said. "I don't see the rhetoric turning down. I don't see the conflicts going away. ... It's hard to see how it gets better before it gets worse."

RELATED: QAnon expert: Unhappy believers are now being lured into far-right extremist groups

David Neiwert is an investigative journalist and expert on the right-wing extremist movement. He is the author of several books including "Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump" and "The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right." His latest book is "Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us,"

In this conversation, Neiwert argues that Republicans and their paramilitary supporters are escalating their preparations for a civil war against Democrats, liberals, progressives and other "enemies." In his view, last week's verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial will further encourage right-wing terrorism and other acts of political violence, because it will be perceived on the right as permission or encouragement for white vigilantism.

Neiwert warns that the Democrats and many of their supporters, along with the mainstream news media, consistently underestimate the extreme danger to American society posed by right-wing militias and the larger "Patriot" movement.

At the end of this conversation, Neiwert shares his concerns that right-wing political violence in America is almost certain to escalate and that too many Americans, especially liberal political elites, remain in a state of profound denial about what will probably follow.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Given the state of America and the climate of escalating political tension and violence, why were so many people surprised by the Rittenhouse verdict?

It would seem that they were not paying attention to the Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman case, where there was a very similar dynamic. The Rittenhouse case also had the added distinction of an incredibly biased dynamic in the courtroom. The Rittenhouse judge put his big fat thumb on the scales of justice and held it down throughout the trial.

But even before that, I was concerned there was not going to be a chance for a fair trial because the judge had precluded the most relevant evidence in this case, which is that Kyle Rittenhouse was deeply radicalized by far-right propaganda about militias and their support of vigilantism. The militia that he joined up with in Kenosha was a boogaloo outfit, and these guys believe they are getting ready for a civil war.

Rittenhouse clearly had a predisposition in that direction, in terms of his thinking and reasoning for going to Kenosha. The judge excluded all that. The judge would not allow discussion about the nature of this militia — it was just called "a militia" during the trial. Moreover, that normalized the idea that militias in America are an ordinary thing. The reality is that militias, which are more accurately described as private armies, are illegal in all 50 states. We just don't have any state governments with enough courage to stand up and force the existing laws to stop this kind of vigilante organizing.

What is the Rittenhouse verdict an example of?

The larger context really has me concerned. If you spend much time online monitoring right-wing extremists, like I do, then you would be acutely aware that the main topic of conversation for the past year and longer has been civil war.

These right-wing extremists have waiting for a chance to start shooting "leftists" and "communists" and "liberals" and Black Lives Matter, antifa or other groups they target as the "enemy". These right-wing extremists do not see a difference between Joe Biden and antifa. For the right-wing extremists, any and all of these individuals and groups are all the same, something evil. The unifying and most important thing is a yearning for civil war.

A few weeks ago in Idaho, a young man stood up at a Charlie Kirk event and said, "When do we get to use the guns?" and "How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?" That video went viral and faded pretty quickly. There was an Idaho legislator who responded to that question as though it was something reasonable.

This desire for a civil war and other political violence is not just coming from the open white nationalists and neo-Nazis and  racists. It is also coming from what I would call the "Patriot" right. These are the Trumpians — the people who believe that the 2020 election was stolen, the people who believe COVID is a Chinese hoax.

This isn't an unusual conversation in these circles. Unfortunately, not enough people are paying attention to what is happening among these people. They are all polishing their guns and getting ready.

The Rittenhouse verdict is going to be a big green light and beacon for the right-wing extremists, and especially the Patriot right. It's just a big signal: You can do this and get away with it. You can gun down leftists at these protests.

The white right and other neofascists are celebrating the verdict. They are full of joy about what it represents.

The verdict is confirmation that they were right all along. The Rittenhouse verdict has given them permission to do what they've been craving to do for a long time. The situation is going to become very fraught, very soon. Any time there is a protest, I believe there are going to be guns out. It is going to be dangerous.

Too many among the Democrats, liberals and progressives are eager to mock the right-wing militias and similar groups. The mainstream media does that too, with its tone of dismissiveness. These right-wing paramilitaries and  fascist street thugs are killing people. Law enforcement continues to disrupt their plans for mass-casualty attacks. How can we warn the public about this extreme danger? 

The local level is where they are very active right now. The radical right, particularly the neofascist elements such as the Proud Boys and Three Percenters, the street-brawling thugs and militiamen who show up in body armor and with weapons, are doing exactly what Kyle Rittenhouse did, but on a larger scale.

These groups, for the most part, do not live in the cities where protests are taking place. They travel to these cities and organize acts of thuggery against the residents who live there. There is a perfect storm here in America where the corporate news media does not do accurate reporting on these events and instead engages in both-sides-ism.

How do the Republican fascists and other parts of the right-wing echo chamber see the world? What is their narrative?

Liberals and progressives do a poor job of understanding their enemy. Liberals and progressives are up against forces that are very formidable, and not to be dismissed or laughed at.

There is this caricature where the average militia member is this potbellied oaf who runs around and spouts all sorts of nonsense. Obviously that caricature has a basis in reality. But in this case, the caricature is based upon the hapless foot soldiers. By comparison, the leaders of these right-wing militias and adjacent or allied groups are very skilled and sophisticated. Yes, most of them are scam artists — but these are scam artists who actually believe their propaganda and other narratives.

These are the folks who are out there radicalizing a large segment of the population. It is my opinion that people who live in cities have a really hard time understanding just how deep and widespread the "Patriot" and "constitutionalist" militia beliefs have become out there in rural America. Such thinking is deep and widespread.

All of these years, we've been getting interviews with Trump voters in rural cafés. We're way overdue for some stories talking about the liberal Biden voters who are trying to survive in these red rural areas where the hostility is just incredibly intense. There we see these huge, modified pickup trucks flying giant flags that say, "Fuck Biden." That's what the reality is for people in rural America right now.

I was recently in Boise, Idaho, which isn't that rural. I saw multiple "Fuck Biden" flags, and of course they were flying alongside the Trump flag. I also saw the black American flag, which basically signals that they're prepared for civil war and have no intention of showing mercy.

RELATED: Black flag: Understanding the Trumpists' latest threatening symbol

How do we convince the American people that the threat from these neofascists is real and not to be minimized or downplayed?

Let's be clear. Many of these people are one, incompetent, and two, totally incapable of ever pulling off what they're talking about doing. Moreover, such people are cowards who mostly like to bluster and threaten and intimidate, but when push comes to shove they are going to shrivel up and do nothing.

But the reality is also that there is a percentage of those people out there who are armed and who are competent, who have military training in many cases and sometimes law enforcement training. These more serious ones are also capable of handling deadly weapons. Those people are the real threat. When they feel that they have been pushed too far they are going to respond.

We do not know what will trigger the response. It could be any number of things. For example, consider the guy who attacked the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. He was triggered by Fox News and Donald Trump and their obsession with the migrant "caravans." All that fear-mongering about Hispanics, and then blaming the whole situation on George Soros, which has an antisemitic component to it. Instead of being explicitly antisemitic, the right wing's language is to call Jewish people "globalists."

When one looks at the whole spectrum of these various elements, on one end there are the neo-Nazi terrorists who are out there plotting, currently being arrested by the FBI for plotting acts of terrorism. They want to escalate the level of chaos and then to replace liberal democratic society with an authoritarian one. The American people need to wake the hell up — and that includes all these journalists who do not understand the real state of the crisis.

Donald Trump and the larger neofascist movement are creating heroes and martyrs to "the cause." Isn't this another way of encouraging the followers to obey the Great Leader, because through sacrificing their lives a type of immortality will be achieved.

One of the essential traits of a fascist society is that everyone one is educated to be a hero. That is one of the reasons why the right wing spends so much energy on creating new enemies — some concocted enemy that is exaggerated and summoned up as a monster and existential threat to America.

Every single right-wing extremist I've ever known and spent any time interviewing, or have observed closely, conceived of themselves as a hero in some sense. The need to feel heroic is really a key driver to this. The hero myth and fantasy are key to right-wing extremism because of how that helps to radicalize and recruit new members. When they can sell themselves with, "You have a chance to be a hero if you join up with us," it is really powerful.

Isn't this also a lucrative money-making machine?

I've never encountered a right-wing extremist operation that wasn't a money-making operation. It is fundamentally all about raking in money from the rubes. There are a lot of people who are extremely gullible for this, especially those who are caught up in right-wing conspiracism.

The right-wing machine is going to emphasize Rittenhouse's so-called heroism. He is going to make the rounds on all their talk shows. Donald Trump will probably have an official medal ceremony for Rittenhouse or something of the sort. There will also probably be a "Kyle Rittenhouse day" at the next Republican National Convention.

What does the mainstream news media, and the Democratic Party's leadership, not understand about how the Republican fascists and the global right use popular culture as a weapon?

These are obvious failures of the news media. The edited "Attack on Titan" anime that Paul Gosar tweeted out has a really powerful fascist subtext.

RELATED: Republicans rally to Paul Gosar's side, refuse to support House vote to censure

People often forget or do not know that 4chan was originally an anime forum. Anime is one of the main ways that white nationalists and neo-Nazis have, over the last 10 years, been leveraging popular culture as a radicalization tool. "Attack on Titan" is incredibly popular on the radical right.

The video isn't a dog whistle — this is a straight-out clarion horn to the people on the radical right. It announces, "I'm one of you. I'm not only one of you, but I actually sympathize with your visceral hatred of AOC and desire to kill her." Gosar's video has very deep ramifications, and there's very little reporting on that at all.

The Republican fascists, the global right and neofascists in their various forms have a profound understanding of how to weaponize culture in service to their larger strategy and goal. This points to another advantage that they have over the Democrats, liberals, progressives and other "centrist" voices: The right wing is fighting a battle of ideas and identities and emotions. Too many Democrats, liberals, progressives and so-called leftists believe that material appeals and technocratic discussions of public policy will defeat the neofascists and global right. They will not.

These are some of the worst people on the planet, and dealing with them is incredibly ugly business. It is actually soul-scouring. Having to think about such people is not something many of us really want to do, and that includes the Democratic Party. The American people are in for a really difficult road ahead.

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In addition to not wanting to deal with it, there's also a powerful investment on the part of not just Democrats, but just about everybody in society. Most Americans pay zero attention to politics. They don't want to think about these horrible things and don't want to have to deal with it, partly because they are deeply invested in the belief that things still are normal.

Liberal Democrats in particular are extremely invested in presenting an image of, "We're going to just keep going on. Everything's just going to keep working the way it always has." I'm here to tell you that normal is gone and it is not coming back for a really long time. And it will not come back until we recognize that we have this powerful force attacking our democratic institutions and basically the heart of what America is. We can't fight it if we don't recognize it.

Is it even possible to convince the American people as a whole, the DemocratS, the mainstream media and others invested in "normal politics" that the neofascist movement is deadly serious? The levels of denial run deep.

I am of the mind that that there has to be some kind of world-shaking tragedy for the American people to wake up. Even then I am not sure such a horrible thing would be enough to wake people up. Here in this country we have developed an incredible reflex for normalizing the crises and dangers.

I believe the American people need to be ready for mass civil violence, particularly whenever there is any kind of protest. The right-wing types we are talking about are going to show up with guns and they're going to kill people. Again, the Rittenhouse verdict is a signal for a lot of these guys that now they get to use their guns. Do I think this can be stopped? It is wired in. I don't know how we can stop it.

By Chauncey DeVega

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

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David Neiwert Fascism Interview Kyle Rittenhouse Militias Republicans Right-wing Extremism