Rittenhousism and the Republican “Self-Defense” of America

As promised (or threatened), this week’s essay continues to explore the impact of the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict.  

Last week’s post focused on his acquittal as a bitter example of the racist double standard in the US criminal justice system and in American society at large. But as the Nation’s Elie Mystal wrote, anguished cries of a “miscarriage of justice” miss the point. On the contrary, the system functioned exactly as intended, sending a message to all that this is the hierarchy, and if you don’t like it you can go fuck yourself. 

It’s no coincidence that this misinterpretation is heard mostly from white people, a demographic to which—full disclosure—I belong. Black Americans have long since stopped being surprised that pasty-faced defendants get a pass in a system that brutalizes, arrests, prosecutes, convicts, incarcerates, and executes people of color at vastly higher rates than whitey.

This week I want to focus on another aspect of the Rittenhouse story that I gave only glancing attention last time: its role in the current Republican effort to justify its seizure of power by any means available, including both the anti-democratic subversion of the electoral system, and blunt, unrepentant acts of violence. 

Let’s begin with the ultimate totem of conservative worship, the gun itself, and how the culture surrounding it provides a template for Republican autocracy. 

A GOOD GUY WITH A GUN (“GOOD” PART OPTIONAL)

In The Atlantic, the always trenchant Adam Serwer writes:

The United States is a nation awash in firearms, and gun owners are a powerful and politically active constituency. In state after state, they have helped elect politicians who, in turn, have created a permissive legal regime for the carry and use of firearms, rules that go far beyond how courts originally understood the concept of self-defense.

These laws have made it difficult to convict any gun owner who knowingly puts themselves in circumstances where they are likely to use their weapon—that is, anyone who goes looking for a fight. It should come as no surprise then, that Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges…

But, of course, this case goes far beyond that. Serwer writes that “It is one thing to argue that the jury reached a reasonable verdict based on this law, and another entirely to celebrate Rittenhouse’s actions.” His colleague at The Atlantic, David French, echoes the sentiment, writing that for millions on the Trumpist right “he’s become a positive symbol, a young man of action who stepped up when the police (allegedly) stepped aside.”

(O)ne of the symbols of the American hard right is the “patriot” openly carrying an AR-15 or similar weapon. The “gun picture” is a common pose for populist politicians. Mark and Patricia McCloskey leveraged their clumsy and dangerous brandishing of weapons at Black Lives Matter protesters into an appearance at the Republican National Convention.

Rittenhouse is the next step in that progression. He’s the “patriot” who didn’t just carry his rifle; he used it.

But white people in America have frequently been able to get away with violence toward people of color, even murder. In that sense, the conservative cheerleading for Rittenhouse is not remarkable. (On those rare occasions when it goes the other way, unjustly or not, the reaction is quite different. See: OJ.) What makes this case different and far more troubling is that it is unfolding at a moment when the reactionary willingness to undermine or even break the law for its own partisan ends—to include the use of violence—is alarmingly ascendant. 

We have never in American history seen one of our major parties so openly embrace flat-out anti-democratic rule, not even in the civil rights era. Back then, segregationists and other neo-Confederates wanted to disenfranchise Black people. Now they want to expand that suppression to everyone who disagrees with them, irrespective of skin tone. (So, some progress there, in terms of racial equality?) 

To that end, Serwer observes that much of the conservative media and the Republican Party “don’t see the (Kenosha) killings as ‘wrongful’ in any sense, instead elevating Rittenhouse as the manifestation of retributive violence against their political enemies.”

The fact that Rittenhouse has become a folk hero among Republicans points to darker currents within the GOP, where justifications for political violence against the opposition are becoming more common. The party finds the apocalyptic fear of impending leftist tyranny useful not only for turning out its supporters, but also for rationalizing legislative attempts to disenfranchise, gerrymander, and otherwise nullify the votes of Democratic constituencies. Engineering the American political system so that Republicans’ political rivals are unable to contest their power is a less forceful solution than killing people, but the political goal is similar: to never have to share power with those they disagree with.

Is it any wonder then that Fox Nation elevates young Mr. Rittenhouse to the status of “St. Kyle”? He did in Kenosha what the Republican Party claims to be doing nationwide: taking the law into its own hands in the “self-defense” of an America under siege from antifa, BLM, and Big Bird

This is the famous “rugged individualism” at the heart of America’s self-flattering origin story—its foundational myth, to be less kind—the pioneer spirit of self-reliance that found fullest flower in the Wild West, while we’re on the subject of myth. I understand the appeal, but also its adolescent aspect. Taken to the extreme, it quickly curdles into Hofstadter’s “paranoid style.”

In the eyes of the right, Rittenhouse bravely went into a situation where “law and order” had collapsed, where the nominal authorities had abdicated responsibility (or worse, sided with the leftists) and “protected” the community using his Second Amendment rights. When he felt himself under threat, he stood his ground and defended himself using lethal force, which was his right as an American. 

It is the very mentality behind the attack on the US Capitol and members of Congress on January 6, and the more slow-burning but no less dangerous attempt to seize control of the electoral process…..to “take our country back,” as the right wing bumper sticker says. (It is also no coincidence that Wisconsin, scene of the Rittenhouse murders, and his acquittal, is also among the states where Republican ratfucking of the electoral process is most egregiously underway.)

As Prof. Eddie Glaude of Princeton writes in the Washington Post, “Kyle Rittenhouse has become the poster child for a general feeling among some in this country that White America is under siege. Rittenhouse defended himself, this argument goes, and White America must do the same.”

BEFORE THEY MAKE WAR, FIRST THEY MAKE ENEMIES

This gymnastic argument requires the wanton demonization of one’s foes to justify such extreme measures. Serwer again:

Right-wing gun culture is not unlike the wellness industry, in that it requires the cultivation of a sustained insecurity in its audience in order to facilitate the endless purchase of its products. You can never be too skinny, and you can never have too many guns to stop the impending communist takeover.

This is exactly what the GOP claims to be doing on behalf of America as a whole, or at least the lilywhite, Christian America that it believes is the only legitimate one. They have painted for their followers a portrait of America under the thumb of an illegitimate, oppressive, neo-fascist Democratic regime that hounded Donald Trump for four years and then stole the election from him, a regime that intends to brainwash their children (the children are white, naturally) into self-loathing, confiscate their guns, ban their religion, and turn the USA into a Marxist police state ruled by sharia law. (It’s a hybrid.) Given the stakes of this threat, the GOP has advanced the notion that nothing ought to be off the table in the effort to stop it. If a few Congressional districts need to be gerrymandered, or portions of the electorate suppressed—illegitimate portions, whose voice doesn’t deserve a hearing anyway—or school board members threatened, or at the most extreme, some liberals jailed or even killed, so be it. The end justifies the means. 

It’s no coincidence that QAnon turns on the idea that high-ranking Democrats are devil-worshipping pedophiles and sex traffickers: it is the logical end of the Gingrichian ethos that demands that the opposing party be treated not as the loyal opposition within a commonly accepted set of political principles but as Satan’s own spawn. Naturally, then, they have to be practitioners of the most absolutely vile and damnable crimes imaginable. Once that appellation has been attached, nothing is beyond the pale, and all can be rationalized in the fight against them. If one accepts that the foe is that evil, the idea that we ought to kick them off local elections boards is a no-brainer….and the idea that they ought to be hunted and put down like dogs is not far behind.

It’s ironic—but no coincidence—that the same right wing that fetishizes individual “self-defense” also gave us George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, a form of “preventive” (not pre-emptive) war that operated on the principle that “I thought he was gonna hit me so I hit him back, first.” (Whether he—being Saddam—was ever gonna hit us at all was already a canard.) Now that same mentality is being applied domestically, on the premise that all is justified in fighting the Democrats. 

PADDY CHAYEFSKY, PROPHET OF DOOM

Kyle Rittenhouse is but one bellwether of this trend.

At a recent stop in Nampa, Idaho on something he calls his “Exposing Critical Racism” speaking tour, the young conservative demagogue Charlie Kirk took a question from an audience member who asked: “At this point, we’re living under a corporate and medical fascism. This is tyranny. When do we get to use the guns?” The crowd cheered and applauded, prompting the man to add: “That’s not a joke, I’m not saying it like that. I mean, literally, where’s the line? How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?”

Kirk was clever enough to reject the idea, arguing that such talk plays into Democrats’ hands. But his real point was that such violence was going to be unnecessary, because the right is “close to having momentum to be able to get this country back on a trajectory using the peaceful means that we have.” He went on to say that “we’re at the teetering edge of a regime that knows good and decent Americans are going to get to the place in the movie Network, ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.’” 

So does Kirk’s disavowal of violence belie my warning in this essay? Read it that way if you are so inclined. (At the same event he also suggested “a link between the COVID-19 pandemic and the existence of election fraud, while implying the ballot count in Arizona could still be proven illegal despite the recent audit coming up with no evidence of widespread voter fraud.”) But note, please, that Kirk did not denounce violence on moral grounds, only strategic ones. Just the fact that the question was asked, in all seriousness, and the crowd raucously approved, is deeply telling. Sadly, this dude was far from an outlier, but rather, represents a mood and a mindset that is prevalent throughout the Republican rank and file….because the Republican leadership has tacitly and sometimes openly encouraged it. And as that Network-style fury continues to metastasize among Republican voters, just because Charlie Kirk is savvy enough not to openly endorse violence is hardly going to stop them. 

More to the point: If and when widespread violence comes, is Charlie Kirk going to stand up and say, “This is wrong”? Or is he going to go along, because he knows his power and influence depend on the allegiance of people like that man in his crowd? I don’t know, but for a clue, look to his defense of the January 6th Insurrectionists. The same question needs to be asked of every Republican leader, whose collective cowardice and shameful self-aggrandizement on the matter since that bloody day does not bode well. 

Following the tedious pattern that’s been in play since the spring of 2016, I can hear the snickers about my allegedly unwarranted alarmism. 

Yes, the prospect of a Rwandan-style genocide in the US with bloodthirsty Republicans massacring their Democratic neighbors seems not only implausible but absurd. But so did the idea of Donald Trump winning the presidency once upon a time. 

Likewise, when it comes to the demonization of the other side, the right is quick to accuse the left of engaging in similar “hysteria,” “hyperbole,” and “fearmongering.” (I’ll pre-quotation mark myself.) But as I have said many times, one fella furiously arguing that the earth is flat and another arguing just as hard that it is round are not due equal credence just by virtue of their equal vehemence. The evidence of Republican campaign of anti-democratic skullduggery and political violence is voluminous and brazen. The claim of a parallel Democratic one is illusory. 

The right wants us to believe that provisions to allow mail-in voting during a historic pandemic amounted to voter fraud, even as they move to put a chokehold on the electoral process nationwide. They want us to believe that the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is an insidious federal assault on that antebellum oldie-but-goodie “states’ rights,” even as they try to roll back hard-fought gains from the civil rights era. They want us to believe that snowflake libtards pose the most clear and present danger to public safety, even though it’s white nationalists who overwhelmingly commit acts of domestic terrorism.

The right also wants us to believe that the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder are tantamount to the January 6th attack to overturn the vote. But in the words of Flavor Flav, don’t believe the hype. Even the small number of those BLM protests that turned violent don’t begin to approach the Insurrection’s level of atrocity and criminality, which is to say, an attempted coup d’état mounted at the behest of an ousted president who refused to acknowledge his electoral defeat. Perhaps above all, it’s worth noting the standard bearer of the Democratic Party is not going around defending people who wanted to lynch the sitting vice president. 

As with all things Republican in the contemporary era, they want to gaslight us into ignoring, accepting, or glossing over what they are up to. 

Don’t, don’t, don’t believe the hype. 

IS IT SAFE?

Another telling story which, with fiction-beggaring perfection, played out simultaneously with the Rittenhouse verdict was the censuring of Rep. Paul Gosar, the insane dentist-cum-Republican congressman from Arizona, for tweeting out an altered anime video showing himself killing his colleague Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and attacking President Biden. 

Gosar, as we know, is a chief proponent of the “Stop the Steal” madness who spoke at the January 6 rally on the Ellipse, a man whose seven brothers and sisters have bought airtime to denounce as a sociopath. On the floor of the House, Kevin McCarthy gave an Orwellian speech in Gosar’s defense that was a masterpiece of projection, accusing the Democrats of being power-mad, of hypocrisy (“Rules for thee but not for me”), and of generally destroying America. Meanwhile the only Republicans that Kevin’s backbenchers want punished are the thirteen who voted for the Biden infrastructure bill. Only two House Republicans voted for censure, the pariahs Kinzinger and Cheney, whom their GOP colleagues already consider UnPeople. 

The Republican defense of Gosar was predicated on the fiction that he had apologized because he had taken the video down. Fact check: He took it down, but never uttered a word of apology or even regret. Instead, he and his surrogates repeatedly sneered at the criticism, telling people to “relax,” because it was just a “cartoon.” (Tell it to the folks at Charlie Hebdo.)

Just to be clear, in any other job in America, if you posted a video of yourself murdering a co-worker, even in “jest,” you would be fired. (Oh, and by the by, threatening the President’s life is a federal crime.)

And how chastened was Gosar by his censure? Within minutes of receiving his punishment, he retweeted the video.

Faced with this brazen nose-thumbing and obliteration of the myth of his contrition, the House, rightly, then took the next procedural step after censure and voted to expel him. 

Just kidding! They didn’t say boo. Any parent will tell you that if you let you kid get away with flagrant disrespect like that, they’re going to be emboldened and do it again, and worse. 

In other contexts, the (literal) cartoon ravings of a nutjob like Paul Gosar would not merit such concern. But at a time when all these other harbingers of violence abound, they matter very much indeed. It’s hard to claim you’re just “joking” about killing Democratic congressmembers, and even the President, just months after you fired up a mob to try to kill the Speaker of the House and the Vice President (from your own party, no less, for being insufficiently loyal). 

We are in a fraught moment when, as Adam Serwer writes, “the desire to kill your political opponents is a sentiment no longer confined to the dark corners of the internet.“ Paul Gosar may be clinically mentally ill, mitigating his guilt and meriting our pity. But the GOP’s craven ranks-closing around him does not.

A SNOWBALL’S CHANCE 

The  fanaticism displayed by Gosar is part of this broader shift of the Overton window regarding what conservatives feel they are within their rights to do, and why. 

In a chilling interview with The Atlantic’s Emma Green a few months ago, Ryan Williams, president of the conservative Claremont Institute, argued that minority rule by conservatives is justified, even in defiance of the popular vote.

Williams says that the Claremont Institute’s mission is “to save Western civilization,” and cites the progressive movement as the chief obstacle to that. As for what constitutes “Western civilization,” Green generously gives Williams the chance to say it’s comprised of ideas, and not defined by geography or ethnicity. But Williams responds that “You can never really divorce a set of ideas and principles from the people in which it grew up. America is an idea, but it’s not just that. It’s the people who settled it, founded it, and made it flourish.”

Green: Just to ask the question directly, do you mean white people?

Williams: No, not necessarily. I mean, Western civilization happens to be where a lot of white people are, historically, but I don’t think there’s any necessary connection between the two. The ability to believe in natural rights and a regime of limited government the way the Founders did is not reserved only to white people.

Hmm, that is one tricky line he’s walking. Democracy isn’t just for white people, but neither can it be divorced from the white people—or “people of European descent,” the phrase that he and Green agree upon—who pioneered and fostered it. It’s a pretty thin veneer for an all-but-openly white nationalist philosophy. (Once a respectable conservative think tank, Claremont has over the past five years gone all in for Trump.)

Like many in that camp, Williams offers a dishonest endorsement of “race neutral” policies that in effect deny the existence of any inherent bias within the structures of American society. It’s a game of smoke-and-mirrors misdirection that attempts to turn the civil rights movement itself into a weapon of white supremacy. 

Williams says, “The counter from the left is that there’s systemic racism that has built up over years by certain legal systems. I would have to see some real proof of that.”

(Pause to pick jaw up off floor.)

Pushing back, Green notes that the disproportionate numbers of Black men in the US prison system. Williams replies by questioning whether sentencing in the US is truly discriminatory or if “the high incarceration rate of Black Americans is due to their much higher propensity to commit violent crime…..We have to start, though, with the acknowledgment that a lot more Blacks are in prison because they commit violent crimes at a much higher rate [than Americans of other races]. Whites commit violent crime at a much higher rate than Asians do, so I don’t mean to suggest a racial crime hierarchy. But it’s just a fact we have to acknowledge.”

Like many conservatives, Williams idealizes a time when America was more homogenous, religiously and ethnically, rejecting the idea that the US was ever intended to be a pluralistic society:

I think it would be bad for America if that longtime Christian core disintegrated. The Founders were pretty unanimous, with Washington leading the way, that the Constitution is really only fit for a Christian people. I would modify that a bit and say a majority Christian people could maintain that. But if you don’t think your rights ultimately come from a Creator, you’re halfway down the road to our modern confusion.

Williams also defends a Claremont essayist, Glenn Ellmers, who last spring wrote in one of the Institute’s publications that “certainly more than half” of the people residing in the United States are not Americans in any recognizable sense. “(I)f Claremont thinks real Americanism is a belief in the principles of the American founding,” Williams argues, “we have to acknowledge that a good portion of our fellow citizens don’t agree with our principles and conclusions about what politics is for.”

So Paul Gosar may be a cuckoo-for-cocoa puffs human punchline, but this is a once-credible and still highly influential right wing think tank positing the idea that some Americans are more equal than others. It ought to go without saying that that is a highly dangerous position, one that opens the door to the idea that many of our countrymen are not really our countrymen at all. And once that has been established, the bar for denying them their rights, denying them the vote, denying them the protection of the law, and even denying them safety from physical harm becomes much much lower. 

And by them, I mean “you and me.” First they came for the chablis drinkers….

It’s worth noting that it was another Claremont Institute publication, The Claremont Review of Books, that published the infamous 2016 essay The Flight 93 Election” that compared the urgency of electing Donald Trump to the passengers who stormed the cockpit of the hijacked jet on 9/11. That is the exact kind of apocalyptic, “by any means necessary” thinking that animates the current political moment on the American right. 

Blithely glossing over the responsibility of conservative media and groups like his in sowing this kind of divisiveness, Williams blames the vaguely-phrased “elite media” for public confusion about what news sources are trustworthy or not. “We have to advance intellectual ideas that we think are true, and the politics that we think will be the most successful. But we underestimate the extent to which we can lower the temperature in America and move forward with a lot more unity.” Ms. Green drily responds that she will look for “that effort to make sure our temperatures are lowered” the next time she reads The Claremont Review of Books.

You say you’re not worried about the influence of an obscure conservative think tank in San Bernardino? How about Fox News then? 

An even more hamhanded example of this same effort is Tucker Carlson’s new “documentary” Patriot Purge, a film that is telling tens of millions of gullible Fox viewers that January 6th was a false flag operation by the left, and that the Biden administration intends to hunt down and terrorize American conservatives Global War on Terror-style. It is a ploy, as Greg Sargent writes in the Washington Post, “designed to lay the justificatory foundation for efforts to resist or subvert legitimate democratic outcomes by any means necessary or available in the future.”

Again, it is easy to say that my own essay here is spreading wild rumors about Republican intentions no different than Tucker’s about Democrats’. 

Except Tucker’s world is flat and mine is round. 

JUST AN OLD SWEET SONG

We know that the presence of a firearm increases the likelihood of lethal violence, whether it’s a barroom argument, a bank robbery, or a street protest. What might have ended in a punch-up, at worst, more often than not ends up with a GSW being treated by an ER trauma team. Yet even with common sense gun laws in some states, America remains a society where a teenager can find a way—however convoluted—to legally patrol the streets with a semiautomatic rifle, and even kill people, and get away with it under the law.* 

(*Whites only.)

In Wisconsin, teens are allowed to carry long guns for hunting—the legal loophole that allowed Rittenhouse to have his AR variant on the streets of Kenosha, at least as far as the judge was concerned. Of course, it’s a real stretch to say that that’s what Kyle was doing, except insofar he was clearly there in hopes that a certain kind of game would appear and give him a chance to live out his vigilante fantasies.

In the trial of the killers of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, GA, the three (white) defendants are mounting a self-defense claim similar to Rittenhouse’s. But their case is even less strong, given the way that they blatantly hunted down and killed Mr. Arbery without even the pretense of credible danger to their own lives. The prosecution has also been far more skillful than the Kenosha DA, especially in cross-examination. (Caveat: Unless the jury decides to let the killers off because the superb female prosecutor was “shrill.”) 

I went to high school just a few towns over from Brunswick, in Hinesville, a very similar community, and I can attest that it’s a part of the country where you wouldn’t be shocked to hear of three white dudes with a shotgun and a pair of pickup trucks, one with a Confederate flag license plate, chasing down a Black jogger to “ask a few questions.” But in the wake of the Rittenhouse verdict, their chances for acquittal suddenly look a lot better, notwithstanding the outrageous flimsiness of their argument. As Adam Serwer writes, “For that matter, even the white nationalists facing a civil lawsuit over their 2017 riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, have sought to invoke their right to self-defense.”

In his Atlantic piece, Serwer quotes the historian Caroline Light who notes that, “Our embrace of lethal self-defense has always been selective and partial, upholding a selective right to kill for some, while posing others as legitimate targets.” George Zimmerman had a right to self-defense; Trayvon Martin did not. The same for the killers of Ahmaud Arbery, who like Trayvon, is seen “only as the sort of person the right of self-defense was meant to be invoked against.”

Similarly, some conservatives see themselves as having the right to do anything they want to “save the republic” because they are the true Americans, facing an existential threat from the Other. The members of that Other have no such right. 

LET’S ROLL

In closing, let’s go back one more time to David French, in the hope that his words might reach some of his erstwhile conservative comrades:

A political movement that turns a deadly and ineffective vigilante into a role model is a movement that is courting more violence and encouraging more young men to recklessly brandish weapons in dangerous places, and that will spill more blood in America’s streets. 

But French’s formulation implies that this encouragement is accidental. I submit that it is deliberate and intentional. 

In his Atlantic interview, Claremont’s Mr. Williams does express concerns about political violence in the US, saying, “The Civil War was terrible. It should be the thing we try to avoid almost at all costs.” But even that is eyebrow-raising, suggesting that, terrible as that Civil War was, it may be something the forces defending “Western civilization” can’t avoid in trying to achieve their aims. 

(And lest we forget, while contemplating a Second Civil War, conservatives tend to have most of the guns.)

Republicans have navigated themselves and their followers into a very chilling position, one that threatens us all. Rittenhouse, Gosar, January 6: at every turn, Republicans are declaring that their embrace of violence—but theirs alone—is justified to achieve their political ends. The best case scenario—the best!—is the Charlie Kirk position that they won’t need violence because they can seize power, insidiously, and hold it, indefinitely, without resort to bullets. But brute force always remains at the ready if need be, a kind of metaphorical “open carry” designed to intimidate their foes. And more and more Republicans are keen to demonstrate that they are in fact perfectly comfortable using it, and justifying it.  

********

Photo: Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, of Antioch, Illinois, posing with the semiautomatic Smith & Wesson M&P 15 that he would later use to kill two BLM protestors and maim a third.  

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