The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse speaks volumes about the successes of the far right in the United States today. The teen who took the lives of two people and wounded a third during racial justice protests in Kenosha, WI is a hero to Republican officeholders, FOX News commentators, conservative pundits, and the thousands of people who contributed to his $2 million bail fund, and raised another half million for his legal defense.
As I have argued elsewhere, he is no ghoulish Dylann Roof, or fashy James Fields, Jr. and cannot easily be stuck with the label of white supremacist. Just as Rittenhouse blurred the line between medic and killer and that night, he blurs the line between civic nationalism and racial nationalism, becoming Tocquevillean figure of voluntarism, a protector of people and property.
The armed protection of white people and property are of course longstanding racial practices in a settler nation forged in slavery, but centuries of narratives of making gentle heroism white male aggression affords Rittenhouse an identity that suggests Norman Rockwell as much as George Lincoln Rockwell. This innocence and purity has always been secured, as political theorist Michael Rogin demonstrated, by projecting of one’s own violence onto demonized others who are depicted as threats to the community.
Rittenhouse’s sobbing on the stand enacts this white male vulnerability and victimhood, reversing the direction of actual violence as Judge Schroeder did by refusing to grant to the dead the status of victims in his courtroom. Asked by the prosecutor why he gunned down his first victim Rittenhouse said, “If I would’ve let Mr. Rosenbaum take my firearm from me, he would’ve used it and killed me with it and probably killed more people.” Beyond the splitting and projection involved in blaming the actual victims, the armed assailants of the “Kenosha Guard” that went onto rooftops and into the streets that night to attack protestors (as right-wing militants did all summer in response to racial justice protests) speaks to manic fears and irrational need for self-protection at all costs. James Baldwin observed that this choice of safety over life is the core of whiteness itself.
Right-wing memoirist and Ohio Republican senate candidate JD Vance tweeting out his own “indescribable rage” testimony perfectly captures the reversal that frames the aggressor as victim: “I just watched a boy recount an act of offensive violence committed against him, and break down in tears. . . We let the wolves set fire to their communities. And when human nature tells them to go and defend what no one else is defending, we bring the full weight of the state and the global monopolists against them.”
The cherub-cheeked Rittenhouse in his red, white, and blue Crocs is the idealized face of the brutal political right. Photos of him scrubbing graffiti from walls that circulated after the killings scrubs the countersubversive violence from his image, leaving it just far enough below the surface to see its faint outlines, appealing to a broad swath of the American public who share his authoritarian urges privately while denying them publicly, even to themselves.
Let’s not forget that at the heart of this story and of the protests that night is Jacob Blake, an African American man shot seven times in the back by police in front of his young children and left paralyzed from the waist down. His uncle, Justin Blake, has been standing outside the courthouse each day of the trial holding a red, black, and green flag. Blake stands in solidarity with the families of two white victims of Kyle Rittenhouse, knowing, as he says, that the rights of black people, and the right to protest more generally, are intertwined with the outcome of this trial.