The first night of the 2020 Republican National Convention featured Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the couple famous for pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protestors in front of their mansion in St. Louis. The next night, armed right-wing vigilantes confronted Black Lives Matter protestors in Kenosha, WI, where two people were shot to death and a third severely injured. Kyle Rittenhouse, a seventeen-year-old Illinois resident, was charged with murder.
In Tweets, public statements, and mass campaign emails over the last few months, Trump has repeatedly referred to those protesting police killings as dangerous criminals and terrorists. In doing so he has amplified the conspiracy theories of the far right, and authorized the violent stances of Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and other organized paramilitary and individual armed volunteers who have shown up in greater numbers at Black Lives Matters protests in recent months.
No other president or presidential candidate has so openly courted far-right violence. The closest comparison would be segregationist third-party candidate George Wallace in the tumultuous election season of 1968. During the urban uprisings that rocked the US in the latter half of the 1960s, small armed right-wing groups formed to defend white communities across the country, reflecting Wallace’s (and then Nixon’s) calls for “law and order.”
One difference though is that in 1968, such groups were considered so extreme that even Wallace's presidential campaign was cautious in its approach to them. One Wallace campaign staffer wrote to the national office about a group they were courting in Northern New Jersey, fearful of bad publicity while covetous of their support: "Since the last Newark riots, the North Ward has become a terrified white ghetto,” he wrote. “Evolving from this terror the whites of the North Ward have organized rifle squads, groups trained in karate and judo, and guerrilla warfare. Their headquarters is a karate studio. It gave me the jim-jams just visiting the place. This group will produce thousands of Wallace supporters. However, their publicity has been so adverse, including some national television, that none of this group should be electors. I told them to stay away from the news media as far as their support of the Governor is concerned."
Half a century later, by contrast, the campaign of one of the two major political parties has openly used militia groups as security at national campaign events, has employed Bikers for Trump – a group that Trump has threatened would attack his political enemies, and has elevated figures like the McCloskeys as defenders of freedom and property against the “Marxism” of Black Lives Matters and mobs in the streets.
What does it mean that far right has migrated to the center of the party system? Heavily-armed counter-protestors at an anti-Black Lives Rally in Salem, OR I spoke with in July repeated conspiracy theories about both Antifa and Black Lives Matter, claiming that “patriots” like them were there not to cause violence but prevent property destruction. Far-right vigilantes have shown up across the country armed with semiautomatic weapons and strong beliefs about the evil of their political adversaries Experts have tracked hundreds of far-right incidents in recent months, and hundreds of acts of violence including lethal shootings. Such counter-protests are meant to intimidate and quell antiracist demonstrations, which is a likely why police have either taken a hands-off approach, openly thanked groups for their support, or actively colluded with them.
The increasing frequency, size and violence of these far-right vigilante episodes pose a particularly distinct threat in this election season. In Trump’s frequent references to the criminality and violence of Black Lives Matter protests he ties them to his Democratic opponent. This, along with the Republican candidate’s incessant warnings about the illegitimacy of election’s outcome produces the conditions for election-related violence by a right that believes it has the right and duty to assume power as guardians of the republic.
In the days after the shooting of Jacob Blake and the uprising that followed, a group calling itself the Kenosha Guard created a Facebook event called “Armed Citizens to Protect our Lives and Property” which was reposted across far-right media, including Infowars, garnering thousands of promised attendees. As militia groups have elsewhere, this one asserted sovereign authority on behalf of the local citizenry to defend against protestors seen as dangerous mobs. One post from the militia’s “commander,” directed to the Kenosha police chief asked “that you do NOT have your officers tell us to go home under threat of arrest as you have in the past. We are willing to talk to KPD and open a discussion. It is evident that no matter how many Officers, deputies and other law enforcement officers that are here, you will still be outnumbered.” The post doesn’t so much distinguish the militia from the police as much as blur the lines of their job description on the streets. Maybe this is why the Kenosha police offered them bottles of water, gratitude, and safe passage.
It is in this context that the teenaged Kyle Rittenhouse travelled from his home in nearby Antioch, IL to Kenosha. Hours before the shootings, Rittenhouse was interviewed by the Daily Caller, where he earnestly explained his intent to the videographer: "People are getting injured and our job is to protect this business. And my job also is to protect people. If someone is hurt, I’m running into harm’s way. That’s why I have my rifle; I’ve gotta protect myself, obviously. But I also have my med kit." An enthusiastic defender of people, property and lawful authority, Rittenhouse’s commitment to care and protection were, in the current political context, put in the service of paramilitary aggression, racial conflict, and death.
Kyle Rittenhouse defies easy comparison with someone like Dylann Roof, the young white man who massacred nine people in a Black church in Charleston in 2015. Where Roof has a ghoulish pallor and is adorned white nationalist symbols like the Rhodesian flag, a round-faced, grinning Rittenhouse sports red, white and blue Crocs while he cradles his long gun. He is identified in his hometown newsletter as a "fire protection cadet", and showed himself on Facebook participating in a program for youths interested in law enforcement. He seems to tick off a checklist of Boy Scout qualities: trustworthy, helpful, cheerful, obedient, brave, Indeed, Tucker Carlson actually weighed in to champion his actions as exemplary. “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would? Everyone can see what was happening in Kenosha. It was getting crazier by the hour.” Unlike Roof, Rittenhouse erases the distinction between racial nationalism and civic nationalism, making anti-black violence a kind of community service which can be applauded on FOX News.
Back in 1968, George Wallace’s goal of achieving ballot status in all fifty states ultimately depended on building a network of far-right elements: John Birch Society members, neo-Nazis, Minutemen, and other groups steeped in racism and conspiracy theory. At one point, one of the chief Wallace organizers in Los Angeles revealed to Tom Turnipseed, national director of the Wallace campaign, a cache of artillery in the back of a pickup truck. As Turnipseed later recounted, “I asked the guy, ‘What’s going on?’ And he told me, ‘We’re doing maneuvers.’ ‘Well, with who?’ I asked him, ‘The National Guard?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘we’re a private group, a militia.’ So I asked him, ‘Well who are you armed against? The Communists gonna get you?’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘we’re more concerned with Rockefeller interests and the Trilateral Commission.’ I just looked at the guy, you know? What could I say?”
Today, the equivalents of these groups no longer dwell on the political margins, no longer elicit mockery or disbelief from mainstream political campaigns, let alone from right-wing third parties. They are more numerous, more legitimized, more deadly, more tied to local law enforcement, and more consequential to the fortunes of the one of the two major parties. Black Lives Matter, the largest protest movement in US history, is the only social force actively opposing them in the streets.