Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal itself shouldn’t surprise anyone who paid even casual attention to the trial. But what Rittenhouse means for the Republican Party is deeply consequential. GOP officeholders are celebrating the freedom of the teen killer, and at least two have offered him Congressional internships.
To be sure, the most exuberant embrace of Rittenhouse is coming from the right-wing of the party. But these national party figures who publicly associate themselves with Rittenhouse will face no consequences or even criticism from within their party.
We may be so inured to far-right radicalization and violence that it has come to seem normal and predictable that Republicans like Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Tom Cotton, Mary Miller, Lauren Boebert and others would endorse a person whose sole claim to fame is the shooting deaths of two protesters.
But to measure just how far to the right we’ve drifted, let’s take Alabama Governor George Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign as a comparator. Wallace ran a third-party campaign through his American Independent Party that year, basing his national candidacy on his identity as a southern defender of white supremacy. Yet while he depended on the support of right-wing groups like the Klan, the Minutemen, and others around the country, even he was averse to any public association with them.
Once while campaigning in Eutaw, Alabama, Wallace was seen talking to Klan Grand Dragon Robert Shelton. When he noticed that he was being filmed by ABC-TV, Wallace directed his bodyguards to forcibly grab the film. Similarly, although the Newark riots had created ideal conditions for Wallace in New Jersey, far-right vigilantes in that state made the Wallace people hesitant about public perceptions. Local activist Anthony Imperiale organized the North Ward First Aid Squad in Newark to oppose rioters, warning that "when the Black Panther comes, the white hunter will be waiting." One aide captured the tension in a memo the campaign press secretary: “Since the last Newark riots, the North Ward has become a terrified white ghetto. Evolving from this terror the whites of the North Ward under the direction of John Marvica and [Anthony] Imperiale have organized rifle squads, groups trained in karate and judo, and guerilla warfare. Their headquarters is a karate studio owned by Imperiale. It gave me the jim-jams just visiting the place. This Marvica 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.”
To be sure Republican candidates have flirted with the violent far right before as well, most notably in Pat Buchanan’s campaigns in the 1992 and 1994. But the political costs have always outweighed the benefits, until now.
Republicans who defend Rittenhouse like to say that there were no politics involved, that the teen killer was simply trying to do the right thing by stepping up to help protect people and property. And yet their very partisan embrace of him demonstrates that they understand these shooting deaths to be politically-motivated.
As a political cause célèbre, the Rittenhouse case has thus erased the already blurry distinction between conservative activism and armed paramilitarism. There is no longer any need for plausible deniability. Future violence by the far right has been greenlit, and the GOP can now add a new tactic on the streets in its bid for minority rule.
It takes little imagination to think about the implications of this during the next wave of Black Lives Matter protests, or in potentially contested elections in 2022 and 2024.
How will opponents of right-wing authoritarianism respond?