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Kyle Rittenhouse Is America’s Future

The reactionary movement that inspired the gun-loving teen is only growing bolder

Tonight, the Republican National Convention will shift into its braying worship of the armed services and law enforcement as the party further cements its fascist principles. Today, police arrested 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who tried to live out the fantasy of belonging to that military order, and allegedly killed two people as a result last night in Kenosha, Wisconsin. 

These are twin stories; they have everything to do with one another. Rittenhouse’s actions are the natural outcome of right-wing propaganda in our time, and everything about the circumstances (his illegal possession of an AR-15, his relative youth, his documented obsession with “Blue Lives Matter” content) points to the radicalization of a significant cohort of white men raised to believe they face an existential threat. But Rittenhouse was in no such danger — he had to go looking for it, driving across the border from Illinois into a neighboring state. By all indications, local police approved of and even encouraged this. They handed supplies to armed white militia members breaking curfew, thanking them for their presence, and footage shows they allowed Rittenhouse to leave the scene of a deadly shooting with his weapon in hand. 

For context: The unrest in Kenosha was sparked when a cop shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times in the back as he tried to enter his car on Sunday. His children were in the backseat.    

Drawing the charge of intentional homicide, Rittenhouse has, in essence, sacrificed his own life — and will no doubt become a martyr of his cause. The hard right is now arguing he fired in self-defense, asking how to contribute to his legal funds and calling him a “hero.” It’s notable, although not surprising, that they do not deny or attempt to disprove that he killed people, and instead praise him for the killing. That is how they prime the next vigilante, the next mass murderer, to go after the groups they despise with a vainglorious fantasy of righteous civil war. 

It’s also a signal to those groups that they will always be in danger from sick and brainwashed men, that no matter how many are apprehended or imprisoned for the violence they commit, another boy next door is training to do the same.

Here in the U.S., the pervasive threat of domestic terrorism is often carried out by an individual who does not realize their willingness to do harm serves a greater, evil project — that when he is most alone and frightened, and turns dangerous, he can at last be used by the extremists whose words have placed him there. In videos of the horrific scene, Rittenhouse isn’t an assured protector of the state, fighting alongside compatriots. He’s isolated and “on edge” in an unfamiliar city; he panics and he falls, shooting wildly. His beloved police did not intervene when he thought himself in mortal peril, and neither, now, does he have the real support of racists and grifters online: They invoke his name to raise their profiles, to stoke an incendiary conflict and invite others to pick up torches.

Soon enough, we’ll hear that Rittenhouse should be spared punishment not only because the shooting was reasonable, but because he’s “just a kid,” at once confused and overzealous. And it’s true that he probably doesn’t grasp what’s happened to him, regardless of the responsibility he bears. The trouble is that in recognizing how outside forces warped him, planting and nurturing his specific ambition — to take fatal aim at civilians demanding justice — we risk letting him off the hook.

Meanwhile, the vast, amorphous network of hate he grew up within continues to expand, abetted and protected by its entanglement with authoritarian power, from police departments all the way up to the president. Rittenhouse signifies the completion of a process, though nothing like an end — he is among the first of a kind that will sow more chaos, take more lives and generate more ghastly headlines. He is the blueprint of a future we’d rather not imagine. But his allies do, with open glee.

We have no choice but to drown them out.