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Vigilantes on Parade: Rightwing Extremism and the Threat of National Implosion

Photograph Source: Anthony Crider – CC BY 2.0

The Wisconsin ruling clearing Kyle Rittenhouse on all charges for the killing of two Black Lives Matter activists looks to be a milestone moment for the rise of rightwing extremism in America. It’s not so much the details of this case and the spin that can be employed in interpreting the events that concerns me most. It’s the implications of the case, considering the larger political context and the threat of rising extremism.

A dangerous precedent has been set in this ruling, empowering vigilantes who believe they are deputized to enforce “the law” against perceived political enemies. Rittenhouse traveled to a city that he didn’t live in, to a state in which he is not a resident, while illegally possessing an assault rifle he had no right to wield, in the name of “protecting” property he didn’t own, in the process killing two men in violent altercations that would have been avoided entirely if Kenosha police had done their job, corralling vigilantes who looked to commit violence, and separating them from those engaged in protests or destruction of property. Even for those who are fixated on the property damage question, it’s difficult to defend Rittenhouse’s actions when he engaged in vigilante violence, with no training in dealing with conflict situations, and when responsibility for enforcing the law clearly falls on the police.

The Rittenhouse case shouldn’t be interpreted in a vacuum, as it occurred within a larger political environment in which other rightwing vigilantes seek to justify violence, and even murder, under the guise of “self-defense.” Consider, for example, the Ahmaud Arbery case in Georgia, where three white vigilantes stalked, cornered, and shot a black man who was jogging through a neighborhood – and away from them – under the false premise that he may have been responsible for a local burglary. There is no plausible scenario in which these three men can reasonably claim self-defense, when the altercation was entirely of their own initiation, when the man murdered was unarmed, and when he had nothing to do with the crime in question. And of course, there is the issue of implicit or explicit racial bias related to the defendants, which is also difficult to ignore in a country where research shows that assumptions of guilt related to violent crime are consistently racialized, with black men assumed to be the prime perpetrators in violent and other criminal acts. If the Arbery defendants successfully justify their actions as “self-defense,” then the courts will have effectively criminalized being black in America. An acquittal sends a message that white vigilantes can commit violence and murder at will against people of color who have the nerve to venture out into public, and with black men’s mere existence constituting a “threat” from which white people need “protection.”

As with Rittenhouse, the defendants in the Arbery case claimed “self-defense” to justify their actions. And with juries being instructed that they must rule on cases based on how a defendant says he or she feels, there is a clear bias in favor of would-be killers. We are now talking about situations where these individuals feel empowered to commit murder and rationalize post-hoc that it was in “self-defense” because they “felt” endangered, regardless of whether their fears were rational, or based on paranoia, bigotry, and a commitment to fascist vigilantism.

What we’re really talking about here is the ascendance of the reactionary right, with white nationalist-neofascist hate groups like VDare and The Proud Boys using the Rittenhouse ruling as a rallying cry for further violence. A big picture reading of the Rittenhouse decision raises the specter that this ruling serves as a greenlight for future extremism, with rightwing vigilantes feeling they are vindicated in taking the law into their own hands. This was serious dereliction on the part of the Kenosha Police Department, allowing an underage minor who was in violation of Illinois state law to engage in illegal actions and provocation in the name of providing for security. Public protection is the job of the police, not minors with no police training who travel across state borders looking for violent confrontations. The details are already well-known regarding law enforcement’s dereliction, with Kenosha police encouraging Rittenhouse’s actions by giving him water, thanking him for coming, and then allowing him to flee after the shootings.

Rittenhouse’s actions are being defended by right-wingers across the country who depict him as a hero, his actions as necessary, because police won’t protect people against urban violence.

What the “hero” narrative ignores is that Rittenhouse had a history of aggressive vigilantism, having boasted weeks prior to traveling to Kenosha that he wanted to shoot people in the name of stopping retail theft. The incident in question involved Rittenhouse sitting in a car across the street from a CVS, in which a few individuals ran out of the store into their car, and Rittenhouse and his friends speculated that they were armed and may have robbed the store. Despite observing from afar and having no immediate knowledge of exactly what took place, and the video providing no definitive evidence that the individuals robbed the store or possessed weapons, Rittenhouse remarked in the recording: “Bro I wish I had my AR. I’d start shooting rounds at them.” At issue in the Rittenhouse decision is that he and other vigilantes like him feel empowered in such situations to start shooting first, without understanding the events in front of them, under the assumption that they are protecting property, and that they are empowered to kill because they “feel” endangered running into these situations looking to commit violence.

The Rittenhouse ruling is also heavily polarizing, with Americans using it as an opportunity to reinforce prior beliefs. Rightwing defenders of Rittenhouse will emphasize the need for further vigilante actions to protect against Black Lives Matter and its alleged violence, extremism, and terrorism, while ignoring the reality that 98 percent of BLM protests in recent years were non-violent. Predictably, concern with the precedent set here in greenlighting vigilantism across the nation will be ignored by those who valorize Rittenhouse.

The consequences of this ruling for social movement protests are dire. There is a very real and rising threat that vigilantes will show up at other left-oriented protests in coming months and years, feeling they have carte blanche to “police” the events however they see fit, and that if they engage in violence, it will simply be in “self-defense” against those who resist their aggression. The concern for violence grows when we consider that there are likely to be large protests come the 2024 presidential election, with the looming efforts from Trump (or another Trump-style frontrunner) and Congressional and state Republicans, who are likely to try and nullify majority votes in swing states if they favor a Democratic candidate based on fictitious claims of “voter fraud.” If there are large protests by progressive, left-leaning, and Democratic supporters, there is reason to worry about the potential for violence if rightwing vigilantes convince themselves they must act to fight Democratic voter fraud, and if they believe they’ve been informally deputized to do so by the courts.

Following the Rittenhouse case, there’s also the larger political context to consider regarding rising political extremism that’s being encouraged by the Trumpian right. Generally speaking, most of Trump’s white voter base sees themselves and their culture as under threat from foreigners, with a recent PRRI poll showing that eight in ten Republicans feel that “America is in danger of losing its culture and identity,” and nearly as many Republicans (79 percent) agreeing that “the American way of life needs to be protected from foreign influence.” Conceptions of American identity clearly overlap strongly with white supremacy, with 51 percent of Republicans agreeing that “America must protect and preserve its white European heritage,” and an equal number saying “a culture established by the country’s early European immigrants” is “important” “to the United States identity as a nation.”

Nearly two-thirds of Republicans base their commitment to protecting American identity on reactionary religious values, with 63 percent saying that one must be Christian to be “truly American.” Most Republicans (53 percent) look with alarm at a changing nation before them, feeling that “things have changed so much that they feel like a stranger in their own country.”

These reactionary values are clearly fueled and intensified by rightwing media, considering the rise of “Big Lie” propaganda baselessly claiming that the 2020 election was stolen by the Democrats. Between two-thirds to three-quarters of Republicans accept this claim. And the belief is linked to rightwing media consumption, with 82 percent of Republicans who rely on Fox News agreeing the election was stolen, and with 97 percent of those relying on Newsmax and OAN feeling the same, compared to 44 percent of Republicans relying on mainstream news venues.

Aside from rising paranoia on American identity and elections, an alarming number of Republicans say they may need to take violent action to protect themselves from supposed threats. One February 2021 poll from the American Enterprise Institute revealed that nearly four-in-ten Republicans (39 percent) agreed “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions.” That was more than twice the number of Democrats (17 percent) agreeing to this statement. More recently, the latest PRRI poll finds that 30 percent of Republicans feel that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” This sentiment is disproportionately held by right-wingers, with only 11 percent of Democrats agreeing.

The connection between Republican official and rightwing media propaganda and support for violence was also apparent in the PRRI poll. The belief that violence is necessary “to save our country” was shared by 40 percent of OAN and Newsmax viewers, compared to 30 percent of Fox News viewers, but only 22 percent of those relying on mainstream media outlets. Similarly, 39 percent of those who believe the election was stolen agree violence is needed to save our country, compared to less than half of all Americans (18 percent) feeling the same. This is clear evidence of the overlap between extremist official and media rhetoric, and the rising fanaticism of the Trumpian base.

The mass Republican commitment to post-truth election propaganda, white ethno-nationalism, Christo-fascist ideology, and the valorization of vigilante violence can’t be sustained if we want to preserve this nation. The masses of Americans – particularly non-Republicans – will not agree to be ruled by a fascistic would-be dictator come 2024 if Trump succeeds in nullifying majority votes for a Democratic presidential candidate in swing states, and if he executes his coup – this time succeeding where he failed in 2020. Even if the overwhelming majority of Republicans who claim to support vigilante violence are unwilling to follow through with such acts, all it takes is a handful of true believers in each city who are heavily armed to act on their beliefs and to foment mass chaos and terror across the country. The combination of Republican proto-fascistic coup politics and rising vigilantism are an existential threat to the rule of law and the stability of the republic. And while no one can say for certain what the future holds, if we are to continue down this path, we are re looking at the real possibility of a national implosion in coming years. The rule of law and democratic electoralism can’t survive a rightwing movement that views them both as obstacles to be eliminated. As I argue in my forthcoming book – Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here – short of a mass movement to combat rising neofascistic politics and vigilantism, there’s little prospect of beating back rightwing extremism in the future. Short of building this movement, the risk of a looming coup, national implosion, and a citizen-initiated civil war will continue to grow.