When Tucker Carlson set off a firestorm of criticism on Wednesday — by describing a 17-year-old Trump supporter who opened fire on protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin on Tuesday, killing two, as a well-meaning kid who decided he “had to maintain order” in the Democrat-run state because “no one else would” — the Fox News host was surfacing an idea that had already spread widely on the far-right.

“The chaos that began with the first George Floyd protests on Memorial Day has reached its inevitable and bloody conclusion,” Carlson told viewers tuning in for his buildup to the Republican National Convention, which had featured, on its first night, two speakers lionized for threatening to shoot Black Lives Matter protesters outside their mansion in St. Louis.

“Last night, three people were shot on the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin. Two of them have died. Police say they’ve charged a 17-year-old with murder,” Carlson reported, without revealing that the suspect, Kyle Rittenhouse, was not the anti-fascist radical his viewers might have been led to expect, but a conservative vigilante who had posted video from the front row of a Trump rally in January, and written “BLUE LIVES MATTER” and “Trump 2020″ on his TikTok bio, as Buzzfeed first reported.

Rittenhouse was reportedly charged with six crimes on Thursday, including first-degree intentional homicide, first-degree reckless homicide, two counts of first-degree recklessly endangering safety, attempted first-degree intentional homicide and possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18.

The incident came after a third night of protests in Kenosha over the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black father who was critically wounded by a police officer who fired seven shots into his back, but throughout his report on the fatal shootings Carlson pretended, as he has for months, that there were no non-violent protests over police violence against communities of color, just “riots.”

In Carlson’s telling, the moral of the story was not that Rittenhouse — who was photographed and caught on video from multiple angles shooting three men — had provoked trouble by responding to a militia group’s Facebook call for “patriots willing to take up arms and defend” the city from “evil thugs,” but that he was something closer to a victim, prodded to fill a vacuum by the misrule of the city’s Democratic mayor, John Antaramian, and the state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers.

KENOSHA, WISCONSIN - AUGUST 25: Volunteers clean graffiti from a high school near the Kenosha County Courthouse following another night of unrest  on August 25, 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rioting as well as clashes between police and protesters began Sunday night after a police officer shot Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, seven times in the back in front of his three children. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Kyle Rittenhouse was photographed hours before the shootings on Tuesday, among a group of volunteers who cleaned anti-police graffiti from a high school in Kenosha.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

“Kenosha has devolved into anarchy because the authorities in charge of the city abandoned it,” Carlson told Fox viewers unaware that the city had not, in fact, collapsed into chaos just because they were being shown isolated scenes of violence on a loop.

“People in charge, from the governor of Wisconsin on down, refused to enforce the law. They stood back and they watched Kenosha burn,” Carlson claimed, oblivious to the fact that video recorded by witnesses to Tuesday’s events showed Rittenhouse and other heavily armed young vigilantes had spent most of the night standing close to armored police vehicles outside a business they appointed themselves to guard.

At one point in a livestream broadcast that night, a police officer could be heard offering water to the militiamen, including Rittenhouse, and telling them: “We appreciate you guys, we really do.”

Later that night, after Rittenhouse wandered a short distance away and got into a confrontation with a man he shot in the head, video recorded by a pro-Trump YouTuber, Drew Hernandez, seemed to show Rittenhouse running back down the street in the direction of the police vehicles. As he retreated from the scene, the video appeared to catch Rittenhouse telling someone on his phone: “I just killed somebody.”

According to the police complaint against Rittenhouse, released on Thursday evening, his friend Dominic Black told a detective that he received a call from his friend Kyle at 11:46 pm on Tuesday, in which the gunman stated that he shot someone.

A subsequent analysis of the video by the New York Times visual investigations unit suggested that, moments before Rittenhouse opened fire, a single gunshot was fired into the air for unknown reasons by someone standing near the parking lot where the confrontation took place.

Shelby Talcott, a video journalist for the Daily Caller, a conservative site founded by Carlson, captured footage of Rittenhouse fleeing the scene of the first shooting, as protesters shouted that he had shot someone.

Video shot by another pro-Trump YouTuber, Brendan Gutenschwager, appeared to show Rittenhouse pursued by several protesters who suspected him of carrying out the first shooting. After he tripped and fell, just a block away from the police, two of those men attempted to disarm him, one by kicking him and another by hitting him with a skateboard.

Rittenhouse fired at both of them, apparently killing the skateboarder, Anthony Huber, with a shot to the chest as they struggled for the rifle, and then shooting a third protester, Gaige Grosskreutz, causing a gaping wound in his arm. Grosskreutz, a member of a social justice group who was wearing a hat with the word “paramedic” emblazoned on it, also appeared to be armed with a handgun.

In a remarkable scene at the end of Gutenschwager’s video, Rittenhouse can be seen walking with his hands up, apparently trying to surrender to the police officers he had been chatting with earlier in the evening, as a bystander shouts that he shot the protesters, but the officers drive right past him in the direction of the men he shot.

While all of this footage was available to Carlson before he went on air, later in his monologue he professed to have no idea what exactly had happened or whether — because the men who had attempted to disarm the vigilante after he had shot someone in the head could be seen kicking and hitting Rittenhouse — a jury might ultimately decide that he had acted in self-defense.

In this, Carlson was closely following a consensus explanation that had formed during the 24 hours after the shooting by pro-Trump YouTubers, bloggers, and commentators, who decided, after studying slow-motion imagery and still photographs, that the young man who had traveled to Kenosha from his home in neighboring Illinois to defend the city from residents enraged by the shooting of Jacob Blake, was merely acting in self-defense.

Rep. Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona, suggested on Twitter that the slow-motion video convinced him that the killings were “100% justified self defense.” Hours before Carlson went to air, Gosar also blamed the violence on Kenosha’s local government. “Armed citizens defending themselves will fill the vacuum,” he wrote.

One of Rittenhouse’s defenders was Elijah Schaffer, a freelance producer for Glenn Beck’s BlazeTV and a pro-Trump political activist who released a misleading account of a fight involving Black Lives Matter protesters in Dallas in May. Writing on Twitter on Wednesday, Schaffer described the Turkish journalist Tayfun Coskun’s photograph of the protesters attempting to disarm the gunman as Rittenhouse “being attacked by #BLM rioters.”

“One of the attackers,” in Schaffer’s words, was “about to assault him with a skateboard.”

That “assault” by the skateboarder Anthony Huber ended with his failed effort to wrest the gun away from Rittenhouse and being fatally shot in the chest.

Schaffer also thought a 20-second interview he did with Rittenhouse before the shootings provided important “context” as to what took place later, since the vigilante did not say anything racist or political in that third of a minute.

As Jamelle Bouie, a New York Times opinion columnist, noted on Twitter, an obvious flaw in the conservative argument that Rittenhouse was just defending himself from the second and third men he shot is that they were only “attacking” him because he had just shot someone else in the head.

Carlson’s defense of Rittenhouse also hinged on the false idea that he had taken to the streets to oppose a phantom movement of violent radicals using the protests as cover. “The Justice Department could have stopped all of this months ago,” Carlson ranted over footage of Kenosha recorded by another of the conservative gonzo video bloggers who descended on the city this week, searching for images of chaos to discredit the protest movement. “If federal prosecutors had treated the organizers of BLM and antifa the way they treated Roger Stone, our cities wouldn’t look like Kosovo tonight.”

Another journalist for a far-right site who interviewed Rittenhouse earlier in the evening was Richie McGinniss, who directs video for the Daily Caller, the website that was once used to smear Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer.

McGinniss appeared on Carlson’s show on Wednesday to discuss what happened in Kenosha and his own effort to save the life of the first man shot and killed by Rittenhouse, who was later identified as Joseph Rosenbaum.

What made Carlson’s interview with McGinniss odd, however, was that the Daily Caller videographer repeatedly referred to Rittenhouse as “the alleged shooter,” even though he was standing just six or seven feet away from Rosenbaum when he was shot and seemed to have been filming the confrontation at the time.

It is unclear if McGinniss has video of Rittenhouse shooting Rosenbaum, but he told Carlson that he witnessed the crime at close range. Even so, Carlson failed to ask him directly if he could say for certain that Rittenhouse did shoot Rosenbaum in the head and cause his death. Instead, McGinniss offered what sounded like testimony to the gunman’s good character. “The 17-year-old who I interviewed earlier in the night, he actually mentioned that he was there to maintain peace, in the absence of police,” McGinniss said.

“It’s just hard to believe this is America,” Carlson said. “We can’t put up with this.”

When the complaint against Rittenhouse was released late Thursday, it said that McGinniss told a police detective that he did clearly see the teen shoot Rosenbaum at close range as the victim reached for the rifle. Footage recorded earlier in the evening showed that Rosenbaum was incensed by the presence of the armed militia members in the neighborhood.

The complaint cited a coroner’s report which “indicated that Rosenbaum had a gunshot wound to the right groin which fractured his pelvis, a gunshot wound to the back which perforated his right lung and liver, a gunshot wound to the left hand, a superficial gunshot wound to his lateral left thigh, and a graze gunshot wound to the right side of his forehead.”

As the momentum to excuse Rittenhouse’s crimes as justified spread online Thursday, amplified by far-right figures around the globe, Jamelle Bouie called it “the single most ominous development of the year.”

The journalist Matt Prigge noted that the increasingly obscene lionization of Rittenhouse echoed the wave of praise in 1970 for the National Guardsmen who killed four anti-war protesters at Kent State, documented by the historian Rick Perlstein in his book, “Nixonland.”

At a news conference on Friday, Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth said that he did not want armed volunteers like Kyle Rittenhouse on the streets during protests.

“This group of people that are carrying weapons here, if they’re in their house — and again, I support the Second Amendment — if they’re in there protecting their property, I have no issue with that,” the sheriff said. “The people that have been here carrying guns, they haven’t been arrested because it’s a right that they have. Have we asked for them to come? Are we asking for them to come in and support things? I’m not.”

“You could clearly see the situation escalated Tuesday night because a 17-year-old boy carrying what appears to be an assault rifle, who has no idea how to handle a situation like this,” Beth added. “I don’t care if he had the right intentions or not, two people are currently dead, and one almost had his arm blown off.”

Last Updated: Friday, Aug. 28, 10:07 p.m. PDT
This article was updated to add new information on Thursday and Friday, including the formal police complaint against Kyle Rittenhouse, and to note the participation of Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple facing weapons charges for brandishing guns at protesters, in the Republican National Convention the night before Rittenhouse traveled to Kenosha to join a volunteer militia patrolling the streets.