As many Americans feared that freeing Rittenhouse seemed to legitimize political violence, Republicans competed for the honor of offering him a job.
The reading of the verdict that set Kyle Rittenhouse free on Friday also acted as the starter’s pistol in a depraved race among Republican members of Congress to see who could most excite the young vigilante’s fans with the most ardent expression of support.
Rep. Paul Gosar, the Arizona extremist who helped plan the pro-coup January 6 rally, and shared an animated video fantasy of himself killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, hailed the verdict by tweeting that he and Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida “will arm wrestle” to see which of them gets to offer Rittenhouse a Capitol Hill internship.
Earlier this week, Gaetz had told Newsmax that “Kyle Rittenhouse would probably make a pretty good congressional intern” and suggested that his office might “reach out to him to see if he’d be interested in helping the country in additional ways.”
Rep. Madison Cawthorn, the North Carolina fabulist who also spoke at the January 6 rally in support of Donald Trump’s attempted coup, upped the ante. “Kyle Rittenhouse is not guilty, my friends,” Cawthorn said with glee on Instagram, over on-screen text that urged Rittenhouse to contact him for an internship. “You have a right to defend yourself,” he added. “Be armed, be dangerous, and be moral.”
J.D. Vance, the formerly anti-Trump venture capitalist hoping to win the Republican nomination to represent Ohio in the Senate, had already described the teen gunman’s trial as “child abuse.” On Friday, Vance tweeted that the trial was “not impartial justice in a constitutional society; it was mob rule in a banana republic.” He also attacked the prosecutor for having described the protesters who had tried to disarm Rittenhouse after he had killed a man and fled the scene as “heroes.”
The jury’s verdict — that Rittenhouse broke no laws when he killed two men and wounded a third with the semiautomatic rifle he brought to a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year — has already stoked fears of more political violence to come.
The family of Anthony Huber, who was killed by Rittenhouse while attempting to disarm him, said in a statement that the outcome gave a green light to other politically motivated vigilantes. “Today’s verdict means there is no accountability for the person who murdered our son,” Huber’s parents wrote. “It sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street.”
The fact that so many elected officials expressed glee over the jury’s decision that an armed vigilante did nothing wrong by bringing a rifle to a racial justice protest, inciting resentment that spilled over into violence, alarmed many other Americans and dumbstruck observers watching from abroad.
“This is why many of us warned a Chauvin verdict was not the symbol of progress some wanted it to be,” tweeted Brittany Packnett Cunningham, an activist who organized protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting of Michael Brown. “White supremacy has a set number of acceptable losses. Kyle Rittenhouse, and his Vigilante How-To example, simply was not one of them.” The whole sequence of events,” she added, “was literally a vigilante and legal instruction manual for how to protect and defend white supremacy.”
“It has never taken more than a whisper of approval to fan the flames of militant right action, and the Kenosha acquittal is a shout,” observed Kathleen Belew, the co-editor of “A Field Guide to White Supremacy.”
The verdict was taken as evidence that demonstrators opposed to police violence cannot rely on the state to protect them from pro-police vigilantes like Rittenhouse. As the New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, “We should also be troubled by police action, or the lack thereof, against armed militias. Tacit support from Kenosha police” — like thanking Rittenhouse’s group for being there, as an officer was caught on video doing that night — “almost certainly contributed to the permissive environment that led to the shooting.”
Journalist Alex Yablon suggested that the Kenosha jury’s verdict could be read as a tacit endorsement for armed militias to act on their desire to intimidate protesters whose politics they disagree with across much on the nation. “Thirty-six states either explicitly allow concealed and/or open carry at rallies, or don’t forbid guns in that setting — and also preempt localities from making their own rules keeping firearms away from demonstrations,” Yablon reported for The Trace in 2017. “Nine more states allow guns at protests, but give cities some leeway to make their own regulations. Only seven states, along with the District of Columbia, bar firearms at rallies.”
Watching from Europe, Paul Mason, the author of “How to Stop Fascism,” observed that “the rise of political murders, unpunished by the courts, was a key stage in the fascist process” in 1920s Italy, where Benito Mussolini took power with the support of the squadristi — paramilitary squads of teen vigilantes from the “Voluntary Militia for National Security” who carried guns, knives, and sticks and attacked rallies by political opponents they deemed “pro-Bolshevik.”
“Today,” Mason wrote on Twitter, “we witnessed that stage begin in the USA.”