The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse speaks volumes about the successes of the far right in the United States today. The teen who took the lives of two people and wounded a third during racial justice protests in Kenosha, WI is a hero to Republican officeholders, FOX News commentators, conservative pundits, and the thousands of people who contributed to his $2 million bail fund, and raised another half million for his legal defense.
As I have argued elsewhere, he is no ghoulish Dylann Roof, or fashy James Fields, Jr. and cannot easily be stuck with the label of white supremacist. Just as Rittenhouse blurred the line between medic and killer and that night, he blurs the line between civic nationalism and racial nationalism, becoming Tocquevillean figure of voluntarism, a protector of people and property.
The armed protection of white people and property are of course longstanding racial practices in a settler nation forged in slavery, but centuries of narratives making gentle heroism white male aggression affords Rittenhouse an identity that suggests Norman Rockwell more than George Lincoln Rockwell. This innocence and purity has always been secured, as political theorist Michael Rogin demonstrated, by projecting of one’s own violence onto demonized others who are depicted as threats to the community.
Rittenhouse's sobbing on the stand enacts this white male vulnerability and victimhood, reversing the direction of actual violence as Judge Schroeder did by refusing to grant to the dead the status of victims in his courtroom. Asked by the prosecutor why he gunned down his first victim Rittenhouse said, “If I would’ve let Mr. Rosenbaum take my firearm from me, he would’ve used it and killed me with it and probably killed more people.” Beyond the splitting and projection involved in blaming the actual victims, the armed assailants of the “Kenosha Guard” that went onto rooftops and into the streets that night to attack protestors (as right-wing militants did all summer in response to racial justice protests) speaks to manic fears and irrational need for self-protection at all costs. James Baldwin observed that this choice of safety over life is the core of whiteness itself.