The late conservative icon Barry Goldwater famously said “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” but last Monday the limits of that — and American political speech in general — were severely tested at an event hosted by the young right-wing provocateur Charlie Kirk. A man from the audience took the mic, launched into familiar Trump-fried grievance over a stolen election (it wasn’t) and the “medical tyranny” of vaccine mandates (it isn’t) before posing his real question to both Kirk and his Idaho gathering.
“When do we get to use the guns?,” he asked. Many who’ve watched the viral video of this moment gasped, but more than a few at Kirk’s Turning Point USA event cheered or clapped, as the man quickly added “that’s not a joke. ... How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?” (Kirk, for his part, said he “rejected” the man’s idea — not for its rank immorality but for giving the left an excuse to crack down on their movement.)
The question’s tragic answer — well, one of them, anyway — had come on that same day in that same state of Idaho, in a Boise mall. A 27-year-old man with a history of gun rights extremism as well as online hate speech toward Latinos and other groups had entered the state’s largest mall on Monday and gunned down seven people, killing two of them — an immigrant from Mexico, Roberto Padilla Arguelles, and a mall security guard, Jo Acker, who was part of the transgender community. David Neiwert, a veteran journalist on the right-wing extremism beat, reported that the gunman — who was killed on the scene by police — had recently attended a political event where he brought a pistol and menaced anti-fascist protesters.
Indeed, the relevant question — not just for Idaho but for America — isn’t so much when do we get to use the guns, but how are we going to make it stop? The events in Idaho called attention (or should have ... both were woefully undercovered by the media) to a U.S. political right that — little more than nine months after the violent insurrection on Capitol Hill that left five people dead — is increasingly celebrating violence. This lethal notion is blooming in a hothouse of ginned-up bogus conspiracy theories — that the 2020 election was stolen from the movement’s leader, Donald Trump, or that COVID-19 is a plot to take your liberty.
In 2021, the post-and-possibly-pre-Trump American right has taken on many trappings of a violent cult — from the bullying, intimidating style of base conservatives who’ve screamed at or physically threatened local election officials or small-town school board members and even their families, to the Virginia crowd that seem to venerate a Trump flag from the Capitol on Jan. 6 shockingly similar to the Nazis’ worship of a “blood flag” from Hitler’s 1923 “beer hall putsch,” to the Trump-led effort to turn Ashli Babbitt — a Jan. 6 insurrectionist shot and killed by law enforcement as she attempted to lead the mob into the inner sanctums of Congress — into a worshiped martyr.
This is a 55-gallon drum of highly flammable political rage — not something that you want to come anywhere near with a lighted match. Unfortunately, Monday marks the launch of a Wisconsin murder trial with the potential for exactly that. It’s not just that the hotly disputed case of Kyle Rittenhouse — the now 18-year-old Illinois teen who picked up an AR-15-style rifle to join vigilantes during the August 2020 unrest after a police shooting in Kenosha, Wisc., and then killed two people and wounded a third during a series of altercations — could lead to near-term unrest, although there is surely that potential.
The greater risk to the republic is that a successful self-defense argument from attorneys for Rittenhouse — already a cause célèbre for the Trumpian right, which raised the $2 million to release him on bail — will be interpreted by all of the worst people as a sign from the U.S. justice system that it’s not only OK but heroic for citizens to take up arms for their perceived — and in too many cases invented — grievances.
“I’m worried about empowering more actors like him who think it’s glamorous to go kill somebody with a rifle,” Ryan Busse — an ex-firearms industry official who now works on gun safety issues with former Congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords, severely wounded in a 2011 assassination attempt — told the Associated Press recently. Busse said he’s concerned that Rittenhouse will emerge from the trial as “a heroic martyr” rather than how the prosecution hopes to portray the teen — as “a chaos tourist” whose unwelcome presence in Kenosha several days after the police shooting of Jacob Blake didn’t deter violence but stirred it up.
Rittenhouse is, of course, fully entitled to defend himself in court, and the jury will ultimately render the verdict on his legal team’s plan to portray the demonstrators that he shot and killed or wounded as the aggressors in a running street battle. The veteran Kenosha County judge who’ll be presiding over the trial, Bruce Schroeder, has insisted that, in his own words, the case “is not going to be a political trial.”
Good luck with that, Your Honor. The ability of this case to inflame people, and to serve as a kind of Rorschach test for both the left and the right, was shown this past week when Schroeder ordered lawyers not to refer to the people whose lives were ended by Rittenhouse’s bullets as “victims,” and also said that — based on the evidence presented at trial — he may allow the defense team to refer to the dead as “rioters” or “looters.”
That shocked a lot of lay readers — how can you hold a homicide trial without a “victim”? — but some legal experts said that Schroeder’s ruling, in a case that hinges on a self-defense argument, wasn’t as rare or unusual as it sounded. That said, antennas had already been raised high on Schroeder after he set bail in a murder case low enough, at $2 million, that Rittenhouse’s new conservative pals could set him free, while the judge did nothing over the freed defendant’s then unseemly liaison with members of the Proud Boys, and — as the Nation’s Elie Mystal noted in an excellent analysis — is allowing Team Rittenhouse to present evidence of cops saying “we appreciate you” to the teen and to other vigilantes, as if that’s exculpatory and not proof of systemic white supremacy.
Last week, I took a deep dive in Schroeder’s record before the Rittenhouse trial — posting it, between columns, on Twitter, where the report went viral — and he appears to be a kind of over-the-top “law-and-order” judge from the 1980s, on a bottle of tainted steroids, so feared for his unpredictability and his harsh sentences that Kenosha County faced a legal logjam by 2006 from defendants seeking literally any other judge.
Schroeder has displayed impulsiveness — bashing the very notion of civil liberties in demanding AIDS tests from sex workers in 1987, or dinged by a Wisconsin appeals court just this year for his “public shaming” of a young woman convicted of retail theft, after he ordered her to inform store management of her criminal record before shopping. A guilty verdict in his highest profile case before Rittenhouse was thrown out by the higher court because of his judicial error.
Schroeder’s dismal track record bodes very poorly for a case where the outcome will reverberate far beyond the rust-bitten shores of Lake Michigan. Indeed, heading into the case he seems like a poster child for the kind of world — harsh justice for the downtrodden, but abiding respect for the regime that made atrocities like the shooting of Blake possible — that the millions of Black Lives Matters marchers of 2020 were seeking to disrupt.
More than a year later, progress against systemic racism in the American justice system has been painfully slow. The white Kenosha officer who shot Blake, a Black man, in the back seven times wasn’t even charged and has returned to the force. And now there are serious reasons to fear that the verdict in this big-league trial overseen by a Little League judge will result in a verdict that will give every school board bully and Oath Keeper wannabe daydreaming of next Jan. 6 the last thing that America needs right now: A license to kill.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Justice demands that prosecutors pursue homicide charges against Rittenhouse, and that 12 impartial jurors decide whether America is a nation that condones unchecked vigilantism, at a moment when more and more people are looking to violence as an option. I just pray that we’re not putting out Kenosha’s fires with gasoline.
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