Deep in the heart of one of the worst places on the publicly available web, neo-Nazis have dubbed Kyle Rittenhouse a “brother.”
They wouldn’t go as far as to bestow him as a “saint”—which is typically reserved for neo-Nazis who kill for the ideology—as Rittenhouse’s criteria for “intent, motive, and worldview weren't met.” But they celebrated him nevertheless because of who he killed—people involved in protests against police brutality—and for how polarizing his actions have been to the American public.
“Although it was an act of self-defense, it was the first deadly act of retaliation since the riots of 2020 began,” reads the post on an extreme-right Telegram channel. “Additionally, his actions accelerated the system breakdown, intensified racial conflict and political divide.”
Rittenhouse’s case has been a flashpoint over Second Amendment rights, vigilantism, protests that have sometimes been marred by violence, and racial injustice. It’s one where opportunistic Neo-Nazis and others in the extreme-right see potential in pulling mainstream Americans into their ranks.
The Rittenhouse case—he shot and killed two protesters and injured another—is almost neatly split along ideological lines. On the left, he’s seen as a vigilante out for blood that night in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August 2020. To the right, he was a teenager forced to shoot the men in self-defence and was unfairly charged by a “woke” prosecution. And to those further on the right-fringe, he’s a vigilante hero willing to fight back against a leftist mob menacing society while the government stood idly by.
Specifically, it’s the celebration of violence against left-wing protesters and vigilantism that has the extreme-right salivating, Joshua Fisher-Birch, a research analyst with the Counter-Extremism Project, told VICE News.
“Many extreme right-wing and white supremacist groups and propagandists view the trial as an opportunity to spread their message and recruit,” said Fisher-Birch. “These groups and individuals are acting on an agenda to portray Rittenhouse as both a hero and a victim who justly defended himself. Many of these groups seek to similarly portray acts of violence committed by their members as defensive in nature.”
There is, of course, a very real difference between believing what Rittenhouse did was self-defense and pushing for vigilantism. The sheer amount of memes, videos, articles, or speeches supporting Rittenhouse is staggering, and in many cases, speeds straight by legal arguments into outright cheering on the killings.
It's not just random shitposters and neo-Nazis either: More mainstream and influential conservatives, including some top GOP candidates, have sought to lionize the teenager.
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On August 25, 2020, after seeing social media postings about property destruction in Kenosha, Rittenhouse traveled to the town from his home in Illinois armed with an AR-15 to protect a car dealership. That night, Rittenhouse found himself in an altercation with Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, who chased him in a parking lot. Rittenhouse shot Rosenbaum four times, killing him, after the man got close enough to him to grab the teenager's rifle. Rittenhouse fled the scene and was then confronted by a group of protestors on the street. He was struck by several people while running and fell after, he said, "getting lightheaded."
On the ground, he shot at a man, who was trying to kick him, and missed. Anthony Huber, 26, then ran up, hit Rittenhouse in the head with a skateboard, and tried to take his rifle. The teenager shot Huber point-blank in the chest, killing him. Gaige Grosskreutz—who testified that he thought Rittenhouse was an active shooter—advanced on Rittenhouse with a pistol and was shot in the arm by the teenager. Rittenhouse then got up, returned home, and eventually turned himself into police later that night.
The defense argued that Rosenbaum was erratic and caused the altercation, while the prosecution said Rittenhouse provoked it by pointing his gun at a group of people. Both the prosecution and the defense have rested and Rittenhouse’s fate is now in the hands of the jury who are soon to deliver a verdict. According to Fisher-Birch, for many within the far-right the actual verdict “is relatively unimportant.”
“No matter what the verdict is, extreme-right wing groups will exploit it to try and recruit, either portraying Rittenhouse as having rightfully used force or using narratives leveraging white victimhood,” said Fisher-Birch. “The trial itself is seen as a well-publicized event with the potential to further anger a segment of the population, which will present future opportunities for violence, allowing accelerationists (those on the far-right wanting to hasten the downfall of modern society to create a white ethnostate) to continue promoting society's breakdown.”
One researcher in the field dubbed the situation an “accelerationist wet dream.”
If Rittenhouse is not guilty then they have an example of killing leftist protesters as “justified,” which they can rally around and try to agitate for similar violence. If he’s found guilty, they have a martyr and, as Fisher Birch puts it, “this could be used to further call for violence against the left and to claim that the U.S. government does not protect white people.”
It’s more than just neo-Nazi terrorists and their ilk too, as groups like the Proud Boys and the American Identity Movement are rallying around Rittenhouse. The Proud Boys have dubbed Rittenhouse a “hero” and have embraced the young man like one of their own. At one point a chapter even serenaded Rittenhouse at a bar where he was photographed with Proud Boys wearing a “free as fuck” shirt and making the “OK” symbol that’s popular in white nationalist circles.
One group that meshes fascism with combat sports has attempted to sell themselves as the perfect organization to teach burgeoning white supremacists the proper skills needed if they find themselves in the same situation as Rittenhouse. They’ve made several public stunts in support of Rittenhouse.
For those in these communities, this is an opportunity for recruitment that can’t be missed—even if it means pilfering from other, less radical, far-right groups. In one case, an extreme-right telegram channel affiliated with accelerationism saw a much larger, more mainstream (but still far-right) channel talking about Rittenhouse and “righteous violence” and instructed their followers to “join his channel now that his subscribers are primed.”
“Rittenhouse trial has been a terrific radicalization event,” the person wrote. “If he's acquitted, we win, and if he's convicted, we win.”
With files from Cameron Joseph.
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(Disclosure: Gavin McInnes, who founded the Proud Boys in 2016, was a co-founder of VICE in 1994. He left the company in 2008 and has had no involvement since then.)