The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Kyle Rittenhouse’s story is a tragedy. The right thinks it’s a triumph.

Kyle Rittenhouse testifies during his trial at the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wis., Nov. 10. (Sean Krajacic/AP)
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The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wis., should make any person with an ounce of sense feel little but grief, even despair. But unfortunately, if Rittenhouse gets acquitted, what happens afterward will be absolutely sickening.

Here’s a quick review of the undisputed facts in the case. As protests gripped Kenosha in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake last August, Rittenhouse, then 17, took his illegally obtained AR-15 and traveled to the city from his home in Illinois. In the midst of the chaotic events, he shot Joseph Rosenbaum, Anthony Huber and Gaige Grosskreutz. Rosenbaum and Huber died, while Grosskreutz survived.

Rittenhouse took the stand on Tuesday in his trial to argue that he feared for his life all three times and killed only in self-defense. There’s a good chance that he will prevail; there’s no question that the confrontations were angry (especially after a crowd saw him kill Rosenbaum and pursued him), and while “I was afraid” may not be quite the get-out-of-jail-free card for civilians that it is for police officers, it carries a lot of weight in both the law and the minds of juries.

I’m not a conservative, but if I was, I would hope my thoughts about Kyle Rittenhouse would run something like this: “The violence that occurred in Kenosha was unacceptable, but that doesn’t justify vigilantism. Rittenhouse was a dumb kid pumped up by the fantasy of saving the day with his gun, but he didn’t go there intending to murder anyone. He should be acquitted because he acted in self-defense, but we shouldn’t forget that two people are dead, which is a terrible tragedy.”

That’s not my opinion, but I do think it’s about the most generous gloss you can honestly put on those events.

Unfortunately, it’s not how conservatives approached this story. From the moment Rittenhouse killed Rosenbaum and Huber, he has been embraced by the right as a hero.

The Trump administration immediately distributed talking points to federal law enforcement officials to use if asked about Rittenhouse, in which they were instructed to say that he “took his rifle to the scene of the rioting to help defend small business owners.”

Conservatives quickly raised much of the $2 million for his bail. After he was released, Rittenhouse went to a bar wearing a T-shirt that said “Free as F---,” where he posed for pictures flashing a white power sign and was “serenaded” with the anthem of the Proud Boys, the violent radical right-wing group.

On Fox News and other conservative media, one personality after another rushed to his defense. Rittenhouse, said Jeanine Pirro, “is an innocent man, he’s looking to help, he’s all-American, and he’s trying to just make sure his town is safe.” This is a weird tick of Rittenhouse’s defenders, who repeatedly insist he was trying to secure “his town” or “his community” despite the fact that he does not live in Kenosha or even the state of Wisconsin. “You’ve got a little boy out there trying to protect his community,” Trump adviser Pam Bondi said in an appearance on “Hannity.”

Rittenhouse “should walk away a free and rich man after suing for malicious prosecution. That would be true justice in this case,” said Matt Walsh of the Daily Wire. “Kyle Rittenhouse went to Kenosha to clean up the filth left by the rioting Biden voters,” said Tucker Carlson. This has been the message over and over from the right: We’re not saying we’re glad he killed two people, but those people kind of deserved to die and he’s a hero.

So try to imagine what will happen if Rittenhouse is acquitted. Trump will issue a statement somehow taking credit for it. Fox News will fly Rittenhouse to New York for triumphant interviews. Social media will erupt with joy, as millions of conservatives cry “Suck it, libs!” He’ll appear on T-shirts and bumper stickers; maybe he’ll speak at the next Conservative Political Action Conference. And don’t be surprised if Trumpist candidates start seeking Rittenhouse’s endorsement and asking him to appear on the campaign trail with them.

There will be some Republicans who will respond to questions about Rittenhouse by saying the whole thing was an unfortunate episode and we should just put it behind us. But they will be drowned out.

Liberals see in Kyle Rittenhouse’s story a number of things: the foolishness of youth, the fetishization of guns, the inevitable consequence of the right’s celebration of violence as an appropriate way to fight what they see as a civilizational war with the left. But what do conservatives see in this story?

If he’s acquitted, they’ll see little more than another opportunity to Own the Libs. And it will be all the more likely that more deluded right-wingers will show up to protests, armed and looking for trouble.