“He should not have had to suffer through a trial,” Trump said, suggesting Rittenhouse had almost been killed by one of his victims and had rightly killed first. “He should never have been put through that.”
In the days after Rittenhouse, 18, was acquitted of homicide in killing two and wounding a third amid unrest in Kenosha, Wis., two strains of Rittenhouse lionization developed on the right. One was sanitized, mainly treating his acquittal as heroic in that he evaded a would-be injustice at the hands of out-of-control leftism.
The other was darker and more explicit, treating Rittenhouse as a hero for what he did: cross state lines to deliberately place himself in a combustible situation, armed to kill, in a manner likely to provoke the fighting — and lead to the killing — that did indeed take place.
Trump has in effect aligned his movement squarely with the second strain: Rittenhouse’s conduct should never have been subjected to scrutiny by a jury of his peers in the first place; Rittenhouse is the one who meted out justice; his killing in a highly confusing situation should properly have been placed all along outside the procedural realm we describe as the “rule of law.”
As president in August 2020 just after the killing, Trump was already suggesting Rittenhouse had properly acted in self-defense. But it’s highly notable that Trump is now declaring he never should have stood trial after his acquittal.
Here was an opportunity for Trump to declare that the justice system had — by his lights at least — worked amid searing passions and political turbulence unleashed by the saga. Instead, he suggested that the very fact that Rittenhouse’s conduct underwent scrutiny itself constituted an injustice, and itself discredited our legal system.
Which is the whole point: To reinforce the idea that Rittenhouse’s conduct — not just the killing, but the conduct that led up to and ultimately precipitated it — should never have been subjected to legal scrutiny at all, that it properly occurred outside the realm of the rule of law.
Legal experts were not surprised by Rittenhouse’s acquittal, mainly because prosecutors had to prove he did not reasonably act in self-defense, that he didn’t have reasonable grounds to believe himself in grave danger at that moment. That was a high bar.
Of course, this doesn’t morally exonerate Rittenhouse of the dangerously provocative conduct leading up to this. And as James Hohmann notes, there were reasonable grounds for thinking he went into the situation with the express purpose of meting out vigilante violence or worse. Whether he did this was an important legal question, but his lawyers (and the judge’s rulings) managed to obscure it.
Yet Trump is not obscuring it. He’s bringing it out into sharper relief.
In Trump’s telling, the very act of apparently seeking to dispense vigilante justice — and thus provoking a situation that led to the killing — amid violence connected to racial justice protests is precisely what should never have been subjected to rule-of-law scrutiny.
Let’s not forget that before this saga, right-wing media had whipped up an atmosphere that seemed certain to encourage vigilante conduct by madly hyping protests and unrest to feed impressions that leftists were pushing the country into full-scale civil collapse.
And now, needless to say, Trump isn’t taking this opportunity to say this was a horrible tragedy involving an impressionable teen who should never have placed himself in that situation (but nonetheless one our justice system dealt with adequately).
Instead, for Trump, the story is that Rittenhouse’s conduct was good and admirable.
Many on the right have been explicit about this. As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp documents, they have hailed Rittenhouse’s decision to put himself in that situation as itself constituting an act of noble, selfless heroism. The fake-justification for this — as always — is that the left required it.
“By suggesting he is a hero,” political scientist Lilliana Mason told Beauchamp, “the implication is that what he did was not a tragedy at all. It wasn’t a conflict gone lethally wrong, it was a good lethal conflict.”
That bodes badly for what’s to come, especially now that Trump has effectively endorsed this view.
Writing at the Atlantic, Adam Serwer connects this tendency to elements of right-wing gun culture that rely on constant invocations of leftist tyranny to inspire and justify preparation for armed resistance to it. The backdrop is the construction of a “legal regime” in which Americans are liberated to settle differences themselves with the foot soldiers of leftist tyranny “with lethal force.”
The final piece of this puzzle is to suggest evaluation of this killing should have been taken out of the realm of rule of law entirely. For Trump, the injustice that occurred here is that Rittenhouse’s conduct was subjected to structured, procedural evaluation within a realm of authority whose enforcement power derives from democratic decision-making.
That’s bad enough coming from an unhinged Fox News personality or a far-right Internet fringe lurker. But this is coming from the former president of the United States — and a likely future candidate for that office, as well.