A posse of armed vigilantes answered the call. On Tuesday night, one of them was running down the street when he turned, raised his military-style rifle and fired on the crowd. Two people were shot dead and another was seriously injured. A 17-year-old from Illinois, Kyle Rittenhouse, has been arrested and charged with the shootings.
The spasm of vigilante violence takes place at the intersection of several powerful currents in American life, and draws its strength from guns, God and Donald Trump, all joined in the service of an imperiled Whiteness.
The first of those currents is the belief that government, and especially law enforcement, has been so hobbled and emasculated by the radical left that it cannot protect the good people from the bad. The Movement for Black Lives, a coalition that includes Black Lives Matter, has come in for particular attack, which reveals the unspoken assumption of the narrative: The good people are White; the bad are either Black or Brown or besotted with their cause.
For those inclined to believe this narrative, evidence of the emasculation is everywhere. After the shootings in Kenosha, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who can always be counted on to give this narrative its voice, asked rhetorically, “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” As he spoke, the chyron at the bottom of the Fox screen read, “Kenosha in chaos as leaders abandon another city.” The Facebook page for the Kenosha Guard had implored the police to give the militia free rein, since it was “evident that no matter how many Officers, deputies, and other law enforcement officers that are here, you will still be outnumbered.”
Yet the narrative loses its plot when it becomes clear that the uprisings themselves are not the issue. After all, we didn’t see this sort of vigilantism in response to the uprisings in the 1960s, which were far more destructive. Instead, the protests are important because they illuminate and reveal the perceived impotence of Whiteness — an impotence that was not so keenly felt a half-century ago.
Today’s uprisings are taking place during a moment of profound unease. The term most often used for this unease — White grievance — does not remotely do it justice; to say that one has a grievance conjures the banal image of a complaint card sliding into a box and being forgotten. What we saw in Kenosha, and what we have seen across the country in response to the protests against police violence, is an insensate terror at the advancing prospect of White irrelevance. It is no less than a fear of White erasure.
Whiteness itself is imagined as under siege — culturally, demographically and, most of all, politically. President Trump plays on this fear when he warns ominously that the Democrats want to destroy the serenity of American suburbs, and vows to wall them off from the race-mingling scourge of low-income housing. It is no matter that the fear is irrational; there is no threat to Whiteness in this country, and there never has been. Irrational fears are always the most terrifying, and it is this terror that fuels the vigilantism.
The second current is the celebration of gun culture. Here, the vigilantes have the law to thank. Since the Supreme Court decision in Heller v. District of Columbia in 2008, which upheld the right of private gun ownership under the Second Amendment, it has become dramatically easier for people to travel the streets of this country armed. According to the Giffords Law Center, which tracks gun laws nationwide, in most states, including Wisconsin, it is perfectly legal for a person to openly carry a loaded firearm in public, without a permit.
Yet the law alone is not enough. Carrying a loaded gun is not merely lawful; it is cheered. “I want Kyle Rittenhouse as my bodyguard,” someone tweeted after the shooting incident. “I want him as my president,” the columnist Ann Coulter tweeted back. The response to the attack on Whiteness is for Whites to take up arms. Those who do — like the McCloskeys, the St. Louis couple who trained their weapons on passing protesters outside their home — are lionized as heroes. They, like the militia in Kenosha, are cast as the defenders of the new Lost Cause, the true champions of White civilization, willing to risk their lives to save their race.
The third current, which is too frequently overlooked, is the literal weaponization of conservative religion. It is no accident that the McCloskeys said they were exercising their “God-given right” to defend their property, just as other vigilantes have said they have a “God-given right” to strap on a gun and patrol the border with Mexico. It is hardly unusual for protagonists in American political contests to claim God as their ally. Martin Luther King Jr. often warned that the champions of segregation would face the wrath of an angry God. But the God of the vigilante is not the God of King. The vigilante conceives God as part of America itself. God, and not merely the Constitution, gives the vigilante the right to openly carry a loaded weapon. God, and not merely the Constitution, gives the vigilante the right to confront marchers protesting racial injustice. And of course, to the vigilante, God ordains that the country be White; in the battle to save Whiteness, God is not imagined as neutral.
And finally, the most combustible force behind the rise of vigilantism is the president himself. Trump is not simply the enabler in chief. He is the clarion call that summons furious and frightened Whites to man the barricades, with a promise that their sacrifice will be rewarded and their transgressions pardoned. He validates their terror and encourages their rage. He brings the McCloskeys to the Republican National Convention, giving their fearmongering a national stage. He celebrates the “Second Amendment people.” He transforms criminal vigilantism into patriotic service.
How long it will endure, and how many lives it will destroy, are the questions we will answer in the dark days to come.