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Bernhard Goetz and the roots of Kyle Rittenhouse’s celebrity on the right

Why vigilante violence appeals politically

Kyle Rittenhouse waves to cheering fans as he appears at a panel discussion at a Turning Point USA America Fest event on Dec. 20, 2021. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)
8 min

The celebrity treatment that conservatives are giving Kyle Rittenhouse, acquitted of all charges in the shooting deaths of two in Kenosha, Wis., in 2020, epitomizes the right’s long history of embracing vigilante violence. Rittenhouse has become a regular guest at events run by the conservative organization Turning Point USA, where he was most recently lionized as a desirable bachelor standing “strong in opposition from culture and evil.”

Vigilantes have long held such wide appeal to the right because they allow conservatives to stress their own victimization and cultivate a siege mentality, which rallies their troops to defeat political opponents. In the process, they dress racist arguments in a seemingly colorblind plea for armed self-defense. Nowhere was this clearer than in the 1984 case of Bernhard Goetz.

In the mid-to-late 1960s, many White Americans began to see liberals as the enemy. These voters were tired of rising crime rates, liberal courts that they believed let criminals off the hook and back onto the street, and a government that seemed indifferent to their own struggles in life. White men, especially, resented the liberal social transformations accomplished by the Black and women’s rights movements.

The state of cities contributed to this anger as crime increased, riots erupted and personal finances depleted during the late 1960s and 1970s.

New York City seemed to be at the epicenter of this urban decay. Faced with the two-headed monster of inflated social spending and dwindling local tax revenue and federal contributions, the city edged toward bankruptcy in 1975. Many conservatives blamed minorities, who they saw as undeserving and dependent on social services paid by their tax dollars. New York City’s failures, writes historian Kim Phillips-Fein, fueled “the antigovernment ethos that was already gaining momentum nationally during the 1970s.”

White Americans’ anger helped propel President Ronald Reagan into office, prevented ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and eventually spawned the war on drugs.

It was in this context that Goetz became a hero on the right. On Dec. 22, 1984, the 37-year-old White electronics engineer shot and severely injured four Black teenagers — Barry Allen, James Ramseur, Darrell Cabey and Troy Canty — on the New York City subway after one of them asked him for five dollars. With nowhere to escape, three of the four 18- to 19-year-olds were struck by Goetz’s Smith & Wesson .38. Goetz then approached Cabey, who was lying face down on the ground, and said, “You seem to be doing alright, here’s another,” before he fired his last shot into the teenager’s back, severing his spinal cord.

The shooting and trial hit a nerve with the White Americans who believed their safety and financial security were under siege. The perceived decrease of public safety, as well as the seemingly indifferent government, took center stage during Goetz’s trial and fanned his widespread support from the public.

After the shooting, Goetz fled New York — blind to the fact that within hours he would be hailed nationally by tabloids and a galvanized public as the “subway vigilante.” Nine days after the shooting, he turned himself in at a police station in Concord, N.H. With his lanky posture and mousy appearance, to many Goetz embodied the image of an abused White man who would not take it any longer. By taking matters into his own hands to maintain law and order, many argued, Goetz emerged as the embodiment of White American masculinity, who stood in stark contrast to the effeminate liberal state.

The way Goetz fit into this role transformed him into a popular hero, earning frequent comparisons to actor Charles Bronson’s character in the 1974 vigilante movie “Death Wish.” In the movie, New York City architect Paul Kersey avenges his wife’s murder and the rape of his daughter by killing villains to restore law and order.

The four teenagers, in turn, fell prey to racist assumptions about Black criminality — the very ideas that fueled the disastrous war on drugs in the ensuing years. Many Americans never really entertained the possibility that they might have been innocent victims. Conversely, many of Goetz’s supporters sympathized and identified with him on the basis of a shared sense of victimhood.

As fear of crime and victimization increased in the years leading up to the Goetz shooting, so too did enthusiasm for gun ownership. Americans found release in the rising number of neighborhood watch groups as well as the massive growth of the National Rifle Association.

Prosecutors charged Goetz with attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment and firearm possession. He claimed self-defense and a majority-White and male jury acquitted him of all charges except illegal gun possession.

The trial opened the floodgates for a heated debate over the right of armed self-defense and vigilantism that, in the minds of many commentators, sprouted from racialized fears of crime. Conservative columnist Patrick Buchanan, a former speechwriter for President Richard M. Nixon who later became Reagan’s communications director, called the public support for Goetz “a sign of moral health.” By contrast, Les Payne, the Black editor of Newsday, pointed out that Goetz had “struck a blow for white manhood.”

The Reagan years had fueled a belief among many White men that liberal forces were neutering them and their power. They saw this attack as driving the decline of American society more broadly.

In a news conference two weeks after the shooting, Reagan broadly denounced vigilantism as the breakdown of civilization. Yet he also voiced compassion for those “who are constantly threatened by crime and feel that law and order is not particularly protecting them.” Americans should not blame the police for rising crime rates, the president believed, but rather a “judicial system that got overzealous in protecting the criminals’ rights and forgot about the victim.”

Similarly, Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) explained in a New York Times op-ed that support for the gunman was rooted in shared fears and frustration. “We are living in fear. We are the oppressed,” he sympathized. Instead of Goetz, he suggested, the four teenagers “who tried to harass him” should have stood trial.

Fanning public fears of violent crime while conjuring victimhood — with both concepts being deeply racialized — politicians such as D’Amato and Reagan created the fertile ground on which vigilante justice and violence could flourish.

This brand of rhetoric, with its dual emphasis on self-reliance and the sanctity of victims’ rights, encouraged White Americans to arm themselves as a strategy for assuming responsibility and compensating for a negligent state. By fueling the narrative that the state was failing Americans — while actively participating in slashing social programs — these politicians also found a way to successfully unite White Americans behind their cause of smaller, but more harshly punitive, government.

The right’s strategic embrace of colorblindness — promising the end of racial discrimination while eventually just covering up racial appeals behind seemingly race-neutral terms — prevented conservatives from blatantly cheering for Goetz. However, the New Right’s subtle victims’ rights rhetoric created a framework for vigilante violence and tough-on-crime politics that continue to resonate today.

When the then 17-year-old Rittenhouse fatally shot two men and wounded another during the protests in Kenosha in 2020, it didn’t take long for Republicans to laud him. Some members of the GOP offered him internships in Congress while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis claimed Rittenhouse did “what we should want citizens to do in such a situation: step forward to defend the community against mob violence.”

Goetz and Rittenhouse emerged as political causes célèbres. Right-wing conservatives vehemently supported both men, even raising funds for their legal defenses. They’ve done so because they recognized that the narrative of the vigilante hero serves as a political strategy to appeal to White Americans. Empathizing with Whites’ perceived victimhood while endorsing armed self-defense creates a sense of unity between Republicans and their aggrieved base. This rhetoric channels that grievance into campaigns and policy battles as well as a shared sense of identity.

It also, however, fuels the very sentiments that fan the flames of vigilantism. Stoking gun enthusiasm among their base while opposing any restrictions on firearms, conservative politicians have contributed to the devastating epidemic of gun violence plaguing America, all in the name of political gain.