The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An inescapable echo between Trump’s campaign rhetoric and the deaths of protesters in Kenosha

A protester obstructs an armored vehicle attempting to clear the park of demonstrators on Tuesday during clashes outside the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wis. (David Goldman/AP)

If he was there at all, something prompted 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse to grab his rifle and make the short trip from his home in Antioch, Ill., to Kenosha, Wis., on Tuesday. If photos shared on social media are accurate, something spurred him to walk around the town with that rifle in his hands as protests over a police shooting continued into the night. If police are correct that Rittenhouse fired that rifle, if he did shoot three protesters, killing two of them, there was something that caused him to be there to pull the trigger.

This alleged chain of events came from somewhere. Most 17-year-olds don’t see it as their duty to protect the streets of their hometowns, much less of nearby towns where they don’t even live. If Rittenhouse shot those two people dead, there was some spur for him to do so that simply doesn’t exist for most other people.

It's facile to assume that we can identify that spur as the rhetoric offered by President Trump and his reelection campaign. But it's impossible not to notice how that rhetoric echoes in what appears to have happened in Kenosha.

The night before those protesters were shot, five different speakers at the Republican National Convention, including the president’s son, decried uncontrolled violent mobs that they claim have taken over the nation’s streets.

“Trump was elected to protect our families from the vengeful mob that seeks to destroy our way of life, our neighborhoods, schools, churches and values,” said Charlie Kirk, the head of an organization that specifically targets young conservatives.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) argued that election was about preserving the country's greatness.

“Don’t believe me? Look at what’s happening in American cities, cities all run by Democrats: Crime, violence and mob rule,” Jordan said. “Democrats refuse to denounce the mob, and their response to the chaos? Defund the police, defund Border Patrol and defund our military. And while they’re doing all this, they’re also trying to take away your guns.”

Donald Trump Jr. told viewers that "anarchists have been flooding our streets and Democrat mayors are ordering the police to stand down" — both untrue claims but ones which might understandably prompt a credulous person to believe that they themselves would have to stand in opposition to the horde.

The two speakers who most directly spoke to that need, though, were Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who gained national fame — or, on the left, notoriety — when they emerged from their mansion with a handgun and a rifle to confront a Black Lives Matter protest earlier this summer. They were at the convention specifically to defend the idea that this reaction was necessary and justified — and they defended it in the starkest imaginable terms.

"What you saw happen to us could just as easily happen to any of you who are watching from quiet neighborhoods around our country," Patricia McCloskey warned.

"It seems as if the Democrats no longer view the government's job as protecting honest citizens from criminals," Mark McCloskey added, "but rather protecting criminals from honest citizens."

“Make no mistake,” Patricia McCloskey said at one point: “No matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.” A bit later, she continued that argument: “When we don’t have basic safety and security in our communities, we’ll never be free to build a brighter future for ourselves, for our children, for our country. That’s what’s at stake in this election.”

All of that blends together: There are anarchists in the streets and Democrats would rather defund than dispatch the police. They want to take your guns, but look what happens if you aren’t armed! It’s all an arrow meant to point at the reelection of Donald Trump. But it’s obvious how it could be seen to point somewhere darker.

This was not solely the dominion of that one night of programming, of course. This assertion that America is on the brink of being overrun has been central to Trump's rhetoric all summer, since protests emerged in late May. It's been amplified in conservative media, particularly on Fox News. The network's Tucker Carlson has spoken with increasing agitation each week about the crisis that looms over the country.

As The Post reported on Wednesday, this sense of crisis and shock has prompted scores of people to take to the streets with firearms at protests this summer. Some do so as members of organized militias. Some show up in coordination with far-right revolutionary movements. Some, it seems, do so in the belief that they are the modern equivalent of colonial Minutemen, the guardians of the republic who many of them believe the Second Amendment was written to empower.

Is it unreasonable to think that this rhetoric reached Kyle Rittenhouse? Rittenhouse attended a Trump rally in Wisconsin in mid-January as BuzzFeed first reported, managing to score a position near the stage.

"Democrats stand for crime, corruption, and chaos," Trump said in that speech, months before this summer's protests. "Republicans stand for law, order, and justice."

Even if Rittenhouse wasn't motivated by far-right politics, far-right politics sees him as one of their own. Firebrand Ann Coulter, who turned on Trump for being too soft, declared that she wished Rittenhouse could be her president. A contributor to Turning Point USA, the organization run by Charlie Kirk, defended Rittenhouse's alleged actions as a "justified shooting" in a video that's been shared nearly 150,000 times.

Tucker Carlson also defended the alleged shooter.

"People in charge from the governor of Wisconsin on down refused to enforce the law," Carlson said on Wednesday night. "They stood back and they watched Kenosha burn. So are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder? How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?"

"Everyone could see what was happening in Kenosha," he added. After all, Carlson had been broadcasting scenes of from the city repeatedly, intoning about the horrors he wanted his viewers to see.

Maybe Carlson's wrong, and there's no connection between what Rittenhouse was seeing and hearing and what he allegedly did. Maybe it was just a thing that happened, a natural offshoot of what the Democrats and not the Republicans were saying and doing.

Maybe. There's not, at this moment, a clear line.

Hours after Rittenhouse was arrested, President Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump spoke at Night 3 of the Republican convention.

"In recent months, we've seen weak, spineless politicians seek control of our great American cities to violent mobs," Trump said. "Defund the police is the rallying cry for the new radical Democrat Party. Joe Biden will not do what it takes to maintain order to keep our children safe in our neighborhoods and in their schools, to restore our American way of life."

Lara Trump's segment was pretaped. So it's possible that she spoke those words before the two protesters in Kenosha were even shot.

The GOP convention decided to run it anyway.