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What the Rittenhouse verdict and Republican lawmakers’ embrace of violence portends for the future of American democracy

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For those who recall the grotesque circus of George Zimmerman’s 2013 trial, Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal felt painfully familiar.

Like Zimmerman, the self-appointed neighborhood watchman who stalked and shot a Black teenager, Rittenhouse claimed self-defense after provoking a confrontation. Rittenhouse, a white teenager, took an assault rifle to “defend” Kenosha, Wisconsin — a city 45 minutes from his Illinois home — against a Black Lives Matter demonstration. After lying about his medical credentials and pointing his gun at a bystander, Rittenhouse fatally shot a protester who chased him, then another who struck him with a skateboard, then shot an armed paramedic in the arm.

“Initial aggressors” aren’t supposed to be entitled to claim self-defense. But the legal lines are blurry enough that aggression lies in the eye of the beholder — in other words, whom the system deems the “right” vigilante or the “right” victim. Even the three Georgia men who killed Ahmaud Arbery while making a “citizen’s arrest” for Jogging While Black nearly escaped prosecution; until video footage surfaced exposing what happened, the cops and the district attorney were happy to sweep the murder under the rug.

A further complication: Wisconsin’s law required prosecutors to prove that Rittenhouse didn’t act in self-defense instead of requiring Rittenhouse to prove he did, a steep hill to climb. So it wasn’t altogether surprising that a jury found Rittenhouse’s conduct legally justifiable.

More troubling were the conservatives who tripped over themselves to turn the wannabe Proud Boy into a hero — here again, not unlike Zimmerman. Post-verdict, Rittenhouse lunched with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and took a victory lap on his new pal Tucker Carlson’s show. Three Republican congressmen—Madison Cawthorn, Matt Gaetz and Paul Gosar — offered him internships. Far-right paramilitary types were almost masturbatory in their glee.

Armed vigilantism is in vogue on the right. So, too, is political violence.

Earlier this month, a recording emerged of former president Donald Trump defending the Jan. 6 insurrectionists who chanted about hanging his vice president, Mike Pence, saying Pence had it coming: “The people were very angry. … It’s common sense that you’re supposed to protect. How can you — if you know a vote is fraudulent, right? — how can you pass on a fraudulent vote to Congress? How can you do that? And I’m telling you: 50/50, it’s right down the middle for the top Constitutional scholars when I speak to them. Anybody I spoke to — almost all of them at least pretty much agree, and some very much agree with me — because he’s passing on a vote that he knows is fraudulent.”

It goes without saying that every word in that quote is bullshit. But it’s effective bullshit. More than half of the GOP has bought into Trump’s lie, and party officials are turning his lies into action items. The Republicans who run Wisconsin’s legislature are trying to hijack the state’s elections processes — if some get their way, even arresting members of a commission who relaxed absentee voting rules during the pandemic — based on conspiracy theories about fraud.

Meanwhile, 30% of Republicans and 40% of those who trust far-right “news” sources say violence might be necessary to “save” the country. The handful of House Republicans who voted for President Biden’s infrastructure bill are facing death threats. Gosar — the white nationalist Arizona congressman who wants to be Rittenhouse’s bestie — tweeted an anime video of himself murdering Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Republican leaders have not condemned him. Jan. 6 fanboy Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri is trying to bolster his conservative cred by staking claim to masculinity — which, for a guy who looks like overstretched string cheese, is weird.

Beneath these currents is an increasingly conscious shift among conservative activists and intellectuals away from liberal democracy and toward a more authoritarian model — particularly Victor Orbán’s in Hungary — that uses the government to impose Western values. As Rod Dreher of The American Conservative recently told David Brooks for The Atlantic, the left (allegedly) controls economic, cultural and educational institutions. “We need to unapologetically embrace the use of state power.”

The rot is already eating us from within. For the first time, the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance included the United States on its list of “backsliding democracies” in a report released on Monday. “Significantly, the United States, the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself,” the report says.

But this is where the Republican Party has been headed since the Gingrich Revolution; its trajectory accelerated after the Tea Party wave, then reached terminal velocity during the Trump era. Now we’re adding to that fetid stew an overwhelming sense of grievance — hallucinating about lost elections, pearl-clutching about “wokeness” — that justifies violence as politics by other means.

In less than 14 months, this party will likely control Congress.


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