In the apocalyptic imagination of the American far-right, violence plays a central role. The right’s radical extremists believe that mainstream American institutions have been rotted from within, undermined by the nefarious influence of Blacks, Jews, and liberals. White Americans are justified — maybe even obligated — to take up arms to protect their people and their culture.
Immediately after Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal on Friday, the fringe right’s online forums lit up with celebration — and among some, a belief that they too can kill without legal consequence. On Telegram, a secure messaging app popular with extremists, the leader of a neo-Nazi group wrote that the verdict gives “good Americans legal precedent and license to kill violent commies without worrying about doing life in prison if we defend ourselves in a riot.”
There is every reason to take such rhetoric seriously. “It has never taken more than a whisper of approval to fan the flames of militant right action. The Kenosha acquittal is a shout,” writes Kathleen Belew, a historian of white power movements at the University of Chicago. Based on how it’s been cheered in some quarters, the verdict is potentially setting the stage for future violence.
Data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project shows that, between January 2020 and June 2021, there were 560 protest events where either demonstrators or counter-demonstrators showed up with guns — about 2 percent of all protests in the United States during the studied time period. The data also shows that these demonstrations are more than five times more likely to involve violent or destructive behavior as compared to unarmed ones.
Johns Hopkins political scientist LillianaMason — the co-author (with Nathan Kalmoe) of the forthcoming Radical American Partisanship — worries that this trend will escalate. At future protests on charged issues like racial justice and voting rights, armed right-wing counterprotesters may continue to descend on America’s cities, in increasingly large numbers. “The January 6 folks coming by, Kyle Rittenhouse-style,” as she put it.