The Mayhem Watch is on. Closing arguments in the trial of “Kenosha Shooter” Kyle Rittenhouse are expected Monday, and after weeks of hype, the country is primed to explode again. Wisconsin governor Tony Evers announced 500 National Guard troops will be on hand for potential post-verdict “unrest,” which seems almost guaranteed, no matter the result.
As with all major news stories lately, the Rittenhouse case saw idiosyncrasies wash away as coverage accumulated, with pundits pounding the trial into yet another generalized referendum on American culture war. Prestige media made Rittenhouse a stand-in for the Proud Boys, January 6th, school board protests, anti-mask protests, QAnon, Blue Lives Matter, Trump, “Domestic Terrorism,” fascism, school shooters, and every other naughty thing, with everyone from then-candidate Joe Biden to The Intercept blithely declaring him a white supremacist. The efforts to cast Rittenhouse as a symbol of racism and white rage have been awesome in quantity and transparently, intentionally provoking, with even leading papers like the New York Times standardizing a practice of underscoring Rittenhouse’s race (“white teenager”) while leaving the identities of those shot out of coverage. Glenn Greenwald pointed out that his old outlet, The Intercept, noted Rittenhouse’s race 20 times in one piece while keeping schtum about the color of those shot. This has gone on for so long, we’ve seen a foreign newspaper misreport that the two people killed in the case were black. In the public consciousness, they might as well have been.
Because Rittenhouse from the day of the shooting was made a symbol of Fox-watching, Trump-loving conservatives, he was also quickly adopted in red media as a hero, which “he surely wasn’t,” as Andrew Sullivan put it. This turbo-charged the freakout even more, as Rittenhouse’s defenders turned his case into a referendum on everything from media coverage of last summer’s protests of Black Lives Matter to the performance (or non-performance, as it were) of police during the George Floyd/Jacob Blake demonstrations, to a dozen other things that made public passions rise in the last year.
Rittenhouse in other words became a symbol of so many things to so many people that the specifics of his legal case have ceased to be relevant. There seems to be no such thing as an editorialist who has negative feelings about, say, Rittenhouse posing with Proud Boys, yet also believes that incident can’t be evidence since it happened after the shooting. Everyone picks a side and stays there. Pundits are telling us that any opinion on how the jury should rule can only be understood as a reflection of racial attitudes. “If you’re defending Kyle Rittenhouse, you might be a white supremacist. Just sayin,” is how Tweeter-with-beard and sometimes-journalist David Leavitt puts it.