The vast majority of young men, at some point, will entertain violent fantasies about what they would do in a fight. In these fantasies, the cause is always just: you are the good guy with the gun, and the people you are shooting have forfeited their right to due process or existence by acts of aggression and evil.
Encouraging and planting these fantasies is how the military recruits its soldiers, how the police hire officers, how gun companies sell their wares. Our current society is almost uniquely designed to enable them, as political rhetoric and mass media consistently frame structural injustices as zero-sum battles where the other side is trying to take what is yours. In other words, if you’re looking for a fight, it’s easier than ever to find one.
Over the past two decades, the right has weaponized these violent fantasies and made them the core of its entire platform: the mid-aughts devotion to “the troops,” the post-Sandy Hook devotion to hardline second Amendment gun politics, the Trump era of violent xenophobia in immigration policy. But since, generally speaking, there are some token barriers to entry for being a cop or a soldier, the right has also created a third option: a militia.
The requirements for joining a militia are very simple: a weapon and the desire to use it. Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who allegedly shot three people and killed two in Kenosha, Wisconsin on Tuesday night, had both. Rittenhouse described himself as a militia member and appears to have been linked to a group called the Kenosha Guard, which showed up uninvited to protests on Tuesday with the stated goal of defending property from protesters. They were received warmly by the police, and then the shooting began.
Throughout Donald Trump’s first term as president, liberals have repeatedly called on his administration and other GOP leaders to denounce militia activity and right-wing violence at protests. Republicans have overwhelmingly failed to do so, even in extreme cases like the outright white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, where Trump said there were “good people” on both sides. And still, the notion persists that these groups can be brought to bear with the right sage guidance from their chosen political wing. In a piece titled “The Violence Could Get Much Worse” for the Atlantic on Thursday, Elaine Godfrey writes:
Yet the partisan nature of these groups also means that Republican leaders can help put a stop to their vigilantism. Political violence tends to increase during election years, German said, and that’s especially true in periods when rhetoric is heated and political polarization is at record levels. A consistent message from Trump and other elected officials at both the local and national levels could help calm the turmoil.
Making this point in 2020 is absurd. Militia violence is part of the plan. The GOP does not want to put a stop to it. They want to encourage it at every turn. In many cases, the militia ideologies are supported and shared by the police, as HuffPost reported earlier today. The right wing knows this, even if liberals have convinced themselves that our institutions can still save us.
In Kenosha, the particulars of Rittenhouse’s alleged murders have made him a perfect candidate for right-wing hero-worship. According to a New York Times visual investigation, another party fired a gunshot in Rittenhouse’s vicinity before he shot his first victim, an unarmed man who was pursuing him. After Rittenhouse shot the first man, he was again pursued down the street by multiple protesters, one of whom, a medic, was also armed with a handgun. Rittenhouse was struck, knocked to the ground, and then began shooting.
There are multiple ways to see this: one, that an armed man menaced protesters until he provoked a response, panicked, shot someone, and then committed both murder and attempted murder while fleeing from citizens attempting to disarm and detain him. But the armed right already sees nothing but self-defense, an almost perfect example of the violent, righteous fantasy that so many young men with guns play out in their minds every day.
What many eventually realize, either through direct experience or the gradual tempering of age, is that these ideal situations do not exist. Violence is chaotic, messy, destructive, and confusing; no one who witnesses or takes part in it walks away unscathed. Wisconsin is an open carry state; while the majority of firepower was in the hands of the right, some protesters were armed as well. This puts the rest of us in a bind: the natural way to resist armed violence is to meet it in kind, but the societal bias toward right-wing armed groups means that any escalation only benefits their goals.
More guns at protests will inevitably mean more gun victims at protests. Until now, those victims have almost entirely been protesters — HuffPost reports that six protesters have been struck by vigilante bullets this summer, and three have died — but eventually, the right will have martyrs to add to its heroes. I don’t have an answer to this, only a warning: that Godfrey’s headline is correct, even if her solution is as much of a fantasy as the one that brought Rittenhouse to Kenosha. The violence is going to get worse, and no one in the country’s ruling party has any desire to stop it.