As soon as the verdict rang out across cable news and Twitter, the far-right’s most ardent fighters began to cheer en masse. Kyle Rittenhouse was not guilty. More than that, he had inadvertently tested a blueprint for how to travel across state lines, load up a rifle and target people you dislike at a protest — then kill in the name of self-defense. The implications are obvious and dangerous, but the mood in far-right chat rooms is a blend of locker-room celebration tinged with ‘roid rage.
“Our patience has its limits,” reads one meme with a photo of Rittenhouse armed and walking, eyes glowing red.
“No fucks given. I’d kill every one of you communists and eat a cheeseburger while I prepare your body for disposal. No remorse. No quarter. That’s what’s coming for you,” wrote skinhead extremist Brien James.
Even white nationalist organizer Jason Kessler, whom a jury recently found liable in the deadly violence of the 2017 Unite the Right rally, was fired up and ready to talk tough about his next target: “If shit goes down in Kenosha tonight I’m gonna be here working on IDing the rioters,” he wrote on Telegram.
Some of the speech uncovered by groups like the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights shows a dedication to building a narrative around the moment, not just celebrating a single act. “This is a good time to reflect on the fact that our enemies don’t control everything and they haven’t won yet. Our enemies are evil Jewish child rapists, like the devil Kyle Rittenhouse exterminated,” Tony Hovarter, a young neo-Nazi organizer, wrote to his supporters on Telegram.
Other calls to action were even more blunt. “Report any and all Communist activity in the New England area in the wake of the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict,” reads one message in a group called “New England Nationalists” (perhaps related to the neo-Nazi group first established in 2019).
Nearly two weeks later, not much has changed in the digital halls of fascist organizing: People are still meme’ing Rittenhouse’s baby face and championing his victory, despite all of the backpedaling the 18-year-old is doing in the aftermath. Experts on extremism now fear that far-right agitators will find ways to incite, fueled by the misguided belief that they can stand their ground and threaten fatal violence in any situation, especially if they’re outmatched in numbers.
“The verdict is confirmation that they were right all along. The Rittenhouse verdict has given them permission to do what they’ve been craving to do for a long time,” journalist and researcher David Neiwert told Salon. “The situation is going to become very fraught, very soon. Any time there is a protest, I believe there are going to be guns out. It is going to be dangerous.”
What’s much more unclear, however, is how and when a Rittenhouse-like scenario will unfold again. Events like the January 6th insurrection and similar smaller attacks suggest that far-right extremists can mobilize en masse, but there’s not much evidence that a swell in online threats will actually lead to a wave of organized vigilante attacks. While violent speech is a problem on its own, the vast majority of people are incapable of following through on such bluster.
The real problem, like with Rittenhouse himself, is the danger of a lone wolf: Right-wing sympathizers who have gotten angry on a diet of conspiracies and hate, and stride into the world believing they’re capable of heroism — until they realize they’re in too deep, and have to shoot their way out in a panic.
In one sense, the excited reaction of the far-right to the Rittenhouse verdict is also a moment of reflection for anti-fascist activists and other counter-protesters who show up to confront extremists in their communities. For some, not much has changed on the ground. “Extremist [right-wing] groups already felt there was a license to do this kind of thing,” Bianca Wright, who affiliates with the Puget Sound Socialist Rifle Association, told NPR. “They’ve felt that their violence against dissenters is justified and even so, our numbers at demonstrations continue to rise.”
But for others, the formula for how to stay safe and effective in fighting violent fascist activity has shifted under the pressure of the Rittenhouse precedent, which stands apart from prior “stand-your-ground” killings (like that of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman) because of the fact that it happened at a protest. “It’s not like I didn’t think fascist protests would be armed. I’ve seen guns, been shot by paintballs. People have been stabbed while counter-protesting. So I’m maybe less likely to go out, especially if I question we have the numbers to mass up and be safe,” says Alice, an anti-fascist organizer in California who asked to remain anonymous. “But while I’m not personally ready to carry a gun at a protest, I know people who are prepared for that now, even if they could get in huge trouble with law enforcement if found out.”
Perhaps, in the long run, the Rittenhouse verdict will be less of a milestone and more of an evolution in the way the right wages war against its enemies. Even before the decision, the far-right calls for turning up violence were escalating in wide view of the public. Case in point: In October, a man at a Turning Point USA rally hosted by conservative firebrand Charlie Kirk stepped up to the mic and openly asked, “When do we get to use the guns?”
“How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?” he added.
The same rhetoric was echoed on the talk show of Vicki McKenna, who built up a hero narrative while reiterating that “nobody — nobody!” is “willing to defend” Wisconsin from the leftist scourge. “I believe it’s time for a civilian army, so to speak, to show up in Madison and guard our history, and our artifacts, and our Capitol and our people,” one caller told her. “Enough is enough. I mean, this is absolutely getting crazy.”
We still have little idea of how exactly violence on the ground will unfold as a result of increasing extremism online. But given how the “patriot” and armed militia movements are continuing to grow in visibility and acceptance, it’s obvious that many more Americans are daydreaming of strapping up and driving to the nearest riot, ready to restore order with their finger on the trigger — as long as someone doesn’t beat them to the shot.