August 27, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
The meaning of Kyle Rittenhouse
Violence is the end as well as the means of preserving the white status quo.
I said yesterday cities are key to understanding the authoritarian imagination. They are where races, religions and creeds intermingle. They are where ideas, businesses and individuals compete, leading to degrees of prosperity. To the authoritarian, the first is a perversion of God’s order. The second is an impossibility. Intermingling cannot lead to the Good Life. It can only lead to crime, disease, and violence. When one of these things actually happens, it isn’t due to failed policies, corrupt leadership, or social ills with no solution. It’s due to what cities are. The answer isn’t getting rid of certain flawed systems, as liberals would argue. It’s getting rid of certain people.
Not all violence is the same, however. State violence against certain people deserving state violence is OK, even if the act of violence is morally and legally questionable. It’s not yet known why a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Jacob Blake. But to the authoritarian, the reason is obvious. He’s Black. He deserved being shot, even shot seven times—in the back—because he’s Black. (His family reported this week Blake is now paralyzed from the waist down and may never walk again.) Authoritarians know his being Black is not good enough for respectable people. So they seek out “reasons.” Police eventually found a knife on the floor of Blake’s car. Megyn Kelly, the former Fox anchor, tweeted: “Jacob Blake was armed with a KNIFE when cops shot him says Wisconsin AG.” Kelly’s tweet perfectly captures the authoritarian penchant for rationalizing violence never thought to need rationalizing in the first place.
Respectable pundits are unwilling to say what needs saying.
Kelly is a private citizen free to express trash opinions to her heart’s content. Problems arise when authoritarians work inside and outside law enforcement to prop up unsustainable social and political orders. Kenosha has since Sunday seen legitimate protests demanding accountability and change mixed with illegitimate rioting and vandalism (participants do not appear always to be distinct from each other). This has led to the use of legitimate and illegitimate law enforcement. Kyle Rittenhouse, the white man who shot three people Wednesday, killing two, was embraced by Kenosha police. Before the shooting, they thanked him for patrolling the streets, even gave him water. Video posted by the Times shows him trying to turn himself in afterward, but cops in armed vehicles, evidently recognizing him as safely one of their own, drive on by. (Rittenhouse is now in police custody, facing first-degree homicide charges.)
The Rittenhouse-Kenosha connection probably stems from a years’ long effort on the part of white supremacists to infiltrate state and local cop shops. A 2006 FBI report “detailed the threat of white nationalists and skinheads infiltrating police in order to disrupt investigations against fellow members and recruit other supremacists,” according to a 2016 PBS report. It “identified white supremacists in law enforcement as a concern, because of their access to both ‘restricted areas vulnerable to sabotage’ and elected officials or people who could be seen as ‘potential targets for violence.’ The memo also warned of ‘ghost skins,’ hate group members who don’t overtly display their beliefs in order to ‘blend into society and covertly advance white supremacist causes.’”
The difference now is authoritarians are no longer in the shadows. Instead of deescalating social unrest, chaos and lawlessness, they are escalating it in the open, as the Rittenhouse shooting demonstrates. Moreover, and more dangerous, is the police-vigilante nexus is taking on national contours the closer we get to the election. Donald Trump sends frequent messages to allies inside and outside law enforcement, inciting legal and illegal violence to protect “real Americans” whose “traditions” are imperiled by the corruption, filth and disease in cities. Dangerous, too, is the deployment of Trump’s own paramilitary, agents of the Department of Homeland Security apparently more loyal to him than America. He has vowed to send them to cities in swing states to defend against “voter fraud.” In effect, he’s announcing an intent to commit a crime, but local police, being mostly aligned with his authoritarianism, are unlikely to act without pressure from local leaders and citizens to equitably enforce the law.
Thomas Edsall was right today when he said the second of two planks on the Republican Party’s platform packs a bigger punch: “the preservation of the status quo by stemming the erosion of the privileged status of white Christian America.” But neither Edsall nor other respectable pundits seem willing to say what needs saying: that violence is the end as well as the means of preserving the white status quo. It doesn’t matter if Jacob Blake broke a law deserving a violent reaction from a white police officer. It doesn’t matter if Blake’s conduct was illegal. He himself is “illegal,” according to authoritarian logic. Being Black is “illegal.” He deserved what he got, and all the complaining from liberals is just betrayal of what “real Americans” stand for, another reason, according to this logic, why they cannot be allowed to win control, and that every effort they make to win justifies all acts of violence required to prevent it.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.