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Terry H. Schwadron

Sept. 8, 2020

In the days following Donald Trump’s visit to Kenosha, WI, his supporters have been flocking on social media to support Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who faces intentional homicide charges for fatally shooting two counter protesters in the chaotic streets.

It follows saluting the McCloskey couple from St. Louis at the Republican National Convention for pulling guns on peaceful protesters. It is difficult to see these simply as honor for being against violence; both instances have serious racial overtones.

And it follows the contentious Atlantic magazine report that Trump has routinely trashed military troops and their dead and wounded as “losers” and “suckers.”

The takeaway — these are Trump World heroes. Is it fair to draw a conclusion from this?

By now, much of these narratives are known, though important details — as in what was happening before video captured Rittenhouse firing — has not been released, and the heat of the moment is passing a bit. Nevertheless, Donald Trump has put himself forward as a would-be chief defense counsel, both outlining a legal defense strategy and inappropriately mixing himself into a volatile single crime case.

More importantly, perhaps, Trump’s supporters are following him down a rocky legal and political path that eschews concern for deepening the nation’s racial divides.

Rittenhouse, who often posted on social media in support of police and seemed an active Trump supporter, went to Kenosha to protect buildings, he said. He told friends he was ready for conflict with Black Lives Matter protesters seeking to redress the police shooting of Jacob Blake seven times in the back at point-blank range as his children looked on.

According to the criminal complaint, Rittenhouse scuffled with protesters near a car dealership, fell, turned and opened fire, killing two people and wounding a third. Even as police and emergency vehicles were arriving, an openly armed Rittenhouse, who is white, walked past police officers unchallenged. He was arrested 30 miles away in Antioch, Illinois.

Resolving the case is a matter for the court, of course. Prosecutors call his actions homicide; defense lawyers say self-defense. So, too, are any cases involving Blake and the two police officers involved in a shooting that, again, was shared through video, to be an assault on what we think of as community policing.

The Political Verdict

Rittenhouse aside, it’s the political verdict that should draw our interest, the choice in who’s a hero and who’s a goat. We learn about character, in part, by seeing whom a candidate holds in the highest or worst repute. Joe Biden’s choices seem the exact opposite of Trump’s.

But there are other questions here.

First, why is it necessary for Trump to take a stance in Rittenhouse’s criminal status after ignoring the original Blake shooting? And while we all understand that Trump is seeking a symbol for his Law & Order, anti-violence campaign, defending someone whom prosecutors say murdered two people seems an odd choice. Even if he wants to bolster his pro-police image, defending someone charged by those very police seems weird.

What do we make of a defense of vigilantism, particularly vigilante activity that has included a sizeable number of white nationalists? And how is armed vigitante violence different from vigilantes or protesters who represent a different political viewpoint, since Trump is quick to associate “antifa” thugs with Black Lives Matter adherents, “leftists” and Democrats?

Trump is outspoken in insisting that none of his representation of Rittenhouse is about anything but opposing violence in the streets. But he refuses to engage on the underlying questions here about race relations, policing and the long list of incidents and policies that argue for recognizing systems promoting racism in our nation. It is way too easy to conclude that Trump’s selection of Rittenhouse as the poster boy for the remainder of the campaign is a salute to keeping power, money, jobs, education and housing choices in the hands of white suburbanites.

I’m acknowledging Trump’s need to have a hero in all this, and even granting him the power to choose someone who opposes Black Lives Matter. But choosing someone for showing up with rifle and ammo as state-sanctioned bringer of violence to a campaign preaching anti-violence is, well, nuts, if not just out of bounds for me.

Lemming Effect?

The hardest part of selecting Rittenhouse is the knee-jerk following among supporters. Trump himself may find there to be a certain logic in promoting armed insurrection, but his followers should be able to separate themselves. They are not.

Ask Trump opponents, and they see the evidence of white supremacists here. Ask Trump supporters, and they see simply the need for cities and businesses to operate normally with no public concern about police shootings expressing themselves in the streets. Ask BLM supporters, and you hear that police should have stopped armed vigilantes from coming in from out of state to look for trouble in the first place.

Within the hour of Trump leaving Kenosha, there were images of fistfights between supporters and opponents. This is calm?

At its heart, what I see here — as in so many areas — is a Trump who is big of talk and short on fixing things. Trump talks unity and peacefulness, and, moments later, trashes the other half of the country with whom he finds no political support, and sees nothing wrong with armed white people going into state houses or on the streets or in truck caravans firing paint balls at protesters from the other side.

It’s too important to him politically to defend guns along with a heaping dose of nostalgia for times when Confederate monuments were a good thing, when suburbs were for white people, and when anyone disagreeing with him would simply slink away.

And Trump shows he is ready to align with troops deployed against Americans, and vigilantes to fight city officials when it suits him. Thus, In Trump World, Rittenhouse is now hero. John Lewis is not, nor is Jacob Blake.

That’s not what the America I want is about.


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