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Trump’s embrace of Kenosha shooter raises vigilante fears for election

In normal times, a militia-supporting man caught on video shooting dead two protesters and seriously wounding another on the streets of an American city would be a pariah.

These are not normal times.

Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, who this month was charged with committing intentional homicide in Kenosha, Wisconsin, has instead found himself being defended by Donald Trump, and hailed as a hero by rightwing punditry and an assorted bunch of Republicans and conservatives.

Experts warn that Trump’s embrace of Rittenhouse, who sat in the front row at a Trump rally in January and was in Kenosha as part of a rightwing militia nominally there to protect property, could pave the way for more vigilantism in Trump’s name – and have catastrophically violent results come November.

“Trump has made the election about the idea of citizen paramilitaries, federal forces and the government administration, against looters, rioters, demonstrators and Democrats,” said Joe Lowndes, professor of political science at the University of Oregon.

“With [Trump’s] continual messaging that there is election fraud, that mail-in ballots are going to be a form of election theft, what happens on election day, or the days that follow that? What happens if there are states where it’s unclear for a few days who the winner is?”

More people than ever are expected to vote by mail, given the US is still in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, and it could potentially be days before a winner is announced.

Trump has repeatedly claimed mail-in ballots are subject to fraud – in fact voter fraud is very rare – and said the only way he will lose “is if this election is rigged”. Some of Trump’s supporters are likely to take this to heart, and the lionization of Rittenhouse by Republicans could set an example that direct action has been given a nod and a wink.

“If we have now a big group of people who are well-armed, who are convinced that there’s a civil war coming, that this election is going to be fraudulent if Trump doesn’t win, what happens then?” Lowndes said.

A matter of hours after Rittenhouse allegedly shot and killed two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha on 25 August, he found himself being celebrated by Trump-supporting pundits.

“I want him as my president,” Ann Coulter, an influential far-right political commentator, said. Tucker Carlson, one of the most celebrated hosts on the conservative Fox News channel, said Rittenhouse had sought to “maintain order when no one else would”.

Trump himself offered a defense of Rittenhouse. “That was an interesting situation,” Trump said. “You saw the same tape as I saw. And he was trying to get away from them, I guess; it looks like. And he fell, and then they very violently attacked him. And it was something that we’re looking at right now and it’s under investigation.”

As Rittenhouse received the president’s support and was lauded by the right wing, fundraisers were set up for his legal expenses.

“Rittenhouse has become a martyr. And within 24 hours they’re raising thousands of dollars for this person,” said Dr Najja Kofi Baptist, assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Arkansas.

The backing of Trump and others amounts to an endorsement of Rittenhouse’s behavior, Baptist said.

“It says: ‘This is how we train our children. This is what we should do.’

“It’s doing the same thing as during the presidential campaign when Trump said: ‘Back in the day, if someone disrupted a campaign speech, you would do something to them.’

“You don’t have to tell people to do it, they will do it automatically because you’re giving them the cues. You’re saying it is OK to engage in this behavior.”

Donald Trump on accused killer Kyle Rittenhouse: ‘That was a very interesting situation.’Donald Trump on accused killer Kyle Rittenhouse: ‘That was a very interesting situation.’ Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

That tacit approval of Trump supporters’ committing acts of violence has continued, including by senior Republican politicians.

The Republican senator Ron Johnson, who represents Wisconsin, refused to specifically condemn Rittenhouse and praised “citizen soldiers” as a way of stopping rioting. The Republican congressman Thomas Massie said Rittenhouse had “exhibited incredible restraint and presence and situational awareness.”

Massie added: “He didn’t empty a magazine into a crowd.”

The embrace of Rittenhouse doesn’t stand in isolation. Trump infamously said there were “good people on both sides” of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, where an anti-racism protester was killed by a man who later described himself as a neo-Nazi.

A more recent precedent for the defense, and in some cases endorsement, of Rittenhouse and violence against anti-racism protesters came just a week before the Kenosha killings, at the Republican national convention.

Among the speakers at the convention, where Donald Trump formally accepted the Republican nomination, were Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who have been charged with unlawful use of a weapon after they aimed guns at a group of Black Lives Matter protesters in June.

“Having the McCloskeys speak at the event signals that there is open Republican support for the idea of what they see as self-defense, what they see as legitimate force used against protest, by civilians, not by police,” Lowndes said.

In Wisconsin citizens have a legal right to carry semi-automatic “assault weapon-style” rifles like the one Rittenhouse had strapped across his chest, and some of the Republican support for Rittenhouse is clearly based around his right to self-defense.

The impact of people like Rittenhouse, and the McCloskeys, defending their constitutional rights, with the backing of the president and the Republican party, however, can be to deny other people theirs.

“Now you’ve got this not incidental political force, social force in society that’s well-armed and quite dangerous, and which is growing,” Lowndes said. “And there’s no doubt this is suppressing protests around Black Lives Matter.”

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