Wearing suits and ties, the two men give the camera smiles and thumbs up. One is Donald Trump, former president of the United States. The other is Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two people at an anti-racism protest. And behind them is a framed photo of Trump meeting the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
The mesmerizing tableau emerged from the ex-president’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida earlier this week. It was, in effect, the coronation of Rittenhouse as a future star of the rightwing media, Republican party and “Make America great again” (Maga) movement in their crusade against liberalism.
“Kyle Rittenhouse has become the poster child for a general feeling among some in this country that White America is under siege,” Eddie Glaude, chairman of the department of African American studies at Princeton University, wrote in the Washington Post. “Rittenhouse defended himself, this argument goes, and White America must do the same.”
Rittenhouse was 17 last year when he travelled 20 miles from his home in Antioch, Illinois, to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where racial justice protests had been held since the shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, by a white police officer.
Rittenhouse joined others who said they wanted to protect private property. Armed with an AR-style semiautomatic rifle, he shot and killed two people and wounded a third. In court he argued that he fired in self-defense after he was attacked and in fear for his life.
When a jury acquitted Rittenhouse on all charges earlier this month, progressive activists urged fresh debate on gun safety and vigilantism. But Republican members of Congress wasted no time in lionising Rittenhouse as a victim turned hero.
Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Paul Gosar of Arizona floated the idea of offering Rittenhouse an internship in their offices on Capitol Hill. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Florida trumped them by sponsoring a House bill to award Rittenhouse a congressional gold medal for protecting the community of Kenosha.
Not to be outdone, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida tipped as a potential presidential candidate in 2024, declared: “Kyle Rittenhouse did what we should want citizens to do in such a situation: step forward to defend the community against mob violence.”
And in light of Rittenhouse’s meeting with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, it would come as no surprise if the now 18-year-old is given a speaking slot at next year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) or a future Republican National Convention (RNC).
Kurt Bardella, an adviser to the Democratic National Committee, said: “It’s very clear that they’re trying to make him their mascot. Any time that your mascot is someone who thought that it was an acceptable form of protest to show up at a political event with an AR-15, that is glorifying violence. And that’s a very dangerous thing to prop up and promote.”
In the week of Rittenhouse’s acquittal, all but two House Republicans refused to censure Gosar for posting an animated video that depicted him killing Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and attacking Biden.
Bardella, a former Republican congressional aide and spokesperson for rightwing Breitbart News, added: “It is a pattern. These aren’t isolated incidents. One is following the other and it’s not an accident and it’s not a coincidence. It’s a deliberate strategy.”
The sanctification of Rittenhouse, who was photographed in a bar before his trial with apparent members of the far-right Proud Boys, fits a tried and trusted playbook. Mark and Patricia McCloskey, a white couple in St Louis who pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protesters marching past their house, addressed last year’s RNC a day before Rittenhouse opened fire in Kenosha.
Mark McCloskey is now running for the US Senate in Missouri and welcomed Rittenhouse’s acquittal by stating: “Liberals want to defund the police and prevent you from defending yourself, your family, your home, and your businesses. I will never stand for that. I stood for Kyle Rittenhouse and his right to self-defense.”
Nicholas Sandmann, a high school student from Kentucky who sued media outlets for their depiction of his interaction – wearing a Maga cap – with a Native American activist on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington also came to personify grievances on the right.
And the pro-Trump mob that stormed the US Capitol on 6 January in an attempt to block certification of Joe Biden’s election has received similar treatment. Taylor Greene visited accused insurrectionists in what she called the “patriot wing” of a Washington prison, condemning its conditions as she tweeted: “I have never seen human suffering like I witnessed last night.”
Trump himself has praised Ashli Babbitt, a Capitol rioter fatally shot by police, as “a truly incredible person” and recorded a video to mark what would have been her 36th birthday in what many regard as an effort to turn her into a martyr.
Each cause célèbre is typically magnified by conservative media. On Monday more than 5m viewers watched Rittenhouse interviewed by Tucker Carlson, the Fox News opinion host’s biggest audience since the night of the 6 January attack.
Carlson told viewers: “During the course of our long conversation, Kyle Rittenhouse struck us as bright, decent, sincere, dutiful and hardworking … exactly the kind of person you would want many more of in your country. He’s not especially political. He never wanted to be the symbol of anything.” He also described Rittenhouse as a “sweet kid”.
In the interview, Rittenhouse claimed that he had been “extremely defamed” during the case, fuelling speculation that he will take legal action against the media and politicians. Sandmann urged him to do so, writing in the Daily Mail: “The parallels between me and Kyle Rittenhouse are impossible not to draw … The attacks on Kyle came from the national news media, just as they came for me.”
Other Fox News presenters have revelled in an opportunity to “own the libs”. Laura Ingraham tweeted: “The Left is going wild. Enjoy,” ahead of a show captioned: “Kyle and the liberal mind.” Sean Hannity interviewed Trump, who after meeting Rittenhouse made the provocative claim: “He should not have had to suffer through a trial. He should never have been put through that.”
Such comments imply resistance to a leftwing tyranny that assails individual rights, such as the right to bear arms. Dan Cassino, a political scientist at Fairleigh Dickinson University and author of Fox News and American Politics: How One Channel Shapes American Politics and Society, said: “This is where the energy in the party is.
“If you ask people on the right or look at rightwing media, they’ll tell you all the people Kyle Rittenhouse shot were criminals, they were terrible, they were going to kill everybody and these people are heroes for standing up, especially for using their second amendment rights.
“That’s a big part of this narrative, that having guns allows you to stand up to disorder and is a necessary thing to do in order to protect your community. It’s not Kyle Rittenhouse himself: he was protecting his community, and that’s what the second amendment is about as far as they’re concerned.”
But the normalisation of violence represented by Trump’s remarks at rallies, Gosar’s tweet and Rittenhouse’s valorisation is likely to be politically polarising, firing up the Maga base but turning off certain constituencies in elections.
Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “The challenge for Republicans who are running in competitive seats is, is that who you want? He’s a guy who is not cheered by a lot of people, including suburban and better educated women. The idea of people running around with automatic weapons in street? That doesn’t really excite them.
“I expect the Trumpians to grab on to him, bring him out, have him smile and wave and say a few things. But I think the candidates may be more selective.”