How did the US's mainstream right end up openly supporting vigilante terror?

Kyle Rittenhouse, a “Blue Lives Matter” fanatic, Donald Trump supporter and militia member, has been charged with murder. It is alleged that having travelled from Illinois to Wisconsin to point his assault rifle at unarmed protesters, he shot two people dead. He was later heard claiming: “I just killed somebody.”

While the Trump campaign quietly disavowed this enthusiastic supporter, insisting he had “nothing to do with our campaign” (as though anyone had suggested otherwise), the president himself defended Rittenhouse, saying he appeared to have been acting in self defence. Message boards such as Reddit and 4chan are humming with commentary supporting Rittenhouse. Predictably, every accused lone-wolf murderer generates an online fan club. Likewise, the Christian right has already raised $250,000 for Rittenhouse’s defence.

However, the decision of rightwing celebrity journalists to gleefully defend Rittenhouse crosses a new threshold. Ann Coulter, the infantile shock-jock of American reaction, said of Rittenhouse: “I want him as my president.” While Coulter is a media opportunist mining for controversy, Tucker Carlson of Fox News, a more doctrinaire far-rightist, offered an emotional defence. “How shocked are we,” Carlson said, “that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”

This, from a talking head who has spent the Trump years mainstreaming various white nationalists, inciting racism and portraying the apocalyptic meltdown of the US caused by immigrants and liberal elites, betrays a conception of order identical to that of Rittenhouse and other white vigilantes who have pointed their guns at Black Lives Matter protesters, such as the Three Percenters and militiamen who have paraded the streets of Philadelphia, Ohio, Chicago and Albuquerque.

For the ideologues, law and order in Kenosha is social obedience on the part of those targeted for police violence, and it would be legitimately upheld by a white paramilitary who guns people down in cold blood for opposing the racist murder of black people. This is an ideology of law and order that could come from the antebellum South, or the frontier west.

Just as disturbing, for those likely to be on the receiving end of police violence, has been the convergence of police and paramilitaries. It is not just that militiamen are hardline supporters of the police who see themselves as augmenting state repression. Police themselves have repeatedly condoned and indulged the vigilantes, who have been permitted to roam around with guns out, attacking Black Lives Matter crowds unimpeded by authorities.

In Kenosha, police were recorded handing out water to a crowd of white militiamen, telling them: “We appreciate you being here.” The chief of Kenosha police has defended the role of white vigilantes in the protests. Police allegedly declined to arrest Rittenhouse after he’d just shot two people, was pointed out as the shooter by several witnesses, and was walking towards a police vehicle with his hands up.

The brazen overtness of the right’s dalliance with vigilante terror in answer to Black Lives Matter has been some time in the making. Trump has done as much as he can to mainstream the violent far right in the same way that he has normalised conspiracist paranoia with his birtherism, climate denialism and references to the “deep state”. From his declaration that armed Charlottesville protesters were “very fine people” to his defence of armed protesters in Michigan, and his exhortations to rightwing paramilitaries to “LIBERATE MINNESOTA”, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and then “LIBERATE VIRGINIA” from Covid-19 lockdown, Trump lets the purveyors of armed fury know just whose side he’s on.

He has also conspicuously refused to disavow the QAnon conspiracy theory. According to this, he is saving the world from a “deep state” conspiracy of liberal, Satan-worshipping paedophiles, and hastening the “storm” – a day of violent reckoning. Its supporters are deemed a domestic terror threat. The American far right thrives on the prospect of annihilation, and the “end of days” mood licenses its paranoid violence.

There is a broader context for America’s turn toward what writer Huw Lemmey accurately characterises as a sub-Verhoeven dystopia. Rapture-seeking movements such as QAnon, or those prepping for the “boogaloo”, are working the margins of a culturally mainstream phenomenon. Although the US has always been immersed in the fantasy of “regeneration through violence”, rarely has so much of the country been so thoroughly in the grip of adrenaline-pumping, apocalyptic excitement and conspiracist paranoia.

In both conspiracy theories and apocalyptic fantasies, life is reduced to a cosmic showdown between good and evil. The traumas and disappointments of life are folded into a millenarian revenge fantasy-cum-death wish, as in the enormously popular series of Left Behind novels about rapture and the struggle with the papal antichrist. Such apocalyptic thinking reverberates through a network of institutions, including white evangelical churches, Fox News and the Republican party itself.

Trump’s rhetoric has always invoked gruesome apocalyptic scenarios if his opponents win. This year’s Republican convention is fully channelling this mania, with speakers shouting about liberals who want to “enslave” Americans, steal their freedom and turn the US “into a socialist utopia”, or comparing the Democrats to “communist China”. Notably, the convention paraded a white couple arrested and charged for waving guns at Black Lives Matter protesters, who claimed that the Democrats would abolish the suburbs and let the criminals move in next door. Truly, the end times.

The specific American form of apocalyptic thinking is not just Christian but, historically, anti-communist. In an era of anti-communism without communism, Trump charges that Black Lives Matter protests are led by Marxists, “leftwing extremists” and others out to destroy “the United States system of government”. Thus, the crises that afflict the US are figured as a diabolical plot, much as past generations of anti-communist blamed worker strikes and civil rights struggles on what John Rankin of the House un-American activities committee called “this great octopus, communism, which is out to destroy everything”.

Today’s conspiracist bricolage thrives on the collapse of consensus reality, and on the disintegrating authority of older gatekeepers of truth. More importantly, it milks a fascination with the destruction of one’s enemies and, tacitly, oneself. In the past, apocalyptic fantasy has been seen as a paranoid reaction to economic deprivation and political persecution. That was true of peasant movements such as the Lazzarettists, who launched a violent revolt against the government and the ruling class in 19th-century Italy, but it hardly explains the disproportionately affluent Trump base, and it doesn’t explain rich Washington journalists such as Tucker Carlson rationalising murder in cold blood.

Apocalyptic conspiracy thinking is, above all, a theodicy: it explains evil, and says what will be done about evil. The end times thinking that is sweeping the US, and justifying every new outrage, is the theodicy of groups frightened of losing their power and arming themselves to defend it.

Richard Seymour is a political activist and author; his latest book is The Twittering Machine.

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