The Rittenhouse Trial Is Bringing Out The Worst Qualities Of American Politics
For both sides, the outcomes of the trial are about validating their politics, not the truth.
It’s not every day a murder trial ends up being covered in play-by-play fashion by the national news networks. There were more than 21,500 homicides in the United States last year, and most people couldn’t name anyone involved — victim or offender.
Murder trials that merit saturation news coverage and massive public attention usually involve some sort of celebrity. That explains the first one I remember being gripped by as a child: the O.J. Simpson trial. That case involved both a star football player and social and political dynamics (particularly around the role of perceptions of the role of race). It’s still discussed to this day.
The murder trial that has been all over American televisions over the past few days — that of Kyle Rittenhouse — doesn’t involve any kind of celebrity; every single person involved is also white. And yet it’s spawned intense debates among the political class, with both media figures and politicians weighing in on both sides.
This debate has highlighted some of the worst qualities of American politics. That’s because the arguments you’re seeing on cable news and on your social media timelines aren’t about Kyle Rittenhouse, the defendant, or the three men he shot at all.
Some of the loudest voices on the left and right are rooting for a verdict that validates their worldviews and can punish their political opponents. The facts of the case are secondary.
On the left, the primary heuristics (mental shortcuts we use to make sense of the world) being used are race and partisanship. Among many progressives, what happened in Kenosha, Wisconsin last year was simple.
Kyle Rittenhouse, a young conservative white man, traveled to another town armed with a weapon looking for trouble. Black Lives Matter protesters were demonstrating after yet another police shooting of an African American man, and Rittenhouse didn’t like that. He wanted a fight and he got it; he ended up killing two Black Lives Matter-affiliated protesters and wounding another.
Even Members of Congress, who are tasked with calmly deliberating over difficult topics, were quick to adopt this framework. Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar both accused Rittenhouse of being a terrorist, with Pressley even going as far as to refer to him as a white supremacist:
It’s hardly surprising at this point that leading progressives in Congress would make assertions like this. For at least the past five or six years, activist progressives increasingly see the world through the lens of race. The idea that a young conservative white man could be motivated by anything except white supremacy is absurd to these progressives.
Even the FiveThirtyEight website, founded by statistical wizards who pride themselves on empiricism, isn’t above this kind of reductionism. A recent article there was titled “Why Racist White Voters Often Favor Black Republicans,” referring to the recent election of Winsome Sears as Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor.
One of the authors of that piece, Hakeem Jefferson, makes clear what he thinks about the essence of American political life in his Twitter bio:
As Tom Elliot demonstrated with a video compilation, the unfounded idea that Rittenhouse was motivated by white racism was spread into every corner of non-conservative media. What else could he possibly have been motivated by?
To progressives, the Rittenhouse trial isn’t really about whether one 17-year-old kid defended himself against several other (white) men that night. It’s white supremacy that’s on trial, and if he isn’t convicted, it’s another win for the social and political force that has dominated every feature of American politics for the past 400 years. Rittenhouse himself is merely an accessory to that larger conflict. If any of this strikes as you as a little racist — taking a white kid’s actions as representative of the white “race,” and rooting for a guilty verdict based on the goal of making your point about those people regardless of what the kid may have actually done — well, it is, but that’s where we are now.
While the left has come to see the Rittenhouse trial entirely through its increasingly racial sectarian worldview, the right has also sought to place the events in Kenosha into its own larger narratives.
One fact that has been mentioned by many conservative commentators is that one of the men that Rittenhouse shot that night, Jason Rosenbaum, was previously convicted for the molestation and rape for five young boys. These crimes, which are admittedly galling, occurred in the early 2000s. Rosenbaum was punished for them.
But for many conservatives, these crimes seemed to provide a sort of justification for Rosenbaum’s death. Because he committed grave crimes in the past, he simply had it coming. You can see a smattering of these reactions among conservative radio hosts and pundits below:
In a way, these responses have an elegant symmetry to the ones offered by the left. They are zooming in on a quality of one of the men shot that they happen to dislike. Much of the left dislikes that the Kyle Rittenhouse is a white conservative teenager who came to Kenosha to aid residents who were experiencing Black Lives Matter-related riots. Much of the right, on the other hand, seems to view him as a hero because he was able to end the life of someone who had committed severe crimes against children earlier in life.
Additionally, much as the progressives bear resentment towards historical racism from some whites, the conservatives carry resentment towards the progressive excesses of 2020. This Twitter thread by Erielle Davidson, a conservative think tanker, offers some insight into why many conservatives see what Rittenhouse did as righteous:
Davidson is describing the impact of looting and rioting last summer. That violence produced billions of dollars worth of damage, at least hundreds of injuries, and several deaths. Many conservatives around America resent this violence because they believe, with some justification, that it was rationalized and coddled last year.
However, this resentment, like the left’s racial resentment, shouldn’t really factor into the trial at all. The question that’s being posed in this trial is whether Rittenhouse acted in self-defense when he used his firearm in Kenosha, Wisconsin that night. If he did, he will be acquitted. If it can’t be proven that he was acting in self-defense, then he will be found guilty. The larger political and social debates shouldn’t have any bearing on the verdict at all.
Rittenhouse is not a stand in for all white people and their racism, and if he’s acquitted, it won’t be some sort of judgement on the left-leaning riots of 2020 or on what punishment convicted child molesters and rapists deserve. Everyone’s transposing their own political beliefs onto this trial and seeing much more than is actually there.
This isn’t a healthy way to look at justice in this country, but it’s a sign of increasing politicization of everything everywhere. We should be able to look at the circumstances of a tragedy like the one that occurred in Kenosha that night and evaluate them based on the facts presented, not root for one verdict or another in order to notch another victory for our larger worldview.
The purpose of our judicial system isn’t to settle political scores.
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