"We're here in memory of a lot of people who have either lost their life or been attacked by these violent domestic terrorists," said Enrique Tarrio, the leader of the far-right group the Proud Boys, to a crowd of 300 in Portland, Oregon, on Sept. 29. “We're here for Kyle.”
They came to Portland to intervene in the sustained four months of protests, which they believe pose an existential threat to the country. Their promotional flyer mentioned Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who is charged with killing two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and injuring a third.
Rittenhouse walked away from the shooting unharmed — he was later arrested by police without incident — and he became a new hero for some in the Republican Party.
Rittenhouse walked away from the shooting unharmed — he was later arrested by police without incident — and became a new hero for some in the Republican Party. The Waukesha County GOP gave his mother a standing ovation, conservative groups started fundraising for him, politicians like Kentucky state Rep. Thomas Massie offered praise, and the fringes of President Donald Trump’s base have roundly labeled him a martyr. Internal documents show that Department of Homeland Security officials were urged to show sympathy for Rittenhouse, the kind of commentary that has become more frequent as the election looms.
As the presidential debate heated up last Tuesday night, just two days after the Proud Boy rally celebrating Rittenhouse, the moderator asked if Trump would tell white supremacists to stand down. He instead asked them to “stand by and stand back.” “President Trump told the proud boys to stand by because someone needs to deal with ANTIFA. ... Well sir! we're ready!!," Proud Boy leader Joe Biggs said immediately afterward, as “standing by” became an instant Proud Boy meme. (Trump later said he wasn’t familiar with the Proud Boys but then gave a clearer condemnation.)
Was it a dog whistle? Was it an accident? Either way, a growing vigilante identity has utility for Trump. Instead of playing simple politics, Trump is cultivating a fanatical following that is ready to take action against political enemies and do what it takes to keep the White House.
Trump’s passionate supporter base has always appreciated calls to action. This gives supporters an active role in “Making America Great Again,” and empowers them to hop into the driver’s seat. In 2016, Trump stoked nativist fears, placing his electoral chances as part of an activist strategy to limit nonwhite immigration. In 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests attempt to change the structure of America’s racial caste system, he is cultivating a “law and order” fear in frightened whites.
But it is not enough to cultivate just an electoral base of voters. Trump is widely unpopular and trailing Joe Biden in most polls. We have no idea how the president's positive Covid-19 test will impact the election, but it's possible it will only hurt him further. In response, he is proactively building on a belief that the “system” is rigged. By doing this, he reinstates a fanatical base, moves more people to action by creating a trenchant threat, and militarizes his supporters.
This new 2020 supporter is the vigilante, someone who breaks the rules to make things right. This person can police polling stations to stop any funny business. They are ready in case the election is stolen through fraud and meddling. And they are ready to attack leftist protesters who they believe are terrorists.
This vigilante identity has a number of benefits for Trump. For one, it has a novelty to it. Vigilantism reclaims a sense of action for a supporter base that is now 5 years old and has had to reckon with the slow wheel of federal politics. Is your life really better now than it was in 2015? Is America really greater?
There is also a darker role for the most radical version of this vigilante, if Trump loses and de-legitimizes the election entirely. In both interpretations, the passionate electoral supporter and the armed revolutionary, this vigilante persona pushes supporters past their typical role as spectators.
Kyle Rittenhouse is a proxy for this. He did what many of these people feel as though they should do: He took action against a cultural force they believe is profoundly dangerous. His actions were outside the bounds of the law but yet justified in order to re-establish societal order.
The best opportunity the GOP has right now seems to be fear. Thus they are manufacturing threats: to our health, to our bank accounts and even to our physical safety. Vigilante consciousness is an essential piece of this because the way these “threats” are framed will require an “all hands on deck” approach from patriots and supporters to set things right.
In a political situation, where morality and ethics are subservient to the raw quest for power, the vigilante is the perfect image of a political identity willing to break all the rules for an even greater purpose. Trump has always viewed himself as an unaccountable vigilante, a strongman for whom liberal democracy is an impediment. Now he is just inviting his supporters to join him.