Kyle Rittenhouse’s post-trial media tour began in earnest with his “sweet kid” appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show on Monday. But on far-right message boards and deep-web forums, discussions of the verdict—and what it means for the future—were already well underway.
On Telegram, the messaging platform popular with the right, “there are dozens of memes, some of them picturing Rittenhouse with a halo over his head, a defender of the community, saying this is an example of what we need to do and go out there,” said Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a nonprofit that analyzes violent extremism. “They’re rejoicing.”
“It’s hard to separate shitposting from people that are going to take action,” Clarke told me. But, he added, “I think there’s a good chance this is going to encourage more people to show up armed to protests like this. They’re going to be more brazen.”
No matter the details of the trial and why the prosecution failed, Rittenhouse’s celebrity and his exoneration have gripped the fringes in America. “It’s the main conversation happening on the far right. It’s like a holiday for them,” said Jared Holt, resident fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, where he spearheads research on domestic extremism on the internet and how it manifests on the ground.
Holt sent me some screenshots he’d saved since the verdict. “Our activists will intervene if senseless attacks are carried out by Antifa on white civilians,” warns one, which described a supposed “Antifa March for the Pedophiles killed by Kyle Rittenhouse.” Another meme showed Rittenhouse’s face photoshopped onto the image of Derek Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd’s neck; Floyd is replaced by the lead prosecutor in the trial.
Before the verdict was announced, these groups were already discussing how best to respond, Holt said. They seemed to expect a different outcome. “They were laying out the groundwork ahead of this in case there was a guilty verdict to blame a whole myriad of things—a conspiracy within the media, local government, the jury being intimidated by the threat of getting doxxed by the media.”
“If this guy had been convicted, we would’ve seen a lot more threats of violence, many of which would’ve been hot air, but certainly much darker,” Clarke said. “They’re still taking their shots at antifa and the left and blah, blah, blah, but not in the same way.”
When the trial went a different way, the groups adapted. “When Kyle was acquitted, instead of blaming all these things that they were ready to, they were able to spin it. Instead, Kyle prevailed over these things—and prevailing over these things was something that was possible,” Holt said.
At the same time, the conspiratorial fears in these groups have only deepened. “What’s been concerning to me is even ahead of the verdict, and especially after, there’s this fear in the far right that people who believed Rittenhouse was guilty, particularly BLM supporters, would have some kind of violent backlash, against—they don’t say this explicitly, but against white people,” he said.
When a man in an SUV drove into Christmas crowds in Wisconsin on Sunday, they saw the signs: “Because the suspect was Black and because most of the victims were white, they have folded it into that sort of broader narrative about a racial, violent backlash happening,” Holt said. Even as police said the man in custody was actually fleeing an altercation, the propaganda has already been successful in connecting him to Rittenhouse. “They believe there is this lurking threat of racial justice advocates who would commit violence against them. And that it’s patriotic in a way to show up at these events and be ready to be in a quote-unquote self-defense situation.”
That may be the real concern now. “I’m worried that this kind of lionization and hero treatment that Rittenhouse is getting on programs like Tucker Carlson’s show and widely throughout conservative media, that might be also enticing for people to try to copy what Rittenhouse did, which is to place yourself into a self-defense scenario,” Holt said. “I just worry about the precedent that this sets in terms of encouraging kids who want to be seen, who want respect—almost the same way when someone joins a gang—joining a militia or another group of people with guns.”
Crucially, Holt added, “I also worry about the counterreaction” on the left. “If we’re seeing more protests with guns at them in general, that’s going to make protesting generally much more dangerous. There’s data that shows this is the case.”
“I’ve studied enough about arms races,” Clarke said separately. “More people on both sides are going to feel the need to show up armed, and that’s bad for everybody.”
Both Clarke and Holt underlined that concern. They cautioned that they aren’t speaking of an imminent threat that requires a direct response from activists on the left.
“I didn’t see any indications of mobilization of armed groups,” Holt told me. “I didn’t see logistical stuff that would make me seriously worry about it.”
Even so, the possibility is reason enough to stay alert—a recent Proud Boys march in New York City, for example, is well worth paying attention to. “A lot of these groups were trying to recover from whatever PR damage they experienced as a result of the Capitol riot. Some of these groups are getting more and more comfortable showing up in public again, especially on local and smaller scales. But to show up in a big place like New York City after the Rittenhouse verdict, it seems like that was a pretty notable escalation,” he said.
As the fallout from the verdict continues, the Gun Owners of America said it would “award” an AR-15 to Rittenhouse, and the teenager flew to Florida to meet with Donald Trump, signaling his intention to lean into the right-wing veneration. But for the left, Holt said what’s warranted now is vigilance and awareness but not cascading fear.
“Even though I deal with a very intense subject matter that has a body count attached to it, I do not want to be a scaremonger,” he said. “Being aware and prepared is good, but being paranoid is a waste of time and it’s not helpful. This is a possibility, and it’s something that I think should be considered in planning protests. Having at least a vague sense of what to do if an armed individual shows up is something that police departments should consider. But I would caution people against being obsessively paranoid about it, because it tricks the mind into thinking you’re being productive about something when you’re really not.”