Opening arguments began Tuesday in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager charged with homicide in the shooting deaths of two people amid unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 2020. Meanwhile, in Charlottesville, Virginia, people injured in the violence at the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally are in court with a suit against many of the organizers, in a trial that has itself become a spectacle.
Both trials will be closely watched in the national press, but I wondered about a more specific audience: the far-right fringe groups who have latched on to both events as bellwethers of their movements. Colin Clarke, a former professor at Carnegie Mellon, is an expert in counterextremism, and we’ve talked previously about how holding some of these groups to account—especially with the prosecutions of many involved in the Jan. 6 riot—has sent a chill through their ranks. Clarke himself recently provided research to the House related to Jan. 6 that he conducted with the Soufan Center, where he is a senior research fellow. With these trials and events back in the news, I called Clarke to describe the evolving far-right chatter about them—and what is likely to come next no matter the verdicts. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Aymann Ismail: The last time we spoke, you said right-wing extremist groups had retreated underground after the Department of Justice began pursuing criminal indictments for the Capitol riot. Now we’re heading into several trials important to these groups. The Charlottesville rally trial is ongoing. Kyle Rittenhouse’s trial is beginning. There is a lot going on related to Jan. 6. I know you’re still monitoring the extremist groups. What are you seeing from them now?
Colin Clarke: We’re seeing chatter as you would expect. A lot of keyboard warriors talking about Charlottesville and Rittenhouse. I would say one of the biggest differences compared to maybe last year this time, I think Jan. 6 was a watershed event in that the far right now almost universally sees themselves as victims, and that’s become a big part of the narrative—that it’s a witch hunt and “we’re being persecuted, and you’re seeking us out and applying treatment that other people wouldn’t get.” Which is really, totally inaccurate. It’s amazing when you think about the way that Muslims were treated after 9/11. You want to talk about a witch hunt.
And what about Kyle Rittenhouse? He’s a celebrity for many of these right-wing militia groups, but he’s, to my knowledge, not directly connected to any one particular group. What are they saying about the trial?
They use the trial to further their own narrative. I look at him as a useful idiot, because he’s somebody who is the face of the movement now because he went out and responded to, in their view, civil disorder with a gun, and now he’s being persecuted. I would say the fact that he’s not connected to any official militia or group actually is consistent with the lion’s share of people arrested after Jan. 6. Of the more than 600 people that have been charged, only 12 percent were affiliated with groups like the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, Three Percenters, etc. That means that 88 percent, or the vast majority, were so-called free agents, like Rittenhouse. They form the backbone of the far-right ecosystem. I think the groups themselves are extremely dangerous, because they’re organized, they’re well trained, they have resources. But think about all the people out there who are just shopping around, and who could potentially be recruited into these groups.
Do they consider Rittenhouse to be one of their own now?
He has achieved celebrity status. He looks like a kid, because he is. I don’t say that to absolve him of any wrongdoing. But this isn’t somebody who is a grizzled veteran who has fought in the trenches, who has been at the forefront of this movement. This guy was a nobody, and now he’s thrust into the middle of the culture wars. I think given a choice, they probably would’ve liked to have somebody a little bit more hardcore. He’s a dorky kid. Unfortunately, in this country, anyone can get a gun.
What do you think these groups have at stake with these trials’ outcome?
I don’t know how much they truly care about Kyle Rittenhouse himself or the results. And I think maybe they hope that they lose, that he becomes this martyr. He’s almost worth more in jail than he is freed, because then they could point to this—“Look, this is indication of our victim narrative.” Like Ashli Babbitt, she’s now this martyr, but had she lived, she wouldn’t have been an icon or someone to promote. The far right is going to frame the outcome to their needs. They’re really good at doing that.
Do you think that will have a big effect on their mobilization?
In one sense, I don’t want to make too much out of this one trial. But on the other hand, a lot of people are watching. It’s happening at the same time as Charlottesville, it’s happening at the same time as the Jan. 6 commission. So to the extent that these are all lumped in to create one narrative, I do think it’s powerful, because for far-right extremists, to them, it’s “proof” that they’re being persecuted. And that’s the same narrative that Trump is going to pump up on social media. As we get closer to midterms and 2024, this all becomes fuel for the far right to motivate their base and say, “Look, we are on the outs, and we need to do something.” Whether that’s at the polls or protesting, demonstrating.
Regardless of the outcome, this is just another tinderbox for the country. What happens with Charlottesville, what happens with Rittenhouse, certainly in our online information environment, it’s kindling for extremism. But this could have physical effects in the real world. We could see protests and counterprotests, and it could revive some of the things that we dealt with in 2020.
What can we do anymore to deradicalize some of these folks before they get pulled into this even more?
We have seen a melding to a certain extent among this very broad tent of far-right extremists. Christian nationalists, the Patriot movement, QAnon—they’ve all amalgamated together, and Trump has become a religion in and of himself. So how do you get someone to change their religion? Especially if they’re a really fervent believer.
The answer is you don’t. And if you look at some of the research by organizations like Moonshot, one of the things that they suggest is that when you’re talking to a QAnon supporter, don’t try to argue with them, because they’re only going to dig in further. And I think that’s much the same with a lot of extreme Trump supporters, especially when it reaches that almost theological level where they look at him as a god.
So you don’t engage with some of the most extremist narratives. But when you have these folks in Congress, like Marjorie Taylor Greene and others, it’s like, well, what do you do? How long can you ignore them before it’s like, “Well, maybe we should be doing something”? And I think the Republicans, frankly, are far better at messaging than the Democrats. And they’re willing to play outside the lines and the Democrats are just a bit too cautious. And I think if they remain too cautious, they’re going to end up regretting it.
Heading into an intense political year in 2022, what are people not paying enough attention to right now, in your opinion?
One of the things that I’m going to keep a really keen eye out for, as we get closer to elections, are these narratives around voter fraud. I think those are going to crop back up and they’re going to do so with a vengeance, because I think that strategy worked. So many people still believe that the election was stolen. Why not carry on with that theme? I think they may resonate even more in the next election, because it worked. People really bought into it. I think in individual states, the way elections are carried out, election integrity is going to be a huge issue in the next election.