Though the narrative of American cities being overrun with violence has percolated through conservative media, it’s picked up in the past few years as anti-Trump, pro-BLM, and anti-police protests have snowballed. Scenes of looting, vandalism and property destruction only bolstered this worldview, and last year, right-wing extremists started clashing with antifa groups in Portland.
But after the killing of George Floyd in May, racial justice protests exploded across the country, with occasional instances of looting and vandalism. These destructive moments turbocharged the far-right calls to proactively defend private property that was being targeted.
While extremely few high-profile voices openly called for people to take to the streets and push back against protesters, there was an undercurrent of approval for those who did. Several videos emerged on the internet of police officers across the country chatting amiably with far-right militia members, often armed, during racial justice protests. Members of the Proud Boys, the main far-right group that brawled with antifa protesters in Portland last year, were spotted mingling with police union audience members during an appearance by Vice President Mike Pence earlier this summer.
And the St. Louis couple who went viral after a photo emerged of them waving guns at BLM protesters outside their house soon became MAGA superstars, getting a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention last week.
“How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” Fox News host Tucker Carlson told his millions of viewers last week. His colleague Laura Ingraham on Tuesday asked why people were rushing to vilify Rittenhouse for exercising his “God-given right” to defend himself.
“If that’s the case, we are going to be in for a really, really long and protracted period of complete chaos and destruction which I don’t think the American people want,” she added.
From the beginning of the summer of protests, Trump, who won the endorsements of numerous law enforcement unions and interest groups in 2016, quickly embraced the protests as a culture wars issue, saying the words Black Lives Matter were a “symbol of hate” and calling racial justice protesters “looters” and “anarchists.” He has also accused Democratic rival Joe Biden of leading a party hellbent on destroying “LAW & ORDER” throughout the country.
And Trump’s refusal to condemn Rittenhouse, or to stop armed right-wing militia members from traveling to cities seeking out fights with BLM protesters, has only encouraged his fans.
The situation came to a head recently in Portland and Kenosha.
In Portland, the home of months of clashes between law enforcement and local protesters, an avowed antifa supporter allegedly shot and killed a member of Patriot Prayer, an independent group that had descended in a miles-long caravan on the city over the weekend in an attempt to show support for law enforcement and the president. On Thursday night, police shot and killed the primary suspect in that shooting as they attempted to arrest him.
And in Kenosha, there has been a rise of ad hoc, questionably legal militia groups such as the Kenosha Guard, a Facebook group heavily criticized for posting a “call to arms” against protesters on its page just days before the Rittenhouse shooting. In an interview with Kenosha News last Thursday, the group’s leader, Kevin Mathewson, stood by his belief that the “failure from local leaders” to secure their neighborhoods prompted him to make the post.