Ever since Kyle Rittenhouse shot and killed two men and injured a third in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during racial justice demonstrations last year, legions of conservatives and far-right extremists have celebrated an 18-year-old as both a hero and a victim. Soon after receiving a “not guilty” verdict last Friday, Rittenhouse attempted to take part in his own beatification.
Adopting a posture both confrontational to his critics and satiating for his most ardent supporters, Rittenhouse appeared in his first national television interview on Fox News’s Tucker Carlson Tonight after a Wisconsin jury acquitted him on all charges in the August 2020 shooting deaths of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and injury of Gaige Grosskreutz. Even as Carlson’s interview aired during primetime, protests over the verdict that began over the weekend continued in major cities.
The interview came as Rittenhouse’s trial and subsequent verdict has stirred up fierce debate on some of the nation’s most contentious issues, including gun rights and the right to protest without threat of violence. However, the court proceedings were often deeply unserious, starting with Judge Bruce Schroeder declaring that the attorneys in the case were not allowed to refer to Rittenhouse’s victims as “victims.” The defendant himself actually helped randomly select the jury, using an unusual, old-fashioned lottery-style draw. And lest we forget, there was a day of dubitable sobbing on the witness stand.
Contrary to that weepy court testimony, Rittenhouse mostly spoke with a calm voice as he swung at Carlson’s softballs. The host did his utmost to center Rittenhouse’s trauma and pain, teeing him up to lash out at President Joe Biden and invoke incorporeal forces like a “mob mentality” that he blamed for his legal plight.
His guest also said that he supported Black Lives Matter and that those committing violence during the demonstrations following Jacob Blake’s shooting by Kenosha police were “opportunist, taking advantage of the BLM movement.”
It was odd to hear Rittenhouse say that, particularly in the middle of a Fox News interview. Stating one’s social-justice bonafides serves, for white liberals, to signify allyship. But for conservatives or people playing to that audience’s sympathies, doing so is often a move to seek cover from charges of racism. The resurgence of extremist, white supremacist violence and intimidation during the last several years has been, in their view, an act of self-defense.
How, then, in that context, are we to take it when we see Rittenhouse argue to Carlson, “It wasn’t Kyle Rittenhouse on trial in Wisconsin; it was the right of self-defense on trial”? When the same people who support Rittenhouse believe the country needs defending from people who aren’t white and don’t believe in defending Black lives, he can say he supports Black Lives Matter all he wants.
What’s evident, no matter Rittenhouse’s intent, is that he came to the right show on the right network.
True to his program’s formula, Carlson’s hour was devoted to stoking misguided cultural grievances on Rittenhouse’s behalf. Known for its reckless demagoguery and fabulism, Tucker Carlson Tonight regularly focuses on convincing his heavily white audience that they’re right to fear a society supposedly out to get them (and only them). Throughout the broadcast, the host promoted a forthcoming documentary about Rittenhouse’s trial, despite the ongoing controversy about his revisionist January 6 special.
Acquittal, in the Fox News arena, became absolution. “What a sweet boy,” Carlson remarked about the 18-year-old before a commercial break.
It was the seventh anniversary of the day that an actual boy, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, was mistaken for a man by Cleveland police before an officer shot him dead. But on Tucker Carlson Tonight, Rittenhouse was supposedly the victim this November 22, and the host gave him every chance to deny the most injurious claim his detractors have made. No, not that he is a murderer — that he is a bigot.
“I’m not a racist person,” Rittenhouse said, adding that he felt his case was not about race. (The victims in the case were all white, but prosecutors noted earlier this year that Rittenhouse had been photographed with Proud Boys and flashing a hand sign known as a symbol for “white power.” ) Whether this is about race is not Rittenhouse’s decision, though, and whether he is in fact racist seems irrelevant. He likely won’t dissuade his critics in the press and elsewhere who have labeled him a white supremacist, nor the self-identifying neo-Nazis celebrating his acquittal. More interesting, however, was how Rittenhouse described being affected by his time spent within American jurisprudence.
Rittenhouse had already twice stated his support for the Black Lives Matter movement (which strongly rebuked him in a tweet about the interview) when he took note of the inequities and degradation he experienced while in jail.
“I believe there needs to be change,” Rittenhouse said, “I believe there’s a lot of prosecutorial misconduct — not just in my case, but in other cases. And it’s just amazing to see how much a prosecutor can take advantage of somebody. If they did this to me, imagine what they could have done to a person of color who doesn’t maybe have the resources I do or isn’t widely publicized, like my case.”
Rittenhouse spoke of a jail cell he likened to “a one-star hotel,” where he had a mobile phone and tablet, but allegedly no running water. He didn’t shower for nearly a month, he told Carlson. Though he complained of being pepper-sprayed in Kenosha, Rittenhouse spoke glowingly of law enforcement — even thanking the guards at his first jail and praising their professionalism. But he also detailed how he spent more than 80 days in jail due to a problem too many defendants have: incompetent counsel. His allies at the time included QAnon conspiracy theorist Lin Wood; Rittenhouse alleged Wood exploited his case after Wood sought to claw back money raised for Rittenhouse’s bail. But some defendants are far unluckier, and some end up on death row.
Carlson reacted to these details as if he was shocked to hear such things could happen in America, as if a man named Julius Jones professing his innocence in Oklahoma had not narrowly escaped lethal injection the day before Rittenhouse’s verdict. Carlson’s only reference to the man whose shooting prompted the Kenosha protests where Rittenhouse fired on the three men was a baseless claim that “the media lies about the shooting of Jacob Blake.”
Still, almost by accident, Carlson’s program reinforced that there are many things wrong with the American project. They could have done an hour on Monday night reexamining Rice’s death and the family’s campaign to have his killing reconsidered for prosecution by the Department of Justice. Such a show might have made the same or similar points, but it’s foolish to expect Carlson, known for his openly racist appeals to white grievances, to recognize what’s wrong with America without peering through the lens of victimhood.
If only Carlson and Rittenhouse were able to discuss the terrible state of American jurisprudence without putting themselves in the spotlight. For all of Rittenhouse’s recognition of America’s faulty system of criminal punishment, the two still failed to acknowledge that it was the AR-15-style rifle he wielded that instigated the intimidation and harassment. Had they, the ridiculous spectacle on Fox News might have come close to having some worth.