GOP Candidates Are Wielding Kyle Rittenhouse Trial In Culture War

Opinions about Kyle Rittenhouse, the teen on trial for murder following last year's protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, are predictably split across party lines.

A jury hasn’t ruled yet in the murder trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teen facing homicide charges for shooting three men during a 2020 protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin — but Republicans and their allies are already wielding the issue in their broader culture war ahead of the midterm elections.

“I think that it’s not a trial, it’s child abuse masquerading as justice in this country,” said J.D. Vance, the author and venture capitalist running for Senate in Ohio, said on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program Wednesday. “This entire trial — this entire farce — is an indictment on every institution in our society.”

Potentially facing life in prison if convicted of the most serious charges, Rittenhouse has been championed by the right after he fatally shot two men and wounded another during a protest that erupted in response to a white Kenosha officer shooting and leaving a Black man, Jacob Blake, paralyzed from the waist down. The trial has fiercely divided the nation over whether Rittenhouse, 17 at the time, was acting as a hero or a vigilante.

Rittenhouse’s trial has become symbolic of the nation’s political polarization over police brutality, racism and gun rights — issues that are nearly certain to factor into the upcoming election cycle.

Kyle Rittenhouse breaks down on the stand as he testifies during his murder trial in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Nov. 10.
Kyle Rittenhouse breaks down on the stand as he testifies during his murder trial in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Nov. 10.
Mark Hertzberg/Associated Press

Republicans seeking office in 2022 have attacked the prosecution in the case and continue to slam President Joe Biden for appearing to label Rittenhouse — who traveled across state lines to Kenosha with an AR-style rifle and a medical kit — a “white supremacist” in a tweet shortly after the killings.

After the presidential debate in September 2020, Biden shared a video targeting former President Donald Trump for refusing to disavow white supremacy that featured Rittenhouse and others.

Rittenhouse has argued that he was acting in self-defense and traveled to Kenosha as a private citizen to quell violence and looting.

“It’s an indictment of our disgusting president, who called him a white supremacist, even though he shot other white people. It’s an indictment of our media, which slandered and bullied a 17-year-old boy. I haven’t seen anything that disgusts me with the leaders of this country like this ridiculous farce of a trial,” Vance, who has framed his candidacy around cultural issues, said on Fox.

On Thursday, Vance’s GOP primary opponent, Josh Mandel, tweeted “Kyle Rittenhouse is the victim” in response to basketball star LeBron James, who questioned whether Rittenhouse’s tears on the stand were genuine.

Eric Greitens, the former Missouri governor running for an open Senate seat in that state, retweeted former NYPD Commissioner Bernie Kerik — a fixture on right-wing cable who received a presidential pardon from Trump — who called the trial an “abuse of power by a politically motivated prosecutor.”

Tulsi Gabbard, the former Hawaii congresswoman who ran in the 2020 Democratic primary for president, also offered her take. Gabbard, who was reportedly vetted for a role in the Trump administration, is seen as sympathetic to the right and as harboring ambitions for higher office.

“The prosecutor in this Rittenhouse trial obviously didn’t do his due diligence before making the decision to prosecute,” Gabbard said in a viral video. “This tragedy never would have happened if the government had simply carried out its responsibilities to protect the safety, lives and property of innocent people.”

Republican Glenn Youngkin’s win this month in the Virginia governor’s race demonstrated the potency of cultural issues for the GOP, which successfully tapped into anger over parental control in schools, particularly with COVID-19 mandates and the bogeyman of “critical race theory” in schools.

Underpinning the Rittenhouse trial, which continues this week, are tensions over last year’s protests against police brutality toward Black Americans and the role police forces should play in society.

Democrats, for their part, weren’t silent on Rittenhouse, either.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York tweeted on Wednesday: “Lock up Kyle Rittenhouse and throw away the key.”

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