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From the Tea Party to Kyle Rittenhouse: The Far Right’s Advances within the Republican Party

Since Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal, he’s been offered three different internships with Republican members of Congress and been invited to meet with Donald Trump. This is the latest sign that the Republican Party is embracing the far Right — a trend that was first seen in the Tea Party.

Sybil Davis

December 3, 2021
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People await the verdict in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, outside the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, U.S., November 19, 2021.
Image: Brendan McDermid/REUTERS

Kyle Rittenhouse, fresh from beating a murder charge for killing two Black Lives Matter protesters, is being embraced by not just the “activist” far Right — the Proud Boys and their ilk— but by Republican members of Congress. The Trumpist elements of the Republican Party and their allies at Fox News are uniting behind Rittenhouse as a hero of their movement and 71 percent of Republicans approve of Rittenhouse’s acquittal, showing that Rittenhouse is not an unpopular figure within the party. This shows that the far Right has made advances within the Republican Party. 

In just the few days since Rittenhouse was acquitted, he has been offered multiple internships with Republican congresspeople, invited to meet with Donald Trump, and Marjorie Taylor Greene is even petitioning to give him the medal of honor. That so many elected members of a major party are so quick to embrace someone who is, essentially, a domestic terrorist is a clear sign that the far Right elements of the Republican Party are far from gone. Rather, they have just been lying (somewhat) dormant after being disciplined for the January 6 storming of the Capitol. 

In addition, the fact that the judicial system sided with Rittenhouse is important: the far Right’s vigilantism was legally legitimized with the Rittenhouse verdict. Yet that is far from the only sign of an increasing acceptance of far Right vigilantism by the Republicans and other members of the “institutional Right” — which includes the Republicans, some Democrats, many members of the court system, and other members of the institutions of the state but is distinct from the “activist” right of Rittenhouse, the Proud Boys, the KKK, etc. who largely operate outside state institutions. Most notably, the anti-abortion bill that was passed in Texas earlier this year explicitly endorses vigilantism, going so far as to offer rewards for turning in abortion seekers, providers, and anyone who helps them. Increasingly, some sectors of activist Right are becoming more accepted into the institutional Right with laws being passed — such as in the states that legalized running over protesters — to protect and defend these right-wing vigilantes. The Rittenhouse verdict is another sign of that, providing legal precedent and defense for far Right vigilantes who target protesters. 

The Far Right and the Republicans: A Brief (Recent) History

The far Right and the Republican Party have, of course, significant overlap in their program, but they aren’t necessarily a match made in heaven. The Republican Party — like its counterparts in the Democratic Party — is, first and foremost, dedicated to the maintenance of the capitalist state and the imperialist project of the United States. This program requires bipartisan support for racist policies and the funding and expansion of institutions of white supremacy from prisons to police to ICE. Both parties have played a key role in increasing police funding and expanding the prison industrial complex, which exists to discipline and lock up Black, Latinx, and poor people. While the Democrats lend credibility to the institutions of white supremacy with empty progressive rhetoric and appeals to diversity, the Republicans have taken up racism and sought to make themselves the political home for those (white) people who feel as if social changes are threatening their way of life. From Nixon’s “silent majority” to Reagan’s “welfare queens,” the “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” strategy of the Republican Party toward the far Right, has allowed them to both appeal to these ultra-reactionary sectors while also keeping them at arm’s length. 

But as both neoliberalism and American hegemony have been declining over the past several years, a left and right polarization emerged, with both sides questioning the political establishment. A stronger far- Right has emerged that has begun to demand greater representation in politics, with strong criticisms of the Republican Party establishment who they view as having betrayed them. The far Right has grown in numbers and political influence as they have come to represent a (right-wing) rejection of neoliberalism as both major parties are slavishly defending it (or, at least they were until 2016). Blaming immigrants, people of color, queer people, and women for declining social conditions and economic challenges, the far Right has been able to grow to the point that they are now a major (but still far from hegemonic) force in the Republican Party and in U.S. politics.

Following the economic crash of 2008, the Tea Party Movement was born out of a right-wing reaction to the failures of progressive neoliberalism. With that movement, right-wing elements within the Republican Party began to fight for control, demanding that the party take a harder stance against the increase in legal and social rights for the oppressed, caps (and even bans) on immigrations, and an isolationist foreign policy. In addition, members of the far Right found — much like members of the far Left — strong resistance from the Republican Party establishment to breaking with neoliberalism. The Tea Party was soon marginalized in the 2012 presidential primaries in which Mitt Romney triumphed over his more Tea Party-friendly adversaries. 

Following Romney’s loss to Barack Obama, the Republican establishment wrote an “autopsy” in which they theorized the reason for the loss and proposed steps forward. Importantly, many of those steps were designed to win back the white suburban middle class that, for years, had been the Republican base and was increasingly drifting to the Democrats. Part of this attempt to win back the suburbs was a call for moderating specifically on social issues. This was a slap in the face to the nascent Republican far Right. 

In 2016, this new Republican far Right (and the more militant members of the far Right) found a champion in the figure of Donald Trump. The billionaire New York real-estate mogul and reality show host presented himself as the spokesman for the “common (white) man” left behind by neoliberalism. However, Trump went further than previous right-wing Republican candidates and began to make almost explicit overtures to the far Right (both within and outside the Republican Party). Making explicit xenophobia, Islamophobia, and an “America First” foreign policy his key campaign issues, Trump was able to lure the right wing that had begun to question neoliberalism back into a party that was still, fundamentally, neoliberal — indeed, much of the time, Trump governed like a typical neoliberal president. By making rhetorical overtures to the far Right, painting himself as anti-establishment, and championing some right-wing populist policies, Trump was able to build a coalition strong enough to defeat the Republican Party establishment to take (at least partial) control of the party. From saying there were “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville to his own white supremacist statements to telling the Proud Boys to, “stand back and stand by,” Trump made it clear that the far Right was a valued part of his base.

Trump’s election opened a new moment in both the Republican Party and U.S. politics in general. Now the far Right had stronger political representation than it had in generations. This only emboldened the far Right which began to increase their public presence and, by extension, their influence on mainstream politics.

January 6: A Moment Too Far

However, Trump and the far Right elements of his base always had an uneasy relationship with the Republican Party establishment, and vice versa. The Republican establishment worried that Trump and his base would push the Republican Party too far to the Right, damaging their ability to grow the party in the midst of shifting demographic trends that have moved once solid red states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia more and more blue. 

By refusing to accept the results of the election, Trump’s attack on the institutions of the U.S. state reached a zenith. He argued that the votes couldn’t be trusted and called out fellow Republican elected leaders for refusing to support his attempt to overturn the election. As it became increasingly clear that Trump was going to be unable to hold on to power, he became increasingly antagonistic toward the Republican Party — on his final day as president he allegedly told the head of the Republican National Committee that he was going to form his own party before backing down. Trump’s base (which, over the course of his time in politics, has increasingly included more and more members of the very far Right such as militant groups like the Proud Boys) stood with him and joined calls that the election should be overturned. A striking statistic from the end of Trump’s presidency showed that 65 percent of Republicans did not believe that the election was legitimate. 

This shows the advances that the right wing has made within the Republican Party in recent years. Where once their political representation was so weak that the closest thing they had to a potential presidential candidate in 2012 (Michelle Bachmann) had to drop out after coming in sixth in Iowa, now a sizable percentage of Republicans sided with Trump over institutions of the state (including, of all things, the FBI). 

Yet the far Right miscalculated the balance of forces and overstepped when, on January 6, 2021, they stormed the Capitol and temporarily occupied it — nominally in an attempt to overturn the election results in Trump’s favor. The Republican Party establishment locked arms against this advance of the far Right and began to discipline them, both legally and politically. Trump was sidelined, denounced for his role in the riot, and his own vice president refused to collaborate with him to overturn the election. This discipline — which involved the imprisonment of far Right figures — forced the far Right to retreat temporarily from the public eye. This was not, however, a defeat for the far Right (or Trumpism) which still plays a major role inside the Republican Party, including among several prominent members of Congress who espouse far Right talking points.

Rittenhouse as Role Model 

Many in the Republican Party and on Fox News responded by saying that American conservatism has made too many concessions to the far Right. Rittenhouse hasn’t just been defended, he’s been celebrated. Right-wing celebrities funded his bail, Tucker Carlson made a documentary about him, and three Republican congressmen (so far) have offered him internships. This shows that Rittenhouse’s brand of vigilante right-wing violence has (at least partially) been accepted into the mainstream of the Republican Party. 

To give a counterexample, when in 2009 a right-wing extremist murdered George Tiller, an abortion provider in Kansas, Fox News specifically distanced itself from him (despite having spent years attacking Tiller’s character and calling him a murderer). Of course, Rittenhouse’s murders and Tiller’s assassination are not identical, but they do share some important similarities: a member of the far Right, acting somewhat independently, killed an “undesirable.” But Tiller’s assassin was denounced by Fox and the Republicans and was left, essentially, on his own to face the legal consequences. Rittenhouse, by contrast, became a figurehead for the right-wing struggle against the “radical Left” even before the trial began. 

Fox News’ embrace of George Zimmerman was, in some ways, a test case for this current acceptance of far Right vigilante violence. But, even then, Republicans (including those running for president) dodged taking a position on it. This is very different from the response to Rittenhouse. Surely, no Republican congressperson was offering Zimmerman jobs after his not-guilty verdict.

The response to Rittenhouse shows that the political situation has become more polarized in recent years. Last summer saw an explosion of struggle against police violence and institutional racism at a level that hadn’t been seen in years. The entire political establishment worked to contain the movement — from bipartisan police repression to Democratic Party co-optation. Trump actively encouraged a vigilante far right to discipline the movement, beyond the “normal” state methods of repression. The right-wing reaction to the BLM movement is taking a more extreme expression than it did, say, after the first Black Lives Matter movement. Rittenhouse is part and parcel of that. What once would have been framed as the actions of a far-right extremist who doesn’t represent real Republican values is now being offered internships in Republican congressional offices. This is because Rittenhouse acted to repress the Black Lives Matter Protests protests. Given the more polarized political landscape, the Trumpist sector hoped to put down the mobilization and rev up his base for the election by allying and encouraging Rittenhouse — even if most Republicans hold him at arm’s length. 

There are forces within the Republican Party who are strongly opposed to this closer alliance with the far Right and argue that it will do nothing but lose the party elections. However, the recent election of Glenn Youngkin in Virginia provides, perhaps, a way forward for how the Republican Party might resolve these contradictions: an “extended arms” embrace of Trump and his base where some concessions are made — attacking “critical race theory” and trans children appear to be the main method of doing this currently — but they don’t go as far as Trump and try to put some distance between them and him, without denouncing him. In this, the silence from other members of the Republican Party on Rittenhouse is telling. The establishment isn’t offering him internships, but they aren’t speaking out against their colleagues doing it either. 

This is combined with voter suppression measures to address the demographic changes that the 2012 Republican memo was so worried about. By limiting voting rights and undemocratically gerrymandering congressional districts, Republicans are hoping to weigh the scales of elections in their favor in order to win power without a majority. The laws are part of the advance of the right and must be combatted. 

But, in taking up the fight against the Right, we must use the correct methods of fighting. Clearly, voting for the Democrats doesn’t work. So then what defeats the right? What history shows is that only strong and militant labor and social movements that ally with one another to use the unique power of the working class to combat the state will be able to defeat the Right, protect our civil rights, and help win the movement’s demands. 

Additionally, this movement must oppose the bills that legalize vigilantism and the full release of all the political prisoners of the Black Lives Matter movement, who rot in jail while Rittenhouse walks free. By locking these activists up, the state is trying to repress and weaken movements of the working class and oppressed, leaving them at the mercy of the state and the far Right. In addition, we must oppose the new laws that were being proposed to repress the January 6 rioters and will, without question, be turned on the Left and specially oppressed. The state and the criminal “justice” system aren’t on the side of working and oppressed people — they’re on the side of Kyle Rittenhouse and Derek Chauvin. Chauvin was convicted of murder because of the strength of the movement, Rittenhouse was aquitted in part because of its weakness.

The state won’t protect against the Right, nor will the Democrats. The police certainly won’t protect us against the Right. To echo the brave protesters on the streets last summer: Who Keeps Us Safe? We Keep Us Safe! Only a movement of the working class and specially oppressed — a unity between the labor and social movements — will defeat the far Right. 

Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber lost their lives to Rittenhouse and the far Right, just as Heather Heyer did before them. Just as countless people of color and queer people have. They all deserve justice. Let the organization and movement against the right and the state be the beginning of that justice. Let the defeat of the far Right and the capitalist state be the justice. Let there never be another Kyle Rittenhouse.

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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