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Kyle Rittenhouse may not be the far-right hero they're looking for

The right wants to manipulate Kyle Rittenhouse. Here's hoping he won't let them.

Kyle Rittenhouse, who as a teenager shot two men and injured another at a 2020 protest, is slated to speak this week at the conservative AmericaFest conference, alongside prominent and divisive right-wing figures like Tucker Carlson, Marjorie Taylor Green, and Donald Trump Jr. The conference features panels with titles like “How Cultural Marxists Hijacked America” and “How to Survive Wokism & Change the World.” Two panels are titled with versions of the phrase “Let’s go Brandon” (a right-wing code for “F--- Joe Biden”).

Rittenhouse, who was acquitted in November of all charges in the killings of two men in Kenosha, Wisconsin during August 2020 protests against racial injustice, is not listed on the agenda, but will likely appear as the “VERY special guest” on a Monday panel called “Kenosha on camera.” Rittenhouse’s appearance at the conference will undoubtedly be interpreted as support for the far right. But it could also be an opportunity for him to show he refuses to be coopted by it.

Ever since the August 2020 killings, Rittenhouse has been valorized by the right as a heroic defender of freedom, a righteous peacekeeper, and a protector of local communities. Even before the trial began, his image was coopted into a meme that warned protesters to "F--- Around and Find Out.” But over the past few weeks, he has made comments that suggest he is not just a parrot for right-wing talking points.

Rittenhouse’s appearance at the conference will undoubtedly be interpreted as support for the far right. But it could also be an opportunity for him to show he refuses to be co-opted by it.

As he made the rounds of conservative and right-wing talk shows and media outlets in the weeks following the trial, Rittenhouse shut down a conversation about the rifle he used that night in Kenosha, noting that he doesn’t want “anything to do with that” and plans to destroy it. He also described himself as a supporter of Black Lives Matter and an advocate for the kinds of prosecutorial reform that criminal justice advocates have long lobbied for.

Rittenhouse should expect that he will continue to be used by a polarizing right-wing who seeks to capitalize off his notoriety and lionize his actions to promote their own objectives — as long as he lets them do it. His appearance on the AmericaFest stage is a chance for him to demonstrate that he will not be a pawn in a political endgame. And it’s an opportunity for the rest of us to think equally hard about what we represent and what we lend legitimacy to.

Dehumanizing ideas, disinformation, propaganda, and conspiracy theories can’t make their way into the mainstream without the passive — and sometimes active — support of millions of ordinary people making daily choices about what they click and share, what media pundits they give oxygen to, and what divisive rhetoric they will tolerate across the holiday table. There are plenty of everyday ways for each of us to refuse to legitimize the mainstreaming of extremist viewpoints and stop participating in toxic, divisive, inequitable, and polarizing spaces. Over the past few years, we have seen this happen as the courts, the media, academia, and ordinary people have challenged practices that legitimize and mainstream polarizing, authoritarian, or racist politics.

When the Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit seeking to overturn Biden’s win in the 2020 election results, Justice David Wecht argued that it is not the role of the court “to lend legitimacy to such transparent and untimely efforts to subvert the will of Pennsylvania voters.” Years earlier, Wharton students and alumni sent an open letter to alumnus Donald Trump to challenge the way he used the university’s name to add legitimacy to his political campaign and public appearances, telling him “you do not represent us.”

In academia, increasing numbers of scholars have refused to participate in “manels” — all-male panels at conferences and public speaking events — as a way of challenging persistent inequities in whose voices are heard. Journalists have pushed back on ways they may inadvertently legitimize toxic or polarizing spaces too, including by rethinking the unproblematic adoption of the term “alt right,” which was coined by part of the far right as part of a rebranding effort. In late 2016, the Associated Press issued guidance that warned the “alt right” term “may exist primarily as a public relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience.”

Whether Rittenhouse uses his platform to legitimize problematic views of the far-right or takes the opportunity to support racial injustice protesters when he takes the stage at America Fest remains to be seen. Either way, public conversations being had about him present all of us with an opportunity to reflect on where we are as a nation right now, and what types of conversations we should be having.

These examples show that each one of us, in any profession or setting, can make choices about how we spend time, who we represent, what language we use, or who we legitimize through our appearance on a stage. On its own, any single choice may not feel effective. But together, these choices add up in important ways. And critically, they reestablish social norms that have been gradually erased through the mainstreaming of extremist rhetoric, hateful rhetoric, and the steady creep of disinformation and conspiracy theories in all corners of life.

It’s hard to imagine how the history books will cover a political conference attended by sitting elected officials and other national figures that officially told the U.S. President to “f---- off” — in two separate panels. But it’s much less difficult to consider how those same books will judge those among us who helped legitimize it.