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Far right extremists herald Kyle Rittenhouse's acquittal

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A range of emotions ripple through this divided country since 18-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted on Friday of all five charges he faced after he killed two men and injured a third during last summer's racial justice protests in Kenosha, Wis. He was found not guilty of first-degree intentional homicide, first-degree reckless homicide, first-degree attempted intentional homicide and two counts of first-degree reckless endangerment. The trial and Rittenhouse himself have become celebrity causes for the far right on a number of issues. Fox News had a documentary team following Rittenhouse throughout the trial.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We, the jury, find the defendant, Kyle H. Rittenhouse not guilty.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: How do you feel, man?

KYLE RITTENHOUSE: The jury reached the correct verdict. Self-defense is not illegal.

FADEL: And on his show Friday night, Fox News' Tucker Carlson showed a longer version of that clip before promoting an upcoming exclusive interview with Rittenhouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")

TUCKER CARLSON: You're reminded that maybe the one person in America who hasn't yet weighed in on the Kyle Rittenhouse trial is Kyle Rittenhouse himself. So for months, CNN and MSNBC and Kamala Harris have been allowed to define him. That ends Monday. We're sitting down for a long interview with Kyle Rittenhouse. You can see it on this show Monday night.

FADEL: Rittenhouse has been vigorously defended by some Republican lawmakers. And at least two Republican congressmen, including North Carolina's Madison Cawthorn and Florida's Matt Gaetz, have talked about giving Rittenhouse an internship. Gaetz expressed interest in the 18-year-old even before he was acquitted, as he did Wednesday on the right-wing media outlet Newsmax.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT GAETZ: He is not guilty. He deserves a not guilty verdict, and I sure hope he gets it because you know what? Kyle Rittenhouse would probably make a pretty good congressional intern. We may reach out to him.

FADEL: There's also been growing concerns that extremists on the right are using the Rittenhouse verdict as further justification to spread messages of violence. NPR's Odette Yousef covers domestic extremism and joins us now. Good morning, Odette.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So we know that the day the verdict was read, many on the right, including the far right, were celebrating. How has their message evolved since then among those on the extreme right?

YOUSEF: Well, Leila, we're seeing a few themes emerge, some of which have been expected - for example, you know, the valorization of Kyle Rittenhouse, which, you know, honestly began almost immediately after he turned himself in last year. But now we're also seeing elected officials are calling for it. So, for example, one Florida State representative calling for a federal holiday to be declared for November 19 and calling it Kyle Rittenhouse Day...

FADEL: Wow.

YOUSEF: ...And also calling for Rittenhouse to run for Congress - an Arizona state senator calling for Kyle Rittenhouse statues to be built. But there are some other themes that have been, you know, perhaps more immediately disturbing to those that have been monitoring the far right, namely messaging around a belief in some extreme corners that vigilantism is in fact, OK and perhaps even a duty. And we're also seeing a surge in anti-Semitic messaging.

FADEL: Can you get into that a bit more? I mean, why would this case and the verdict be giving rise to anti-Semitism?

YOUSEF: Yeah, you know, it might seem surprising and a stretch, right? You know, this wasn't really a case where religion was involved.

FADEL: Right.

YOUSEF: But this really ties back to a grievance that many on the right have had around media coverage of Kyle Rittenhouse, you know, feelings that he was demonized, mischaracterized, maligned in news coverage, you know, in the lead-up to and during the trial. One person who was able to really sort of clarify how that connects back to some of the sort of extremist ideology is Devin Burghart. He's executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights.

DEVIN BURGHART: Very much part of it was the anti-Semitic belief that Jews control the media. And as a result, it spewed not only into that, but then it allowed them to move beyond that to talk about how, you know, it was an opportunity to go after Jews writ large and to reclaim the United States as a white, Christian nation.

YOUSEF: So to clarify, Leila, you know, we don't have any evidence that Kyle Rittenhouse was a member of any such group. But we are seeing lots of hope that Rittenhouse will sue and bankrupt mainstream news outlets for their coverage.

FADEL: For those who've been justifying violence with the notion that there's no political solution, are we seeing anywhere that perhaps in this verdict, there may be a political path for extremists - extremist ideas.

YOUSEF: You know, yeah. I mean, that's been so interesting to me because we're kind of seeing two things here. You know, on the one hand, extremists who push for bloodshed in the streets are always going to be focused in on that, and they continue to be. You know, there's concern that they're interpreting the verdict to mean that they can now retake streets that they largely felt they had lost last year. You know, in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd killing, millions of Americans demonstrated against police brutality and for racial justice. And on the far right, you know, there was this notion that they had lost the streets. So, you know, in a way, the Rittenhouse verdict may be a key turning point for them. But on the other hand, the verdict is also prompting some to call for others within the far right to work through established political channels. Here's Burghart again.

BURGHART: The disturbing thing is there are many on those on the far right who see this as more of an opportunity to engage in the political process to further advance their agenda. You know, the Proud Boys, for instance, were circulating a number of different means saying this trial indicates the importance of getting friends in local office - for instance, they cited the judge in this particular case - as allies.

YOUSEF: You know, there's no evidence that the judge was somehow in their pocket. You know, these extremists are opportunists taking advantage of the moment, but it indicates there may be pursuing an all-prongs approach to move their agenda forward, both within the political system and on the streets.

FADEL: NPR's Odette Yousef, thank you.

YOUSEF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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