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The Republican Party continues to idolize those who create headlines, and Kyle Rittenhouse is no different, as he’s now being hailed as an American hero within right-wing circles. On Monday he spoke at the conservative Turning Point USA AmericaFest conference, which brings together young conservatives and a slew of speakers who are no strangers to controversy, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.; Candace Owens; and Tucker Carlson. This is dangerous, bizarre and concerning.
It’s no secret that Rittenhouse’s trial was divisive across the country. His acquittal on homicide charges was even more divisive, especially as those in right-wing circles immediately praised the verdict and even offered him internships in congressional offices, exploiting the outcome for political opportunity. With multiple GOP lawmakers weirdly vying for his attention, it gave Rittenhouse an overnight celebrity status within the right-wing fringe of the party.
Giving controversial people a platform is a common theme for the Republican Party, which lately has been treating politics like a reality show.
Whether or not you agree with the verdict is one thing; glorifying someone who fatally shot two people and injured another (even though acquitted) is another. According to AZ Central, Turning Point USA spokesman Andrew Kolvet said “There’s a lot of people that want to hear what he has to say and there’s a tremendous amount of interest.” He added: “You know, he didn’t ask for it, but he became this cultural symbol, a touch point of self-defense. He got thrust into that, and he has a story to tell.”
But giving controversial people a platform is a common theme for the Republican Party, which lately has been treating politics like a reality show.
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Consider that past Turning Point USA and Conservative Political Action Conference type events are breeding grounds for the next talking heads from Fox News to Newsmax. For instance, Tomi Lahren and Owens, who became overnight right-wing sensations for their “hot takes” and viral rants against liberalism, got their starts at these conferences just a few short years ago. The folks at Turning Point USA make it their mission to groom young, outspoken right-wing folks into media stars.
However, Rittenhouse’s invitation to this pro-Trump conference goes a step further. In this political climate, exalting him fans the flames of vigilantism. It is not impossible to think that for some in the GOP’s base, the celebration of Rittenhouse sends a message that the violent Jan. 6 insurrection was OK. After all, Rittenhouse claimed self-defense on the night he shot three people, killing two, and the attack on the Capitol was the result of former President Donald Trump’s “big lie” that the election was stolen and his supporters rushing to his defense and to “defend” America.
What makes people like Rittenhouse attractive to the Republican Party is the idea that these individuals are outsiders, and the GOP welcomes them with open arms and gives them a platform in the absence of their own to advance the party’s populist agenda. This is what many Republican voters are attracted to — outspoken and politically incorrect folks who aren’t traditional or experienced politicians.
Just look at the state of Congress, with all the showboating and name-calling by those in the GOP. Members, such as Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Greene, are also using their candid aggressiveness and inflammatory rhetoric to fundraise, which is giving them star power within the party.
The Turning Point USA conference gives us a glimpse of who will be paraded around in the 2022 midterms and beyond. The talking points at this conference will fuel the outrage machine that makes up the GOP platform. As someone who used to be in these circles, in the early days of these conferences, it’s clear to me what happens at these events: Speakers draw crowds and media attention, and these events are used to turn out the base and as a rallying cry for those looking for red meat issues while lacking any substance.
That’s exactly why Rittenhouse was offered a speaking slot, to draw attendance and drum up headlines, and that’s now what has happened. What’s more, this won’t be the last time we hear from him. The GOP will likely continue to use him on the campaign trail or for political gain until he’s no longer useful to their agenda.
Ashley Pratte Oates, an Independent and a former Republican, is a communications strategist and a board member of Republican Women for Progress (which endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020). Previously she was director of media relations and a consultant for Better for America.
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