The subtext of two prominent trials in recent weeks is vigilantism, the questionable notion that the institutions that we depend on — the police, especially — have declined into such impotence that ordinary citizens are called upon to maintain peace and order on their own.

In both trials, justice prevailed, that is, the juries returned the correct verdict. Last week in Brunswick, Georgia, Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William Bryan were found guilty of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Video shows clearly that Arbery was cornered and harassed to the point of desperation. He must have felt that he was fighting for his life when Travis McMichael killed him with three shotgun blasts.

The two McMichaels and Bryan face life in prison. The system worked and vigilantism lost.

On the other hand, recently Kyle Rittenhouse was charged with murder after he killed two men and injured another during a night of unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse did plenty that was wrong: He should never have been in Kenosha, he shouldn’t have been carrying a deadly weapon and he shouldn’t have been out after curfew.

But once he was attacked, he put his AR-15 to the use for which it was intended: He defended himself. The jury agreed and he was acquitted. The system worked, but, unfortunately, vigilantism won.

The political right immediately embraced Rittenhouse as a hero. Tucker Carlson interviewed him. At least four House Republicans — Matt Gaetz, Paul Gosar, Madison Cawthorn, Lauren Boebert — immediately offered Rittenhouse an internship.


Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene introduced a bill to award to Rittenhouse a Congressional Gold Medal, the legislative branch’s highest honor. Prior recipients include George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Edison and Jonas Salk.

And last week Rittenhouse called on former president Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago, where they were photographed together smiling and offering the camera a double thumbs-up. Trump called Rittenhouse “really a nice young man.”

This enthusiasm for Rittenhouse makes sense for the Republican Party. The proposition that government institutions are incompetent and ineffective is essential to the party’s brand. Whether in power or out, Republicans generally do their best to ensure that government — apart from an immense military — does as little as possible, as poorly as possible.

So while vigilantism lost in Georgia last week, Republicans hope to turn the Rittenhouse episode into a win. This is a very bad idea, for two reasons.

First, vigilantism feeds off fear and insecurity. Paradoxically, vigilantism also encourages macho fantasies of power and inclinations toward bluster. Thus we have men and boys who pose as warriors — body armor, camouflage and cool-looking weapons — but who overestimate their competence and underestimate the challenge of using powerful firearms judiciously when things start to get out of hand.

So despite their swagger, when things got difficult, all Rittenhouse and the two McMichaels knew how to do was pull the trigger.


Second, vigilantism always involves racism. White people aren’t worried about white police being able to protect them from other white people. If you doubt the racial element, try to imagine Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William Bryan chasing down and killing a white kid who happened to be jogging through their neighborhood.

Vigilantism is hardly new in American history, but few images are more suited to our age than Donald Trump and Kyle Rittenhouse mugging for the camera at Mar-a-Lago. Trump has sustained his political life by exploiting insecurity and encouraging extrajudicial remedies.

At his rallies Trump urged his fans to rough up hecklers, and he encouraged police officers not to be too gentle during arrests. And if the definition of vigilantism is to take the law into your own hands, Trump praised, supported and encouraged a vigilante mob to attack our national Capitol on Jan. 6 in an effort to overturn the rule of law.

No wonder the Republicans like vigilantes. Trump is the Vigilante in Chief. As long as he continues to spread his big lie that he won the election in 2020, his party will be the welcoming home to those Americans who think that vigilante violence is the only remedy.