The Mayhem Watch is on. Closing arguments in the trial of “Kenosha Shooter” Kyle Rittenhouse are expected Monday, and after weeks of hype, the country is primed to explode again. Wisconsin governor Tony Evers announced 500 National Guard troops will be on hand for potential post-verdict “unrest,” which seems almost guaranteed, no matter the result.
As with all major news stories lately, the Rittenhouse case saw idiosyncrasies wash away as coverage accumulated, with pundits pounding the trial into yet another generalized referendum on American culture war. Prestige media made Rittenhouse a stand-in for the Proud Boys, January 6th, school board protests, anti-mask protests, QAnon, Blue Lives Matter, Trump, “Domestic Terrorism,” fascism, school shooters, and every other naughty thing, with everyone from then-candidate Joe Biden to The Intercept blithely declaring him a white supremacist. The efforts to cast Rittenhouse as a symbol of racism and white rage have been awesome in quantity and transparently, intentionally provoking, with even leading papers like the New York Times standardizing a practice of underscoring Rittenhouse’s race (“white teenager”) while leaving the identities of those shot out of coverage. Glenn Greenwald pointed out that his old outlet, The Intercept, noted Rittenhouse’s race 20 times in one piece while keeping schtum about the color of those shot. This has gone on for so long, we’ve seen a foreign newspaper misreport that the two people killed in the case were black. In the public consciousness, they might as well have been.
Because Rittenhouse from the day of the shooting was made a symbol of Fox-watching, Trump-loving conservatives, he was also quickly adopted in red media as a hero, which “he surely wasn’t,” as Andrew Sullivan put it. This turbo-charged the freakout even more, as Rittenhouse’s defenders turned his case into a referendum on everything from media coverage of last summer’s protests of Black Lives Matter to the performance (or non-performance, as it were) of police during the George Floyd/Jacob Blake demonstrations, to a dozen other things that made public passions rise in the last year.
Rittenhouse in other words became a symbol of so many things to so many people that the specifics of his legal case have ceased to be relevant. There seems to be no such thing as an editorialist who has negative feelings about, say, Rittenhouse posing with Proud Boys, yet also believes that incident can’t be evidence since it happened after the shooting. Everyone picks a side and stays there. Pundits are telling us that any opinion on how the jury should rule can only be understood as a reflection of racial attitudes. “If you’re defending Kyle Rittenhouse, you might be a white supremacist. Just sayin,” is how Tweeter-with-beard and sometimes-journalist David Leavitt puts it.
On the day the Rittenhouse trial began, the financial data firm FactSet released an eyebrow-raising report about the Covid-19 economy.
The firm noted that companies in the S&P 500 were set to post a net 12.9% profit in the third quarter of 2021. They pointed out this was the second-highest result since the firm began tracking the number in 2008.
The only better result? The previous quarter, i.e. Q2 2021, when net profits sat at 13.1% overall. These results track with the true great story of the pandemic era, which not-so-mysteriously hasn’t made the news much, while Americans have been tearing each other’s faces off over issues like race and vaccination policy: the massive widening of our already-obscene wealth gap.
Remember last year’s long summer of riots, that period that saw the whole world arguing over the definition of “mostly peaceful,” and saw Rittenhouse go charging into the streets of Kenosha? During that long stretch of unrest, corporate America, which had been headed for a depression in March of 2020, was soaring above the fray on an apparently endless, and endlessly escalating, ride to record profits. Take a look at this graph from the St. Louis Federal Reserve, and focus on the Jeff-Bezos-rocket-like ascent beginning in the second quarter of 2020:
Corporate profits in the second quarter of 2020 sat at $1.58 trillion. One year later, that number was $2.69 trillion, a roughly 71% increase. How many stories have you read in the last year telling you about how well the top end of the income distribution has been doing, while the rest of the country seemed to be falling apart?
Compared with how often you heard pundits rage about the “insurrection,” how regularly did you hear that billionaire wealth has risen 70% or $2.1 trillion since the pandemic began? How much did you hear about last year’s accelerated payments to defense contractors, who immediately poured the “rescue” cash into a buyback orgy, or about the record underwriting revenues for banks in 2020, or the “embarrassment of profits” for health carriers in the same year, or the huge rises in revenue for pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, all during a period of massive net job losses? The economic news at the top hasn’t just been good, it’s been record-setting good, during a time of severe cultural crisis.
Twenty or thirty years ago, the Big Lie was usually a patriotic fairy tale designed to cast America in a glow of beneficence. Nurtured in think-tanks, stumped by politicians, and amplified by Hollywood producers and media talking heads, these whoppers were everywhere: America would have won in Vietnam if not for the media, poverty didn’t exist (or at least, wasn’t shown on television), only the Soviets cuddled with dictators or toppled legitimate governments, etc. The concept wasn’t hard to understand: leaders were promoting unifying myths to keep the population satiated, dumb, and focused on their primary roles as workers and shoppers.
In the Trump era, all this has been turned upside down. There’s actually more depraved, dishonest propaganda than before, but the new legends are explicitly anti-unifying and anti-patriotic. The people who run this country seem less invested than ever in maintaining anything like social cohesion, maybe because they mostly live in wealth archipelagoes that might as well be separate nations (if they even live in America at all).
All sense of noblesse oblige is gone. The logic of our kleptocratic economy has gone beyond even the “Greed is Good” mantra of the fictional Gordon Gekko, who preached that pure self-interest would make America more efficient, better-run, less corrupt. Even on Wall Street, nobody believes that anymore. America is a sinking ship, and its CEO class is trying to salvage the wreck in advance, extracting every last dime before Battlefield Earth breaks out.
It’s only in this context that these endless cycles of hyper-divisive propaganda make sense. It’s time to start wondering if maybe it’s not a coincidence that politicians and pundits alike are pushing us closer and closer to actual civil war at exactly the moment when corporate wealth extraction is reaching its highest-ever levels of efficiency. Keeping the volk at each other’s throats instead of pitchforking the aristocrats is an old game, one that’s now gone digital and works better than ever. That might be worth remembering after the coming verdict, and ahead of whatever other hyper-publicized panic comes down the pipeline next.