The Rittenhouse trial is a chance to think about how political narrative works. This is separate from the rights and wrongs of what happened. What we are interested in here is how the political narrative can be explained, in the same way that we might be interested in the technique of a plot in a piece of fiction. None of this means I am taking a side or a view on what happened and whether it should have happened. I am only interested in trying to parse some of the ways political narratives are now working.
There are three ways we can understand Rittenhouse as a story. The plot mechanism is the expectation of astonishment. The genre is True Political Crime. And the story is one instance of a bigger narrative with a basic, fascinating, structure of inevitable failure.
The expectation of astonishment
So many people were dismayed or furious at the Rittenhouse verdict — but they seemed to have predicted, or at least expected, it. Why do they have such strong feelings when they already knew the ending? What makes the news gripping when it is not, as far as you are concerned, news?
The naive view of plot is that it works by surprise. The story moves forward by shocking us. Hence the basic function of a story — to make you want to find out what will happen next. This is, obviously, not true. Many good plots give things away. In The Lady Vanishes we are surprised that the little old lady who babbles about music is the one who was meant to be hit on the head with the flower pot. We are not surprised, after that, when she vanishes. And once she does disappear, we know she’s coming back. Those are the expectations of the genre.
The Clerk’s Tale operates in a similar way. Walter says he is killing the children, but we know he is not really killing them. He calls it a test. That means we pretty much know what’s going to happen. Much like will-they-won’t-they plots we might not feel certain of the ending, but we know approximately what it’s going to be.
The surprise comes from the expectation of astonishment. Just because we can figure out the sort of thing Walter is up to, doesn’t make it less shocking. If I could predict the future (in a credible way) and told you someone would fall off a building, you would still be horrified when you saw it happen. It’s a plot mechanism of suspense, because although we know what to expect, what we expect is terrible, and until it does happen we cannot guarantee it, or at least how and when it will happen. (You can sort-of prove this view by re-watching or re-reading a great book or movie: Pride and Prejudice isn’t boring the second, third, fourth time around.)
So the first thing that matters with Rittenhouse is that — simply as a story people were telling themselves — it relied on the expectation of astonishment. It was said that he would get off, and he did.
True Political Crime
The reasons for why this happened are somewhat incidental to the way the narrative works. But they do tell us abut genre. In recent years, Rittenhouse would have belonged to the True Crime genre. And in that sense alone, it is not especially distinctive. But Rittenhouse is part of a new sub-genre of True Political Crime. This is like In Cold Blood meets Watergate. The techniques of narrative non-fiction, that are so prevalent now, were (and arguably are) unnecessary to tell the Watergate story. It is astonishing enough. But once you take political, partisan arguments, and put them into a True Crime narrative, you have a whole new sort of story.
This is why there has been so much anger about what ought to be indisputable and ordinary. The basic facts of a criminal case are usually enticing because they are horrifying — they are not often this disputable. Bari Weiss has a good account of the way that basic facts were disputed to the point of being inverted, depending on your side.
On her account, there is nothing linking Rittenhouse to white supremacy, but he is a Trump supporter. He did cross state lines, but he lives twenty miles away and went there the night before for work. He didn’t take the gun with him, it was already there. (Astonishingly, it was lawful for him to have the gun.) Rittenhouse didn’t search out people to shoot, he fired at people who were bearing down on him with weapons — literally the textbook definition of self-defence. Follow the link to Weiss’ piece and you will see video of one of the people who was killed using awful racial slurs, aggressively. So it doesn’t seem to be the case that Rittenhouse killed someone who was affirming that black lives matter.
But this set of facts makes Rittenhouse a simple True Crime story, and a self-defence one at that. It might have made a good movie, but it’s not an exceptional piece of narrative. The facts that many people sincerely believe turn it into True Political Crime, a much more fascinating genre. In as far as politics is becoming a form of entertainment, this is one example of how that works at the level of storytelling.
The fascination of failure
The last thing going on in Rittenhouse is the fascination of failure. Progressive narratives usually present progress as inevitable. Think of Obama’s arc of history, or the traditional Whig view of history. This is the idea that, as Tennyson said, “progress slowly broadens down, From precedent to precedent.” This is what Kurt Vonnegut classed as a “Creation Story”, where things incrementally get better.
Current progressive narratives seem to be more of the “Bad to Worse” structure. This is a fairly common form of political story, hence the idea that optimists win elections. In a world of doom and gloom, it’s the sunshine people who can get an edge over their opponents. Hence, I am sorry to say, Boris. But picking a story type like this means you lose the messy reality of history in favour of vivid, impressionistic narratives that compel. Rittenhouse is one small part of a bigger narrative that one side is currently losing.
To illustrate how this works, let’s look to some historical examples. There used to be a standard account of British Edwardian and early Georgian politics as a culture in decline, largely based on The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield, an overrated, journalistic history of 1910-1914 with the thesis that the Liberals vanished because society was rebelling. The rebellions of Ireland, Suffragettes, the Tories, and the Unions were what caused the party that won a historically large election in 1906 to vanish as a viable candidate for government after 1916.
There was some truth to Dangerfield’s argument. But it was an insufficient account that failed to look at those rebellions as complex problems. What quick or easy solutions are there to the challenge of enfranchising half the population, granting Home Rule to a country with a population so split on the issue civil war was about to break out, or on the best way to remove the power of the aristocracy as the political system became democratic? In truth, the system had a lot to deal with and didn’t do an awful job.
It was a low point, but Dangerfield’s “Bad to Worse” story distorts things. Compromise was reached on Ireland. Women were enfranchised (and the delay was partly caused by violence, not just reactionary politicians like Asquith), the welfare state was begun by the historic 1909 budget.
Dangerfield’s book is so unavoidable because it is Whig history in reverse. Inevitable failure. And doesn’t that make a great story? His book is popular because it is so vivid and impressionistic — so readable. It is history with goodies and baddies. Similarly the English Civil War is sometimes seen like this: rather than being a patchy, arcane, quarrel that started with the prayer book and ended in constitutional upheaval, it is presented as part of a succession of events from Magna Carta about the steady growth of liberty. We lose all sense of contingency.
We saw this with the prorogation fracas in 2019, where the court cited the Case of Proclamations, a case from the time of James I about the king contravening statuary law. No statute was contravened in the prorogation, of course. But the court fashioned a precedent by analogy anyway. This is uncontroversial in the Whig view of history. It was all of a piece with the view of the Civil War as an inevitable, single-minded quarrel about the Divine Right of Kings. But if you see the prorogation crisis as a political spat rather than a constitutional one, the precedent looks a little enthusiastic. Boris was hardly Charles I. The whole thing was taken out of the political context of now and slotted into the Civil War narrative, ignoring the real story — the underlying political power struggle between different branches of government.
The real issue was that we are no longer, contrary to the court’s claim, a pure representative democracy. We are a representative democracy getting used to the role of referendums. Boris had no majority at that point, so we saw a government with no majority have its policy overturned by a court that ignored the bigger argument about what to do with a referendum result in a system unused to referendums. The constitutionally proper thing would have been to replace Boris, hold a general election, and/or pass a bill overturning the prorogation. There was also a tussle at that time about who controlled the order paper in Parliament.
How readily neat narratives get messy! How similar this all is to the Edwardians and their transitional problems. Tyler Cowen calls this mood affiliation. Once you have picked a side or a viewpoint, your side is either doing well or doing badly, and the way you tell the story of politics and history will broadly match that mood, even if your mood or side stretches all the way back to the seventeenth century. Mood affiliation means we should beware of narratives — they are more about the story teller than the story. A focus on the messy process of reality is difficult to achieve because people so often feel like they lost, rather than that things happened. Thus we become fascinated by failure — either ours or our opponents.
Dangerfield was like this. He was an English Literature graduate who felt that the working class was not represented by Literature, and the England of his youth — the England of Georgian poetry — was vanishing. His book was a literary and personal project. Carolyn W. White said, “Dangerfield believed that popular historians had an obligation to create a new image of the past that would explain and justify the passions of the present.” He was also creating an image of the past and present that married his sense of self to his sense of politics. And, importantly, he was writing for an audience he knew wasn’t being served this stuff by their fiction. His aim was literary, not historical. He wanted to write like Lytton Strachey and make history palatable for the mass reading public of the 1930s.
There are many George Dangerfields today. So many people writing narratives that fit their ideology and fit themselves, either their personal narrative or their deeply held sense that they are winning or losing — their mood affiliation. And there are enough mass audiences for them on the internet, all of them looking for an interesting story.
The third way Rittenhouse appealed to readers and news watchers, then, was by offering a fascinating story of failure, part of the bigger on-going idea that the ideals of progressive society are being thwarted by forces of oppression and injustice. Certainly, it is not obvious that this argument is wrong, per se. But the Rittenhouse story worked the way it did — and was as compelling as it was — because it fitted a mood affiliation of failure.
Novels often work this way. Part of what makes Sally Rooney so good is that she really is writing about the way a lot of people are living or feeling right now. The same was true of Dickens and Eliot. They were relevant. The problem, as George Dangerfield shows, is that this is a much more difficult thing to achieve in history and politics without being distorting. Our expectations of the two modes are different. Novels are partial; history is not. Or at least claims not to be.
In this reading, Rittenhouse was a story that works through a mechanism of the expectation of astonishment (you expect injustice from the news the way you expect a denouement from Agatha Christie), in a genre of True Political Crime (telling a straightforward trial story with politically charged facts), as part of a bigger narrative with a basic structure of inevitable failure (Rittenhouse is one more example of the current fight between the Trump people and the Progressive people going against Progressives). This is not to say that either side is right or wrong, or that the main claims of this narrative about race in America are not true. But it does show us something about how political stories are structured and how we ought to look carefully at them before choosing what we pay attention to.