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The making of a right-wing martyr: Conservatives treat Derek Chauvin's conviction as an act of war

Throwing Derek Chauvin under the bus should have been a no-brainer for the "I'm not a racist" crowd. The pretense behind "blue lives matter" has been that it's not that conservatives are racist but that Black Lives Matter goes "too far." They argue that most police killings are unfortunate accidents to be tolerated in the name of greater social safety and that the "few bad apples" who do it on purpose can be held to account without widespread reform.

It was always nonsense, of course. But Chauvin's conviction on three counts for murdering George Floyd provided conservatives a golden "hey, at least we're not that guy" opportunity. The evidence against Chauvin was overwhelming. The video of the murder showed the world the nonchalant determination on Chauvin's face as he snuffed out Floyd's life. Police officials testified against Floyd. Prosecutor Steve Schleicher gave conservatives an out by saying, "This wasn't policing, this was murder." Conservatives could have easily clung to Chauvin's conviction as an "exception that proves the rule" situation, insisting that because they condemn him, no one should call them racist. It would have been a lie, but occasionally cutting loose the worst members of their tribe has long been a winning strategy for the right.

But nah, instead they're turning a dead-eyed murderer like Chauvin into a martyr. And in doing so, they're removing the last shred of plausible deniability that "blue lives matter" and the criticisms of Black Lives Matter was ever about anything but stone-cold white supremacy.

Insisting that Chauvin was the hill to die on made the leap from the unapologetically rancid fringes to the Fox News talking heads in a record amount of time. Shortly after the verdict was announced on Tuesday, far-right Twitter cranks like Paul Joseph Watson and Matt Walsh were insisting Chauvin was the real victim here and that the jury was "intimidated" by the "mob." Minutes later, that line was already being broadcast on Fox News, as Greg Gutfeld, with his usual unfunny "humor," was pretending to be "glad" Chauvin "was found guilty on all charges, even if he might not be guilty of all charges," because "I want a verdict that keeps this country from going up in flames."

Obviously, Gutfeld's not glad at all, so much as making the same bizarre argument as the Twitter fringes were: That the verdict is unjust, Chauvin is a martyr, and that the "woke mob" is to blame for this conviction. You know, instead of Chauvin's own choice to murder a man in broad daylight in front of a dozen witnesses and a cellphone camera.

The "Chauvin is a martyr" narrative was enshrined into the right-wing common wisdom later that night on — where else? — Tucker Carlson's infamous but popular prime-time Fox News show. Carlson, whose own white nationalist leanings have gradually become less cloaked in euphemism in recent months, had a complete meltdown over Chauvin's conviction Tuesday night.

"The jury in the Derek Chauvin trial came to a unanimous and unequivocal verdict this afternoon: 'Please don't hurt us,'" Carlson raved on his show, which is usually at the top of the ranks of cable news shows, with 3 million viewers. He painted the verdict as "an attack on civilization" — as if there was anything "civilized" about Chauvin's behavior — and threatened that "decent, productive people will leave" the country rather than tolerate the current situation.

While pretending "I'm probably not that qualified to weigh in on" the verdict, Carlson — who previously compared Chauvin's having to endure due process to "lynching" — made his feelings about the verdict quite clear, shutting down a guest when he realized that guest was about to say that Chauvin's behavior was wrong.

Turning Chauvin into a martyr of the "woke mob" is not just sociopathic, but seems like it would be bad political strategy. It's like trying to turn Ted Bundy into some hapless victim of a castrating feminist mob.

Indeed, it seemed there were still some in right-wing media who grasped that this is one of those moments where admitting Chauvin is a bad guy would go a long way towards propping up the illusion that it's conservatives who are fair-minded and evidence-driven, and that liberals are the ones who take it "too far." Fox News host Laura Ingraham, for instance, went with the more traditional strategy of painting Chauvin's behavior as nothing more than an individual failing, and arguing that liberals who say otherwise are overreaching.

"They want to reprogram all of America to believe that justice isn't served when just one individual pays for criminal wrongdoing — for them, punishment has to be wide-reaching and never-ending," she argued, claiming that systematic racism is a "big lie" and that the guilt belongs solely to Chauvin.

Strategically condemning the worst people so they can look better by comparison has long been an effective strategy on the right. For instance, Fox News heavily covered the sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein, which gave them cover to pretend they care about sexual abuse, even as they largely ignored similar allegations against former Fox host Bill O'Reilly or Donald Trump.

In the past year or so, however, a mentality of total war against the left has permeated throughout American conservatism. It's become unimaginable to many on the right to admit liberals could ever be right about anything, ever, including fairly obvious ideas like "we should try stop the COVID-19 pandemic," "the winner of the election should be the next president" and "shamelessly murdering a man on camera is bad business."

The valorization of Kyle Rittenhouse was an earlier indicator. Like Chauvin, Rittenhouse is one of those indefensible creeps that past conservatives would have known better than to rally around. Whatever comes out in his trial, what is indisputable is that the 17-year-old was only in the position to shoot three people — killing two — because he went out looking for trouble when he armed himself and crossed state lines to rumble with protesters he could have left well enough alone. If he had shown any sense or decency and stayed at home, he would be a free young man and two of those protesters would still be alive today.

But rather than sensibly wash their hands of a such an obvious fool, the right rallied around Rittenhouse, funding his defense and turning him into a noble victim of supposed liberal overreach, as if the anti-murder laws he is being accused of violating were only recently invented by the "woke mob." It was an early sign that, as far as the MAGA right is concerned, there is nothing a white man can do in the name of anti-liberalism that is a crime. The same attitude went towards fueling the Capitol insurrection and the astonishment many of those rioters experienced at realizing that they might actually face legal consequences for trying to violently overthrow the government.

Outside of the funhouse mirror counter-reality of right-wing media, the grim truth is that the Chauvin conviction, while welcome, is only further proof of how far the U.S. has to go to fix a broken culture of policing. As Jason Johnson of MSNBC said Tuesday afternoon, "in order to get a nominal degree of justice in this country, that a Black man has to be murdered on air, viewed by the entire world." The sensible, reality-based view is that Chauvin's guilt was obvious and that it's a tragic sign of how racist our country is that there was real fear he would not be convicted — and that so many many other police still get away with similar crimes.

This "total war" attitude on the right is likely fueled by Donald Trump's "concede nothing, lie constantly, fight everyone at all times" mentality, of course. But it's also the result of the American right understanding that they've lost the political debate on pretty much every front. Unable to win an argument on the merits, they've quit trying and now are permanently on the attack. And that's how someone like Chauvin, who common sense indicates is not a person worth an ounce of sympathy, is being turned into a right wing martyr.

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