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The Chilling Message of Trump’s Embrace of Ashli Babbitt Martyrdom

Intelligencer logo Intelligencer 7/7/2021 Jonathan Chait
a man wearing a suit and tie: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images © Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

Last Thursday, Donald Trump announced a new theme, with all his customary blunt-force subtlety. “Who shot Ashli Babbitt?,” he wrote on his official pseudo-presidential stationery. Those four words were the entirety of the message.

Two days later, at his rally in Florida, he said more. “Who shot Ashli Babbitt? We all saw the hand. We saw the gun … You know, if that were on the other side, the person that did the shooting would be strung up and hung. Okay? Now, they don’t want to give the name … It’s a terrible thing, right? Shot. Boom. And it’s a terrible thing.”

And then, speaking Wednesday about his lawsuit challenging his social-media ban, Trump returned to the subject again. Asked about the insurrection, he changed the subject to the terrible people on the other side who were not being charged, and brought up Babbitt once again: “The person that shot Ashli Babbitt. Boom. Right through the head. Just, boom. There was no reason for that. And why isn’t that person being opened up, and why isn’t that being studied?”

Babbitt’s death, while tragic, occurred for a very good reason. The Air Force veteran, who had been fully converted into the most dangerous and fantastical pro-Trump conspiracy theories, had joined the aggressive vanguard of the January 6 insurrection. Babbitt died trying to squeeze through the smashed window of a barricaded door that led to the inner sanctum where members of Congress were hiding from the mob.

Talia Levin’s profile of Babbitt, in the current issue of the magazine, notes her emergence as a martyr on the far right. As Levin points out, Babbitt is not the only Trump supporter who lost her life during the insurrection. Rosanne Boyland also died, but the manner of her death — trampling by the mob — does not serve the same propagandistic purpose. The whole point of Babbitt’s centrality is that she was leading the mob violently forward toward its goal of threatening or killing officials who refused to cooperate with their objective of overturning the election result.

It is revealing that Trump has only taken up Babbitt’s cause now, six months after the insurrection. In the immediate aftermath of the riot, Republicans were briefly furious enough to contemplate writing Trump out of the party and even voting to impeach him. Then they decided not to expunge him, and to hope the ugly events simply faded from memory. A few months later, they decided to purge Liz Cheney, allegedly because she refused to let go of the insurrection. Shortly after that, the party voted to block a bipartisan investigation of the insurrection.

All the political momentum is on Trump’s side. He has slowly turned January 6 from a black mark that threatened to expunge him from Republican politics, to a regrettable episode that his allies preferred to leave behind, to a glorious uprising behind which he could rally his adherents.

Martyrs are the most potent symbols for a radical movement. The John Birch Society commemorated an American missionary killed by Chinese communists in 1945 (the first death of the Cold War, the society’s followers believed). Horst Wessel, a German storm trooper killed by communists in 1930, inspired an eponymous song that became a Nazi anthem.

The anti-anti-Trump right has dismissed the insurrection as overblown, a protest march gone bad, perhaps ill-considered but never posing any serious threat to the republic. The far right’s highlighting of Babbitt’s death sends a different message: The insurrection was good. Babbitt’s effort to penetrate the defensive barrier was brave, and the stopping of her charge a crime.

By throwing himself behind this message, Trump is endorsing the most radical interpretation of his presidency. January 6 was not a minor misstep after a successful era, as fans like Mike Pence and Lindsey Graham now say. It was the heroic culmination of a righteous uprising.

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