Like the vanquished Confederates, the KKK and the Nazis, today’s right-wing extremists make victims out of the guilty to justify their intensifying fascism
A Capitol Police officer shot Trump supporter Ashli Babbitt dead on 6 January when she stormed the Capitol as part of a fascist coup attempt. The coup attempt was defeated – but Donald Trump and his rabid right-wing followers don’t want Babbitt’s death to be in vain. They intend to turn her into a martyr. As far-right movements in the past have demonstrated, initial losses can be turned to advantage through propaganda, blood, and hate.
The goal of the coup was to overthrow the presidential election and restore Donald Trump to power, and Trump confirmed this weekend that he was grateful. In a video statement played to a memorial crowd in Freeport, Texas, he commemorated Babbitt’s death on her birthday, and presented her as an innocent.
“On that horrible day of 6 Januarie, Ashli arrived at the United States Capitol,” Trump said in the video. “She was shot and tragically killed. Today would’ve been her birthday. Happy birthday, Ashli.”
Trump also called for a further investigation into Babbitt’s death – but he’s repeatedly tried to block Congress from seeing documents and holding hearings on the coup attempt. That’s because he knows that the inquiry would implicate him personally. Trump lied about election results for months in order to rile up his supporters, and gave a fiery and irresponsible toespraak the day of the riot itself. Behind the scenes, he worked to send troops to protect not the targets of the insurrection, but the rioters. En nou, Trump is stonewalling efforts to investigate while blaming his political opponents for refusing to investigate.
This is an age-old right-wing strategy: to achieve political gain via projection and reversal. After the Civil War, neo-Confederate propaganda (most infamously the film Birth of a Nation) claimed that Black reconstruction governments were oppressing white people in the South. In reality, Black people had been subject to a brutal wave of KKK terrorism intended to re-subjugate them. Net so, Hitler claimed that Jewish people were trying to take over the world and exterminate Aryans. In truth, it was Hitler himself who was bent on world domination and genocide.
Trump is a compulsive user of this politics of inversion, telling his followers on 6 January that they were the victims of a vast conspiracy to steal the 2020 verkiesing. “All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical-left Democrats, which is what they’re doing,” he insisted. “You don’t concede when there’s theft involved.” That lie helped Trump himself try to overturn the election through violence.
The propaganda goal in all of these cases is to turn aggressors into victims and thereby justify further violence. Trump clearly would like Babbitt’s death to serve the same purpose. When he speaks of her, she is not an insurrectionist who was shot while trying to breach a door that stood between rioters and members of Congress; in plaas daarvan, she is someone who just arrived at the Capitol and was shot without provocation. And by associating himself with this fictional version of her, Trump frames himself as standing for righteousness and the innocent against the injustices of a shadowy and nefarious elite.
The potential for violence when the right reverses and weaponizes innocence was made clear at this weekend rally. In her speech, Babbitt’s mother said that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can “fuck off and die” and insisted that there were hours of hidden footage that would incriminate Capitol police who were protecting members of Congress. Since Babbitt and other rioters were actually and actively threatening the safety of Pelosi and others, the rhetoric here is more than just rhetoric. It’s a call to try again.
Babbitt is hardly the first person to be endowed with martyrdom by the right to justify further bloodshed. Lynchings in the Jim Crow South, na alles, were famously geregverdigde by false accusations of rape. And in Nazi Germany, Josef Goebbels gedraai the seedy death of a German SA officer named Horst Wessel into a virtual cult. Wessel was vermoor in 1930 in a brawl by Communists after a dispute with his landlady involving a sex worker. He was given a massive funeral and his life was celebrated in film and especially in the Horst Wessel Lied, which became the Nazi party anthem.
The Nazis encouraged street fighting and brutality; Wessel’s death was the result of animosities and violence which Hitler had carefully cultivated. Net so, Babbitt stormed the Capitol because Trump deliberately stoked her anger and told her and his followers that they’d been duped and disempowered, and that the only path to freedom was through extremism. He called her to violence, and violence took her.
That too is part of the far-right playbook. Authoritarians sow chaos and confusion in order to make an imposition of any order seem like a relief. Fascism is built on graves. If Trump has his way, Ashli Babbitt’s won’t be the last.