When Air Force veteran Ashli Babbitt, 35, was shot dead by police while trying to force her way through a barricaded door protecting members of the House of Representatives from a mob of rioters inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, she was energized in part by then-President Donald Trump's big lie that Democrats were hard at work stealing the White House from its rightful Republican owners.
Having tried democracy and come up short, Trump and many others in the GOP are experimenting with a dose of old-style fascist strong-arming.
Far from dampening support for the big lie, Babbitt's death is being amplified by Trump loyalists into a powerful rallying symbol for far-right anti-government extremists the FBI calls terrorists, who now find aid and comfort within a Trumpified GOP.
Babbitt's canonization as a right-wing martyr is a dangerous development for a Republican Party with members increasingly comfortable pressing for and defending political violence. Trump himself seems to want to use outrage over Babbitt's death as a blast furnace to heat up his 2024 political comeback — but cheerleading extremism is more likely to send the country up in smoke.
"Who was the person who shot an innocent, wonderful, incredible woman?" Trump asked Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo on Sunday, before interrupting himself to offer an answer: "I will tell you, they know who shot Ashley Babbitt. They're protecting that person. I've heard also that it was the head of security for a certain high official — a Democrat."
Trump's rumors have been firmly rejected by law enforcement, according to reporting by NBC News. A senior law enforcement official briefed on the matter said the officer involved was not a member of a security detail provided to a specific member of Congress.
Trump's speculation is also refuted by the video evidence freely available to the public, which clearly shows that Babbitt was not "innocent." She was shot while trying to force entry into a restricted area and disregarding multiple police orders to stop. We also know Babbitt arrived at the Capitol fired up by Trump's conspiracy theories, which she spelled out on her social media profiles alongside threats to Democratic elected officials, such as the vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, and Rep. Maxine Waters of California.
In any case, it is doubtful that anyone in the GOP is actually interested in uncovering the truth about what happened on Jan. 6. Back in May, Republicans loudly and proudly refused to support a bipartisan investigation into the riot. Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona went so far as to accuse the FBI of secretly having organized the attack itself — a conspiracy theory amplified by his GOP colleagues Louie Gohmert of Texas, Andy Biggs of Arizona and Matt Gaetz of Florida.
But the danger is greater than the now-typical muddying of the waters about what really happened during a day that threatened U.S. democracy. It represents a new tactic to further the spread of propaganda and distortion that courts — rather than denounces — the most dangerous elements of American society. The open embrace of the Jan. 6 rioters as "peaceful patriots" by parts of the GOP signals a grim reality: Republicans simply cannot afford to lose the votes of far-right domestic terrorists.
Under Trump, the GOP party line drifted so far to the right that extremists like Babbitt, the more than 500 radicals arrested and accused of invading the Capitol and their defenders now represent a major constituency in one of America's two national parties. In May, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 66 percent of self-identified Republicans believed Joe Biden stole the presidency. It stands to reason that Republicans will do whatever is necessary to make sure those extremists are in voting booths instead of jail cells next year.
That desperation is walking Republican leaders down a dark path made infamous by the Nazi propaganda machine. I am aware that comparing one's political rivals to the definitional party of hatred and violent fascism is a serious charge, one none of us should make lightly. Unfortunately for the GOP and for our nation, in this case the brown shirt fits with frightening ease.
As Matthew Rozsa wrote in Salon this week, Trump's elevation of Babbitt to the status of MAGA martyr bears a shocking resemblance to the story of Horst Wessel, a Nazi brownshirt in the Sturmabteilung ("Assault Division"), or S.A., which comprised Hitler's paramilitary terrorism force. Hitler seized on Wessel's death in 1930 as a propaganda gold mine, quickly elevating Wessel into a fascist folk hero.
"After a dispute with his Communist landlady — which was likely over unpaid rent, not politics — Wessel was shot on the street by two other Communists," Rozsa writes. The Nazis recast Wessel as a sacrificial hero of the fascist movement. And it worked. "Nazi propaganda outlets depicted him as a hero. His funeral procession was viewed by 30,000 people who lined the streets of Berlin. He became the subject of a major motion picture and was honored by numerous monuments and books."
Wessel's role as Hitler's martyr served dual purposes: It allowed Nazi leaders to claim victimhood — these dirty communists want to oppress and kill you just like they did Wessel — while energizing their movement with a clear enemy: These communists killed one of ours. Are you going to let that stand?
Trump himself seems to want to use outrage over Babbitt's death as a blast furnace to heat up his 2024 political comeback.
When Trump claims, falsely, that Babbitt was killed for "no reason" and that he has information connecting Democrats to her killing, groups like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, who now evoke the brownshirt division of the GOP, hear the same message: What are you going to do about it? Having tried democracy and come up short, Trump and many others in the GOP are experimenting with a dose of old-style fascist strong-arming.
Ashli Babbitt was radicalized and then led to her death partly by a collective fiction about a stolen election amplified and encouraged by prominent Republican officials, including Trump. Now the ex-president has mutated Babbitt's death into its own collective fiction that could radicalize others like her into a pro-Trump cult in which violence is an acceptable response to the democratic process. Americans must reject these deadly fantasies before they incite another dangerous attempt to undermine our democracy.