In a two-minute-and-13-second video released on Sunday, Ashli Babbitt’s birthday, Donald Trump said, “There was no reason Ashli should’ve lost her life that day. We must all demand justice for Ashli and her family, so on this solemn occasion as we celebrate her life, we renew our call for a fair and nonpartisan investigation into the death of Ashli Babbitt.” He later added that Babbitt was shot “for no reason.”
None of this is true, of course. We know exactly what happened: Ashli Babbitt was part of an insurrectionist mob. She was shot on January 6 while attempting to storm the Capitol and break into the chamber of the House of Representatives, in order to terrorize Congress into overturning a free and fair election. They came perilously close to succeeding.
It was under these circumstances that Lt. Michael Byrd, a U.S. Capitol Police officer, shot Babbitt. Byrd was exonerated after a thorough investigation. His actions may well have saved dozens of lives—including his own and the lives of fellow officers, the lives of Vice President Mike Pence, members of Congress of both parties, and anybody else who happened to be working in the Capitol that day.
Why did Donald go out of his way to pay homage to a woman who died while committing insurrection against the government he ostensibly ran? On the one hand, he needs to normalize the events of January 6 as much as possible, because as the insurrection’s chief instigator, he is the guiltiest party. On the other, one of his most primal instincts, always, is to throw gasoline on an already roaring fire, to deflect and, in this case, keep his base engaged and ready to do his bidding while demoralizing the rest of us. As Zeeshan Aleem, an MSNBC columnist, put it, “The reality of the situation is that Trump doesn’t view Babbitt’s death as an extraordinary tragedy as much he sees it as an extraordinary opportunity.”
Two days later, Donald released a statement in which he essentially threatened to keep Republican voters from participating in the 2022 and 2024 elections if “we don’t solve the Presidential Election Fraud of 2020.” He then falsely claimed that this fraud has been “thoroughly and conclusively documented.” In other words, if his party is unable—by any illicit and illegal means necessary—to turn his humiliating loss to Joe Biden in 2020 into a “win,” he will take his toys and go home, Republican electoral prospects (including his own!) be damned.
One could be forgiven for thinking that Donald’s rationale for having state legislatures conduct fraudulent audits was to undermine voters’ faith in elections so the results—at least if a Democrat wins—would always be suspect and therefore more easily challenged by Republican-controlled legislatures. That, however, would be to underestimate his desperate need not to have lost the 2020 election. Remember the lengths he went to try to convince people that he actually won the popular vote in 2016 despite a resounding three-million-vote deficit?
One of the travesties of the last five years is not only that Donald taught the Republican Party how easy it is to break norms, destroy institutions, and radicalize the base but that they could do so without suffering any consequences while actually making gains. The situation is made worse because the Republican Party, with its back against the wall of changing demographics that threaten its ability to win national elections in the future, and overmatched by the Democrats’ overwhelmingly popular agenda, continues to be willing to extend the term of Donald’s power and influence in the party.
All the Republican Party has left to give its base is fear, rage, and grievance—as a means to distract them from the fact that their elected representatives consistently oppose legislation that would improve their lives. So it shouldn’t be surprising that they would choose as their standard-bearer a man who is expert at spreading all three.
It has become commonplace for Republican members of Congress to incite violence among their voters and threaten their own Democratic colleagues. Unqualified poseurs like Marjorie Taylor Greene are in ways subtle and overt advocating for red states to secede from the union without any thought beyond the immediate political payoff of ramping up the vitriol.
In a July op-ed in The Washington Post, Ruth Ben-Ghiat wrote: “Authoritarians use propaganda and corruption to get their people to see violence differently—as a civic duty and a righteous course of action when the nation is threatened. And so it is today with the Republican Party, many members of which have decreed that nothing is off the table, including violence, in pursuit of the goal of getting back into power and staying there for good.”
Donald is, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, an intuitive fascist with an uncanny ability to exploit the revanchist bent in his party. In this way, he is of great use to Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, who, counterintuitively (at least from the perspective of party leaders who are supposed to believe in and support democracy), have continued to cede him both power and influence.
Theirs is a last-gasp attempt to rig the system even more drastically and permanently in their favor. Given the stakes, it’s not surprising that they would be pulling out all of the stops and following the playbook of a man who is willing to cross any line, destroy any norm, and commit any crime.
After a lifetime of cynically using temper tantrums to get his way, abusing lawsuits in order to crush the opposition, and strategically deploying other people’s money to inflate his worth as a means of garnering relevance and support, Donald understands perfectly that what energizes his base and him enervates the rest of us.
The media continue both to normalize the threats of violence and Donald’s ongoing ascendance in American politics as they also keep asking the wrong questions. They are so invested in the horse race that they fail repeatedly to inform Americans what is at stake—specifically, in this case, about the very real dangers facing American democracy—and instead speculate about whether a twice-impeached, two-time popular vote losing wannabe autocrat is going to run again in 2024. And if that is, indeed, the most important question they believe they should be asking, then perhaps they could, at the very least, explain why his doing so would be so dangerous to this country’s survival.
His most recent threat, delivered via that Wednesday statement, is just another temper tantrum designed to coerce the Republican Party not simply to conduct “audits” in all states but to protect his terribly fragile ego. His compulsion to punish those who fail or refuse to support his delusions overwhelms his ability to think strategically. In order to get Donald to stop holding voters hostage in the next two elections, his party is going to have to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. At this point, it’s a sucker’s bet to assume they won’t at least try in order to assuage him. But trying won’t be enough for their perpetually enabled leader. They’ll have to succeed.
How ironic would it be if, by convincing a significant number of Republican voters not to engage in the democratic process, it’s Donald who ends up saving American democracy?