Leave it to Donald Trump to tell a martyrdom story with a racist twist. “Who was the person who shot an innocent, wonderful, incredible woman?” Trump asked Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo on Sunday, before interrupting himself to answer: “I will tell you, they know who shot Ashli Babbitt. They’re protecting that person. I’ve heard also that it was the head of security for a certain high official — a Democrat.”
Thirty-five-year-old Air Force veteran Babbitt was shot dead by police while trying to force her way through a barricaded door protecting members of Congress from a mob of angry rioters that pushed their way into the US Capitol on January 6. Those rioters were infamously heard chanting “Hang Mike Pence” and some brought along nooses and a Confederate flag, while others constructed a makeshift gallows that looked designed for lynchings. No one should have died on January 6, and the loss of Babbitt is tragic, just as the loss of any human being is. It’s also worth noting that none of those people should have been there to begin with.
Babbitt, like the others with her, was driven by the lie propagated by Trump that the election was stolen from the rightful victor — a tall tale themed around the idea that Black voters in particular were behind the “fraud.” Trump is an ignorant narcissist incapable of admitting fault or defeat, so it was always understood that he would continue to fuel a lie about election fraud, violent consequences be damned. Yet, there is growing reason to worry about the implications of not only sanitizing what transpired on January 6, but also the implications of lionizing Ashli Babbitt herself.
As Talking Point Memo’s Josh Kovensky recently highlighted, in right-wing circles, there’s been growing speculation that the officer who shot Babbitt was Black.
“With Sicknick’s autopsy, it’s now official: no people were killed by the nationalist demonstrators on January 6th,” Erik Striker, a far-right propagandist, wrote on his Telegram channel in April. “The only homicide victim that day was Ashli Babbitt, murdered by a Black criminal with a badge whose identity is still being kept a secret by the media and the government.”
Two months later, Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio took to his own Telegram channel and posted a video from another account featuring a Black Capitol police officer on January 6 along with still images of Babbitt’s shooting. “This Black man was waiting to execute someone on January 6th,” Tarrio wrote. “He chose Ashli Babbitt.”
This theory is not limited to known bigots of the internet. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene appeared on Newsmax a few days ago to compare Babbitt’s killing to the killing of George Floyd. And Fox News host Tucker Carlson, memorably once touted as “the voice of white grievance,” has also not only sought to rehabilitate Babbitt’s public image, but this week played into the “Who Killed Ashley Babbitt” question while continuing to decry a purportedly broken justice system. “Who did shoot Ashli Babbitt and why don’t we know?” Carlson aid on his show, after playing a clip of Vladimir Putin and telling his viewers that he thought Putin asked “fair questions” about Babbitt’s death. “Are anonymous federal agents now allowed to kill unarmed women who protest the regime? That’s OK now?” Carlson continued. “No, it’s not OK.”
It’s difficult to imagine the intent here is to not exploit fear and resentment towards Black men, as well as the long-running prejudice about Black men preying on innocent white women.
Trump told Bartiromo, “If that were on the other side, the person that did the shooting would be strung up and hung.”
“If that were the opposite way, that man would be all over,” he later added. “He would be the most well-known — and I believe I can say ‘man,’ because I believe I know exactly who it is — but he would be the most well-known person in this country, in the world.”
Trump has not directly said that he believes a Black man killed Babbitt, but if that rumor is already circulating widely in conservative media circles, he doesn’t have to. This is more than enough. The use of “man” and the literal description of a lynching by hanging sounds like one heck of a dog-whistle. After all, this is the man who told a white supremacist group to “stand back and stand by.” He knows the language of his audience; they share a native tongue.
Trump first gained political legitimacy by exploiting racist prejudices about Black people through birtherism. Now he finds himself seeking to resurrect his political career, and subsequently regaining the sort of power that will keep him out of jail. What a coincidence that a lie about Black voters that spawned a violent insurrection now includes a white woman killed by a big bad Black cop.
We know that Trump likes to up the ante when it comes to dangerous rhetoric. When he did it at the Capitol in January, five people died, including Ashli Babbitt. Now he’s choosing to do so again, with little thought toward the innocent Black Capitol police officers simply trying to do their jobs without intimidation.