In the hopes of soothing a distraught nation following the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, media pundits and politicians declared unequivocally that insurrectionists had failed. Former Vice-President Mike Pence, himself a target of terrorists wishing to overturn the 2020 election, reconvened the certification of Joseph Biden’s victory by stating, “To those who wreaked havoc in our Capitol today: You did not win.” With the orderly albeit militarized inauguration of Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris on January 20th, the triumphant sentiment expressed by Pence and others seems fitting, however, the fraught situation America finds itself in is not so simple.
If we access the attack based on the mob’s intention of harming elected officials or keeping Donald Trump President, then it was (thankfully) unsuccessful. But as comforting and definitive as this conclusion feels, victory comes in many forms. As a matter of symbolism, the January 6th attack dealt an immeasurable blow to democracy, one that will galvanize violent white supremacists for generations to come.
To careful observers of Trump’s rhetoric, the hypnotic devotion of millions of Americans is relatively easy to explain but difficult to counteract. Communication scholar Casey Ryan Kelly argues that Trump has turned victimization, resentment, and revenge into civic virtues, and there is no question from the footage that those participating in the siege imagined themselves as aggrieved patriots. This ideology can be traced to the “Lost Cause” mythos of the Civil War, a racist fabrication that the Confederacy was a noble defense of Southern culture from Union aggression. With ongoing demographic shifts, economic destitution, and the social advancement of minorities, whiteness in the U.S. is increasingly defined by wounded pride and the determination to take back what was purportedly “stolen” by any means necessary.
It is this entrenched feeling of victimization coupled with a historical attachment to Christianity that attract white supremacists to the powerful discourse of martyrdom. European fascists have long celebrated Joan of Arc as a symbol of holy providence and racial purity, and a similar process is now underway with the far-right’s canonization of Ashli Babbitt, the 35 year-old white woman from San Diego who died of a gunshot wound to the neck.
Babbitt’s life and death carry all the readymade hallmarks of conservative martyrdom. As an attractive young white woman with a military background who espoused traditional beliefs and a distrust of government, Babbitt fits nicely within the archetype solidified by former Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin of a strong conservative woman who is non-threatening to patriarchy. Babbitt was an “everyday” American, co-owner of a struggling pool supply company with a sign on the door reading, “Mask Free Autonomous Zone Better Known as America.” Babbitt’s former husband Timothy McEntee describes her simply as, “a small business owner in California [who] felt (much like others) that she was being wronged.” Like many of those traveling to Washington D.C. for the “Save America March,” Babbitt was a vehement supporter of Trump ensnared by Q-Anon conspiracies claiming that now-U.S. President Biden and the Democrats were masterminds behind a satanic sex-trafficking cult. The day before the attack, Babbitt summoned the imagery of Trumpism and Q-Anon, tweeting: “Nothing will stop us…. they can try and try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours….dark to light!”
But in addition to checking many of the necessary boxes of appearance and opinion, Babbitt’s death was a spectacle within a spectacle that transformed her into a heroic figure in the eyes of extremists. Babbitt, draped in a literal cape constructed from a Trump flag, was among the initial wave of rioters to infiltrate the Capitol. Temporarily thwarted by a barricade leading into the Speaker’s Lobby secured by Capitol Police with guns drawn, Babbitt commanded fellow insurrectionists to hoist her above the obstruction through a broken-out window. The deadly confrontation—recorded and live-streamed to social media—captures a single gunshot and Babbitt falling to the ground amid the chaos. From the embedded perspective of a close comrade, watchers behold a mostly unobstructed view of Babbitt on her back, staring intensively forward as blood pours from her mouth.
News of the graphic event spread quickly. Before Babbitt’s identity was confirmed, she was referred to as “Roberta Paulson,” a homage to the martyr in the infamous film Fight Club. The aesthetics of the viral cellphone video, and the fact that an unarmed woman was shot by police, were used to hijack the anti-racist slogan “Say Her Name” in the service of whiteness. Babbitt’s death was presented by white supremacists as an actual tragedy deserving of sympathy and outrage – in contrast to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other Black people at the hands of police, which they see as warranted or staged to facilitate the genocide of whites. This framing shares parallels with early Ku Klux Klan justifications of lynching blacks based on the protection of white women, and by extension, the white race. By some online accounts, Babbitt was harmlessly “holding a U.S. Flag, observing the certification protests;” others describe her as a fearless warrior whose “blood will not be in vain.”
It may be tempting to dismiss Babbitt’s ‘memeification’ in the darkest corners of the internet, but the entire point of martyrdom is that a dramatic end is reimagined as an unexpected new beginning. With calls for a “Million Martyr March,” a battle flag with Babbitt’s silhouette is now circulating on Twitter. The destructive uprisings at Ruby Ridge, Waco, and the Malheur Wildlife Refuge—each a recruitment tool and rallying cry for future violence—are likely to be overshadowed by Babbitt’s death and the actions of her co-conspirators in the physical heart of American democracy. We must now brace for Babbitt’s martyrdom, hypervigilant of a symbolic victory propagandized to inspire bloodshed, and be committed to the invention of persuasive counter-narratives. Much research and public discussion has given voice to the consciousness of white extremism—perhaps too much. Amplifying the sacrifice of Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, or the brave ingenuity of Capitol Police officer Eugene Goodman, cannot silence Babbitt’s martyrdom, but it makes clear that the forces of democracy and racial justice are prepared to fight for survival.
Jessy Ohl is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Alabama, specializing in rhetoric, political discourse, and the weaponization of communication to incite violence.