If you haven’t read I hope you will read Josh Kovensky’s excellent write up of the racist storyline behind Trumpite efforts to create a martyrdom narrative around the death of Ashli Babbitt, the woman shot to death as she tried to storm the Speaker’s Lobby during the January 6th insurrection. In the context of U.S. political culture this is a story about anti-Black racism and cultural revanche. But many have also recognized the broader context, which is that this is part of an evolving Big Lie “stab in the back” narrative which has been percolating on the right since soon after Trump’s defeat and took on a more certain shape after the January 6th insurrection.
Most of us know generally what “stab in the back” mythology refers to but it is worth understanding in the particulars where the idea comes from and how it relates to today.
With your indulgence, a quick history.
Contrary to much popular mythology, the Great Powers of Europe didn’t stumble into World War I in 1914. The war was started by Imperial Germany. Intentionally. This was first because the Germans believed that a war was inevitable and that they would win. But a more pressing factor was that Germany’s primary Central Powers ally, Austria-Hungary, was a declining and increasingly decrepit power. So despite Germany’s economic and military vitality, it’s ability to win a two-front European war was diminishing over time. It was an epochal case of use it or lost it. And Germany used it.
It didn’t go well.
By the end of the war the feckless and histrionic Kaiser Wilhelm and the civilian government had been largely shunted aside and Germany was functioning in practice as a military dictatorship under the control of Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Ludendorff was the the leader, with the military hero Hindenburg as largely a figurehead. The German high command launched a final spring offensive in 1918 to achieve total victory. When it failed the army and then finally the state itself collapsed. The Kaiser abdicated and it was left to members of the political center and especially the conservative wing of the country’s socialist political movement to pick up the pieces from the cataclysm and national humiliation into which the militarists had consigned Germany.
But from the very end of the war, the German right and most conspicuously Ludendorff himself – the one really in charge in the final two years of the war – began telling a different story. The German general staff hadn’t led Germany to national humiliation. And not the army either. In fact, Germany had been winning the war. It all went wrong when the German heroes in the trenches were stabbed in the back, betrayed by a mix of Jews, socialists, “cultural bolsheviks” and various other degenerates on the home front.
Among so many other things it was one of the most audacious acts of chutzpah in modern world history. The military brass, a central force in the German Imperial state, had made big and increasingly reckless bets with Germany’s future and lost. They then proceeded to blame the whole thing on the people they left to pick up the pieces in addition to the Jews and the left. If there was a single person most responsible for Germany’s eventual and abject defeat it was Ludendorff and he more than any other single person was the originator of the “stab in the back” myth. But it is the emotive tenor of the story that interests us here, the story of martial valor, purity and betrayal.
Few human storylines are as evocative and charged as ones of betrayal. It is the most intense form of victimization and spurs the most intense form of retributive grievance and rage. The more clear cut the story is, the more binary the opposition between trusting innocence and malevolent betrayal, the more primal and febrile rage thus generated.
The contemporary American right has long been focused on stories of its victimization, assaults against it by various upstart forces in the American polity: gays, Blacks, Jews, liberals, city people. Victimization to grievance to retaliation.
But Donald Trump, raised from childhood on feelings of grievance, brought a unique talent and intensity to this form of politics. Indeed, Ashli Babbitt isn’t the first “beautiful” white woman whose death becomes the centerpiece of President Trump’s incitement. Trump called Babbitt “an innocent, wonderful, incredible woman.” Remember Kate Steinle? She was the California woman killed by an undocumented immigrant, Garcia Zarate. Trump called her “that wonderful, that beautiful, woman in San Francisco.” She became a centerpiece of his campaign against “sanctuary cities” and undocumented immigrants generally. To advance his retributive politics, Trump repeatedly, almost inevitably gravitates toward pretty white women – repeating that they were “beautiful” and “innocent” are staples – victimized by Black or brown men. Indeed, Trump’s first gambit into public, quasi-political life in 1989 was taking out full page ads in all four major New York City papers demanding the death penalty for the Black teens who – it later turned out – were wrongly accused in the Central Park Jogger rape case.
Babbitt was responsible for her own death. These two other women were victims of horrific violence. Grief is a tremulous, unstable, volatile emotion which is always hungry for an outlet. I remember forty years ago walking in a grocery story with relatives three days after my mother had died in an auto accident. As I turned in my head the cataclysm that had enveloped my world I momentarily flirted with the idea that it was a neighbor who had set in motion the chain of events leading her to make that fatal drive that night. I could feel how it brought everything into focus, how it provided a place to put all the unbridled and unbearable things I was feeling. It made no sense, of course, and my father told me as much when I mentioned the idea to him. And that was the end of it. But I remember the attraction vividly.
Violent, retributive political movements commonly focus on stories and causes focused on generating the experience of vicarious grief, victims who become totems, who generate and sustain demands for retribution and properly order an outside world of enemies. The aforementioned Erich Ludendorff went directly from the General Staff headquarters to a residential hotel where he set about building his story of betrayal. He eventually made his way to another young extremist who had been injured in the war, Adolf Hitler, and they became allies in the nascent Nazi party. He was part of the failed Kapp Putsch in 1920. He was again part of Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. But Hitler eventually had no more use for Ludendorff, seeing him both as a potential political rival to be sidelined and also attracted, along with his wife, to increasingly obscure and esoteric forms of right wing extremism and mysticism. He died in 1937.
In any case Ludendorff was always too independent and unpleasant a figure to play a martyr’s role. But Hitler was looking for one. His colleague Joseph Goebbels’ first attempts to find one fizzled. But they eventually happened on a 23 year old Nazi extremist and SA squad leader named Horst Wessel who was shot to death by a member of a Communist party street paramilitary in an encounter that seems to have grown out of a rent dispute. There were contradictory reports on precisely how Wessel died. But it appears – and certainly the Nazi propaganda machine portrayed it this way – that he was shot at point blank range by Communist party member Albrecht Höhler when he opened the door to his apartment.
Wessel was portrayed as embodying all the key Nazi Aryan qualities and values. He had penned a Nazi march which, as part of the celebration of his martyrdom, was made the official anthem of the Nazi Party, the so-called Horst Wessel Liede (Horst Wessel song). Every young Nazi man could aspire to be like Wessel and feel the righteous rage against the domestic enemies who were responsible for his martyrdom.
Every culture finds its own martyrs suited to their constellation of values and grievances. Babbitt is almost right out of central casting for the role in the world of Trumpism. A blonde, white woman, “a 110-pound woman with nothing in her hands” as Rep. Paul Gosar put it, “a young lady, a veteran, wrapped in an American flag that was killed in the U.S. Capitol.” It is a great benefit that there is a pretty clear video record of what happened since absent that there would certainly be more lurid and absurd conspiracy theories about the circumstances of her “execution.” As it is we know that she ignored repeated warnings to not break through the final door protecting fleeing members of Congress. She did so anyway and was shot as a result.
The entire Big Lie is Trump’s stab in the back myth. Trump won. And his victory was stolen from him by Democrats, Blacks from the big cities, “illegals” who voted in droves, fraud. It was so beautiful, Trump’s reelection victory. And then it was all stolen away. You can actually see the origin moment of this in the impromptu press conference Trump gave overnight on election night. This is the one in which he said that the election was being stolen; votes were appearing out of nowhere and he was going to call the Supreme Court to have them order all voting and counting to stop. I remember it vividly because after a very unpleasant night when I feared that somehow 2016 might be repeating itself it was the first moment that I knew that Trump had lost. Because he knew and clearly his advisors knew he had lost.
You can watch it here.
The January 6th insurrection was the culmination of Trump’s efforts to overthrow the government to remain in power. But now it also creates the emotive touch points for his stab in the back tale, the righteous victims – Babbitt and all the others arrested for their role in the attempted insurrection – that provide the emotive ballast, the vicarious grief and victimization to fuel his continuing attempts to incite terroristic violence and return to power.