Yesterday I noted ex-President Trump’s vainglorious recital of events at his two recent rallies in Ohio and Florida. But there were a string of comments he made at his Sarasota, Florida rally that I only learned about after the fact. They are highly important going forward and particularly in the context of the 2022 election. The comments aren’t terribly surprising coming from Trump. They’re perhaps implicit in things he’s said before. But they represent something new. In short, he now seems to be demanding the release of the various insurrectionists facing charges for storming the Capitol on January 6th. “How come so many people are still in jail over Jan. 6?” he asked the crowd.
He also went further and began to suggest or demand (the ambiguity is a central feature of all Trump incitement) the lynching of the Capitol Police officer who shot insurrectionist Ashli Babbitt.
“By the way, who shot Ashli Babbitt? Who shot Ashli Babbitt? We all saw the hand. We saw the gun … Now they don’t want to give the name, but people know the name. People know where he came from. Now if that were on the other side, the person who did the shooting would be strung up and hung. Now they don’t want to give the name. Who shot Ashli Babbitt? It’s got to be released.”
Making a martyr of Babbitt, who was shot trying to rush the Speaker’s Lobby while members of Congress were being evacuated, has become a staple on the far-right since January 6th. Rep. Paul Gosar, who has become notorious for his work with various white supremacist advocates, claimed Babbitt had been “executed” by an officer who had been “lying in wait” for her while questioning FBI Director Christopher Wray.
Trump says all sorts of wild things. Given the response he got, it seems highly likely this will become a staple of his rally speeches going forward. But what we can see from these comments is that he is focusing on the release of arrested insurrectionists and retribution against the unnamed shooter as leverage points to organize and maintain his hold on the GOP.
Total and explicit fealty to Donald Trump remains a sine qua non for participation in GOP politics, as JD Vance’s abject apology over the weekend makes clear. But there’s a different contest for control going beneath this unity. Republican leaders want to fight what we might call a “traditional” culture war campaign for the mid-term elections — BLM, the crime spike, the “border crisis,” Critical Race Theory along with spending, taxes and debt cued up in case the economy is weak in the fall of 2022. This overlaps with Trump’s rhetoric and vice versa.
Certainly grassroots Republicans and new candidates running for office as Republicans are solidly behind the Big Lie. But there’s an important difference in emphasis. Trump wants to re-litigate the 2020 election and get payback to the various forces and persons he feels betrayed him. That means among other things constant attacks on “RINOs,” the GOP in general, Mitch McConnell and various others who have been insufficiently loyal. Needless to say this isn’t welcome ground for McConnell or the various Republicans on Trump’s enemies list. But more generally it is at best divisive in the context of GOP politics. The whole point of off year or midterm elections is that the out party gets united and pumped because whatever their divisions they can all agree that they hate what the governing party is doing. In a sense it becomes a replay of the 2020/21 Georgia Senate races in which litigating the Big Lie and Trump’s grievances against fellow Republicans pushed to the center of the story and possibly led to twin GOP defeats.
More broadly Trump is leading the way in the slow, creeping GOP embrace of the January 6th insurrection. Last week Kevin McCarthy threatened to revoke the committee assignments of any Republican member who agreed to sit on the Jan 6th investigative committee. Mainstream Republicans aren’t yet endorsing the insurrection. And they are quick to take the safe harbor of insisting that those who committed specific crimes should certainly be prosecuted. They generally portray it as not ideal but the kind of things your over-eager friends do. Not ideal but certainly understandable and a product of a salutary enthusiasm. Trump wants to go further. He clearly wants the insurrectionists vindicated. He wants their prosecutions to stop. He rightly sees that their actions cannot be separated from the Big Lie. And that’s what he wants the 2022 election to be about.