A week ago I noted that Donald Trump’s Sarasota campaign rally demand for freedom for indicted insurrectionists signaled the central theme of the 2022 midterm campaign. Trump also demanded retribution against for the officer who shot Ashli Babbitt as she broke through the final line of defense protecting fleeing members of Congress. The subsequent week has only confirmed that prediction as Trump has escalated his demands and fine-tuned his rhetoric.
Trump returned to the theme twice yesterday, first in an extended interview with Maria Bartiromo on Fox News and then in a speech to CPAC in Dallas. With Bartiromo he declared the insurrection “a lovefest between the Capitol Police and the people who walked down to the Capitol” and repeated his demand that “they have to release the people that are incarcerated.”
Trump has also begun to rebrand shooting of Ashli Babbitt, who he calls “an innocent, wonderful, incredible woman.” Far from being shot as she broke through the doorway separating the insurrectionists from the evacuating members of Congress he now says she was “fatally shot on January 6 as she tried to climb out of a broken window,” as though she were shot down trying to flee.
He has also begun to claim that the officer who shot Babbitt was working either for Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi. On front after front, Trump has returned to the escalating incitements to violence which caused the Jan 6th insurrection in the first place.
I’ve seen numerous journalists and commentators refer to this as Trump’s ‘revisionist history’ of the events of January 6th. That’s the wrong way to look at this. No one, especially Trump’s target audiences, forgets the pictures of Capitol Police officers being struck with flag poles and dragged into the crowd for beatings or insurrectionists marauding through the halls of Congress. The point of his over-the-top claims isn’t to litigate the particulars of any specific encounter. Their very absurdity is less an effort to deceive as a demonstration of power. They are meant to make the case that the whole event was justified, righteous and right. It was right and necessary and praiseworthy because the election was stolen, rigged, illegitimate. The Big Lie and the insurrection are inseparable and Trump is arguing that one can’t be vindicated without the other.
This argument about inseparability and vindication is a clue to the first goal of this push: maintaining an iron grip on the GOP and making the 2022 campaign about him. Congressional Republicans have almost unanimously opposed any efforts to investigate the events of January 6th. But that’s not enough. Trump wants them to embrace the insurrection explicitly. He is defining the embrace of the insurrection as the dividing line between RINO insiders and pro-Trump true believers. He is using it as a cudgel to maintain his hold over the party and keep his own grievances, demands and drama as the party’s animating core.
He is pressing for a public argument in which the only meaningful question is whether the insurrection is right or wrong, believing that – almost certainly correctly – that this will leave Republican candidates no space and no choice but to line up in the former category.