Matt Stoller has a thought-provoking post about the Trump supporter who was shot while trying to break into the Speaker’s Chamber in the Capitol building on January 6. Her name is Ashli Babbitt and she was the subject of a New York Times profile, on which Stoller drew.
According to the New York Times, Babbitt was a 35 year-old woman from California who spent 14 years serving in the U.S. Air Force, deploying to both Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. government sent Babbitt abroad eight times, and though not every time was in a combat zone, such repeated deployments into violent areas tend to cause brain damage.
After her time at war, Babbitt had a modest propensity for violence, threatening a rival love interest by rear ending her with a car in 2016. She married, and bought a small business with her husband, a pool supply company called Fowlers Pool Service and Supply. There she ran into commercial problems common to small businesses these days.
She borrowed money at an extortionate rate (169%), then defaulted, but sued on the grounds that her lender had cheated her with too high of an interest rate. She lost, as “courts have held that such arrangements don’t amount to loans and are not bound by usury laws.” At which point she became more into politics through social media, and then was sucked into the QAnon conspiracy-theory-cum-cult.
So, says Stoller,
here’s the profile of a rioter, a working class person who went overseas eight times in military service, including two combat zones, who then tried her hand at a small business where financial predators and monopolists lurked. She then fell in with conspiratorial social media, and turned into a violent rioter who, like most of the rioters, thought she was defending America by overturning an election.
It’s easy to mock this kind of thinking, to see rioters as losers or racists. And no doubt there’s a strain of deep-seated racial animus that is with us and always will be, but I think ascribing all of it to such an explanation is too simple. Racist or no, Babbitt really was at one point a patriotic American, serving in the military for over half her adult life. More broadly, she’s far from alone in expressing rage at the status quo. There have protests against the existing social order for almost a decade, starting with the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and then Black Lives Matter in 2014 and accelerating into protests and riots earlier this year. I’ve written about the relationship between unrest and corporate power in the context of those protests, a sense of alienation that normal political channels, that politics itself is not a realistic path for addressing social problems.
Babbitt, he argues,
was both an adult making dangerous political choices, and a product of our policy regime, having been a soldier in a violent unnecessary war and trying to make her way a society that enables predators to make money through financial chicanery and addictive products. She chose poorly, but she also had few choices to make, one of which was getting on social media and being lured into joining a violent and paranoid cult of personality.
As everyone and his dog has realised by now, the shambolic insurgency on January 6 has been a long-time building. It was the culmination of a decade-long process of alienation, inequality, white supremacy and right-wing and neo-fascist resurgence. But it leaves the US with an almost existential problem.
There are, Stoller thinks, only two paths in a representative democracy which has a large group of its citizens who live in a cult-like artificial world of misinformation, and many more who rightly or wrongly don’t trust any political institution.
One is to try to strip these people of representation and political power; that is the guiding idea behind removing Trump, as well as a whole host of conservatives, off of Silicon Valley platforms that have become essential to modern society.
The trouble is that “removing these people is a choice to not have a society, to pretend that we can put these people into a closet somewhere and ignore them.”
It’s not going to work.
The alternative Stoller sees is less dramatic.
We can take on the legal framework behind social media so these products aren’t addictive and radicalizing. As I’ve written, there are legal immunities and policy choices that allow Facebook to profit in especially toxic ways through compiling detailed user profiles and targeting them with ads. If we change how social media companies make money, we can change how these services operate to make them socially beneficial instead of engines of radicalization.
Yep. The business model is the key to this. If it’s not brought under control then the game’s up. So there is an urgent connection between antitrust and other forms of regulation and the future of the US as a functioning democracy. Trump may or may not be finished, but the line of elected Republican presidential-hopefuls who lined up in the Senate and House to try to overturn the election shows that the supply-line of prospective autocrats is flowing nicely.