The Banality of Babbitt
By Hervé St-Louis
January 7, 2021 - 10:41
|Babbitt (1922) by Lewis Sinclair
As of January 6, 2021, there are two infamous people named Babbitt in American culture. The first is George F. Babbitt, a fictional character who starred in the famous novel of 20th century writer Sinclair Lewis.
Lewis crafted the tale of a common man who lived in a plain common city, had a house and a family like all of his neighbours. His life was mundane and mirrored the best and the most crowd-pleasing elements of American life in the 1920s. George F. Babbitt held the same political thoughts, participated in the same activities and conformed in every way to the life of the Middle American. But quickly, Babbitt’s life unravelled as he took chances and broke away from the banality of his life. He had an affair, espoused liberal ideals, hung out with the town’s bohemians. Quickly, his peer who began to boycott his business ostracized him. Yet, Babbitt continued, until a serious ailment affected his wife, forcing him to return to the fold as he took care of her. Society welcomed him back as he had regained his senses. But there still was an edge to Babbitt who secretly approved and supported the wayward marriage of his teenaged son with a neighbourhood girl.
The second Babbitt is Ashli Babbitt, an American veteran who was part of the mob of illegal terrorists who stormed the American Capitol on January 6, 2021, to prevent the certification of President-elect Joe Biden by the US Senate. In the conflagration at the Capitol, Babbitt was shot, presumably by Capitol Police forces, and died of a wound to the neck later that day. Babbitt was an Air Force veteran who professed herself a patriot, heeding the call of President Trump to occupy the Capitol and restore what the politician and his supporters against all evidence, deemed a stolen election.
Labelling Babbitt a terrorist is not an exaggeration. A graduate from a strategy degree, I have studied and researched terrorism in graduate seminars while in university. Many times, I have scolded people using the term terrorism wrongly. Every year, when I teach information policy to university students, I ask them to define terrorism. The definition of terrorism is precise. Terrorism is about insurgents challenging the exclusive power of the state to use force, defying authorities, and often striking fear in civil society to compel changes or advance ideologies.
The Capitol is one of the seats of power at the federal level in the United States. Any challenge to the exclusive power of the state through force and insurgency is terrorism. The context of the January 6th events may give a favourable image of Babbitt and her fellow terrorists, but interrupting the activities of elected officials in the Capitol as they certified the Electoral College’s vote for the next American president is a clear attack against the authority of the state.
One Babbitt defied conformism but quickly made his way back to its fold when defiance risked toppling his life, leaving him with little support. The other Babbitt perceived herself as a patriot joining the good fight, travelling from her home in San Diego to the nation’s capital to protect a lie. She probably thought, like the elder fictional Babbitt that everything would go back to normal. Her insurgent acts on January 6 2021 would make her peer hail as a heroine and a patriot. She would have helped strengthen the illegitimate presidency claims of Donald Trump.
Over years, she was radicalized. Because she was a veteran, she saw herself as somewhat more legitimate an American than others who had not served. Her veteran status is the first thing people mention about after her death. Being a veteran afforded her a shield that protected her from the reality of the radicalism she practised. She forgot why veterans are respected in society. They are respected because they are willing to die so the state can achieve its political objectives.
War philosopher Carl von Clausewitz wrote that we cherish soldiers for specific reasons. We train, feed, and clothe them so that they can die for us on the battlefield. In the insurgency that led to her death, Babbitt played a familiar role. While she saw herself as a heroine and a patriot, she was but a pawn manoeuvred by a politician. Except this war was a war of ideas where few were expected to die. But Babbitt was neither trained, fed, nor clothed by Trump nor his acolytes. She was duped into becoming a terrorist and giving her life for nothing in return. She is no longer a veteran. She is a terrorist who participated in an attempted coup against the United States of America.
While there are many Americans like Ashli Babbitt, they are not the norm. They do not conform to society as they refute the first rule of democracies which is that the losing party must accept its loss for the legitimacy of the democratic process to continue. By claiming that the election was stolen, not recognizing that Joe Biden had won fairly, without any fraud nor tricks, they and Babbitt became outsiders. There is no legitimacy in theirs and Donald Trump’s claims that the election was fraudulent. As much as they try, they would like their views of the world to become the dominant one and the norm. They want their banal evil to become the norm, thinking that after destroying the legitimate democratic process that they can fade back to their conformity and banal lives.
George F. Babbitt, Senator Mitch McConnell, and many others realized just in time that they had to return to conformity. The paradox here is that Sinclair Lewis wrote Babbitt as a failure and a loser who dabbled in liberal circles only to comfort himself back into his conservatism, so that he could survive. McConnell and his peers who helped enable Trump’s folly find themselves returning hurriedly to the conformity of liberal ideals of democracy. Voters’ votes matter and cannot be deemed to be fraudulent, especially when thoroughly verified and cleared.
It is this idea of political conformity and legitimacy that Donald Trump has challenged and attacked since he first became a presidential candidate. He and his supporters saw liberal democracy as a conformist doctrine that needed to be toppled and replaced by demagoguery. The smart ones will play it safe like George F. Babbitt and probably realize that their dalliance with demagoguery was not resistance to conformity. The idiots as Ashli Babbitt will hide, continue their insurgency, be arrested, or die for nothing.
Hervé St-Louis, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Emerging Media at Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, in Canada.
Last Updated: February 5, 2023 - 09:06