The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The horror of people willing to die for Donald Trump

Roads in Clinton County, Ohio, are seen closed during on Aug. 11 after an armed man tried to breach the FBI's Cincinnati office and fled. (Nick Graham/AP)

On Thursday afternoon, a man whom authorities have identified as Ricky Shiffer was shot and killed in a stand-off with police officers after he allegedly tried to break into a FBI office in Cincinnati. Reports suggest that he may have been motivated by a strong devotion to former president Donald Trump and by anger at the FBI’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.

On Thursday evening, The Post reported that according to sources, the search at Mar-a-Lago was aimed in part at recovering “classified documents relating to nuclear weapons.” Trump’s response? A post on Truth Social, the platform he founded, declaring, “Nuclear weapons issue is a Hoax,” and a false suggestion that “Barack Hussein Obama” had done something similar.

But whatever we may learn about Shiffer’s motivations and the results of the FBI search, one thing is clear: The number of people who have died seemingly in service of an idol as unworthy as Donald Trump is tragic.

It’s one thing for Trump to relieve his followers of their money for dubious causes. (The former president has raked in millions of dollars ostensibly dedicated to political work, when in reality what money has been spent has gone to Trump’s personal expenses, according to Post sources.)

Alexandra Petri: If Trump has nuclear documents at home, I’m sure it’s for good reason

And goodness knows, Trump isn’t the only person whose acolytes behave wretchedly. Die-hard Johnny Depp fans and the stans who enlisted in rapper Kanye West’s online war against actor Pete Davidson are proof that nasty crusades of all types will never lack for recruits.

Follow Alyssa Rosenberg's opinionsFollow

But it’s different when people start dying.

Four of Trump’s supporters died at the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol: Ashli Babbit, who was shot while trying to climb through a broken window; Kevin Greeson, who suffered a fatal heart attack; Benjamin Philips, who succumbed to a stroke; and Rosanne Boyland, whose official cause of death was “acute amphetamine intoxication,” but who was caught up in a crush of bodies on the Capitol grounds. Christopher Stanton Georgia died by suicide later that month after he was arrested on unlawful entry charges stemming from Jan. 6; he pleaded not guilty before his death.

Now comes the death of Shiffer, who was also apparently at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

The Post's View: After the Mar-a-Lago search, horrific violence follows reckless rhetoric

Some might be tempted to create distance from these tragedies through mockery, or by treating Trump’s devotees as oddities.

That impulse — to disparage or dismiss the weird and extreme — seems to undergird a 2020 New York Times profile of a widowed farmer in India who adopted Trump as a personal deity, then collapsed and died after taking to his room and refusing to eat when Trump tested positive for covid-19. It’s also the sentiment behind so much snide social-media chatter. For instance: “some dude woke up today and decided to commit suicide by cop bc the former host of celebrity apprentice wasnt allowed to keep the top secret documents he stole from the white house.”

It's easy to scoff. But this sort of commentary ignores the sadness running through so many of these stories.

Ashli Babbitt was looking for meaning because her military career had stalled out, and her pool company was failing. The QAnon conspiracy theory — which presents Trump as a bulwark against a secret cabal of powerful pedophiles — gave Rosanne Boyland purpose and a framework for understanding the world as she struggled with addiction.

Max Boot: Republicans went crazy over the Trump search. Now they look idiotic.

The absurdity and maliciousness of the cause for which these people have died only compounds the horror of their deaths. How is it that no one, no institution, could offer something more substantive than the manifest hollowness of Trump and Trumpism?

An essential part of Trump’s malign magic is its impermeability. Suggest that his followers deserve better — whether that is an actual infrastructure package or a leader who appeals to their best qualities rather than their basest — and you’re accused of exhibiting the very contempt that made Trump attractive in the first place. Suggest Trump is scamming his followers, and you’re a tool of the deep state. According to Trump and his many enablers, there is no evidence that isn’t planted or manufactured, no moral act that is disqualifying, no act for which Trump himself can be held responsible.

Even the people who seek to martyr themselves in Trump’s defense can be redefined and reinterpreted through this corrupt logic: On social media, Trump fans aren’t celebrating Shiffer as a Trumpist patriot. They’re dismissing him as a false flag planted to paint the FBI in a flattering light.

Those of us who live outside the boundaries of this mad realm may be tempted to count ourselves lucky. Still, we should be concerned for the residents of Trumpland for their own safety. And if that’s not enough, we should care because the people who die for Donald Trump may someday take others with them.

Loading...