Exploiting Grief For Gain
More than 1,600 women were murdered by men in the U.S. in 2015. That’s more than four each day. More than half died by gunshot. Almost every state with a high homicide rate for women has a stack of gun-lobby pamphlets in the place where its gun laws should be. But let’s not talk about those 1,600 lives. Let’s talk about one. Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old student, was murdered last month in Iowa. If the police got it right, her killer is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. The reason we’re engaged in a national discussion about Tibbetts is the same reason we talked so much about Kate Steinle, a young woman who was murdered by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco in 2015. We talk about them because Donald Trump wants to. Neither murder was typical. In 2015, women were 14 times more likely to be killed by a man they knew than by a stranger. It’s far more common for a woman to be shot dead by a current or former romantic partner than to be killed by an undocumented immigrant. Steinle and Tibbetts were young and white and, yes, pretty. Those facts are not incidental to Trump, who maintains a strict ranking system for races and women (“Sadly, she’s no longer a 10”), and has a fondness for youth. Trump called Steinle “that wonderful, that beautiful, woman in San Francisco.” Speaking in West Virginia last week, he called Tibbetts “that incredible, beautiful, young woman.” Steinle’s brother, Brad Steinle, said he found Trump’s attention unwarranted. “If you’re going to use somebody’s name and you’re going to sensationalize the death of a beautiful young lady, maybe you should call and talk to the family first and see what their views are,” he told CNN in 2015. Members of the Tibbetts family appear no more eager to have their personal anguish turned into political cannon fodder. But grief-stricken families are little deterrent to the crude exploitation of their pain. And if you’re disgusted by the oily insincerity of it all, the demagogues will greedily exploit your revulsion, too. Here’s how Fox News propagandist Tucker Carlson introduced immigration expert Alex Nowrasteh for a segment on Tibbetts’s death. “Why is it the instinct of people like you,” Carlson said to Nowrasteh, “to minimize crimes like this, to attack people who are bothered by them or fearful when they see a crime like this?” Of course, the foundation of this ugly game is racial aggression. The defilement of white women by non-white men is as old a racial trope as we’ve got. Yet it still motivates: “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go,” the white racist Dylann Roof said to black churchgoers before he murdered nine of them in 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Whether it’s reverence for statues honoring the Confederacy or gibberish about the imaginary “genocide” of white farmers in South Africa, racial aggression, honed by insecurity, continues to be the square root of Trumpism. Yet in three years, Trump’s racial politics have gone from widely condemned to outrageously routine. Even brutalizing children at the border gets no rise from Republicans in Congress. When Trump mimicked neo-Nazis and other bottom feeders with his tweet about South African farmers, Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, said, “It sounds to me like a base stimulation message.” Earlier this month, Fox News personality Laura Ingraham lamented that “massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people, and they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.” But the racial panic that pervades much of conservative politics shows how little faith such conservatives have in American democracy. Ingraham insisted that her remarks “had nothing to do with race or ethnicity, but rather a shared goal of keeping America safe, and her citizens safe and prosperous.” But why would changes in demographics, in a country where demographics have undergone repeated waves of change, alter such goals? The obvious conclusion to draw is that for Ingraham and other Trumpists, it’s not the system of democratic ideals, constitutional constraints, rule of law and capitalist enterprise that keeps America humming. It’s the white people. Tibbetts and Steinle were victims of horrible crimes. A decent society should honor and remember them and severely punish their killers. It should also shun the fear-mongers, demagogues and profiteers who exploit their deaths. And if such miscreants are in political office, it should expeditiously drive them from power. FRANCIS WILKINSON writes for Bloomberg Opinion.