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 in any manner by an undocumented immigrant.
Both 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 well-known 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, dealing with the horrible reality of murder, 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?”
If Carlson’s nightly freak show makes you want to retch, it’s only because you are a soulless monster who cares nothing for humankind.
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 in this country. 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.
It’s hard to relegate such tropes to the dustbin of history if large numbers of people prefer not to. It’s even harder when the president of the United States, and much of his party, go dumpster diving there for political issues.
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 Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, said, “It sounds to me like a base stimulation message.” Corker can dully acknowledge Trump’s shout-out to fellow racists. He just no longer gets worked up about it.
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.”
It’s true that voters never took a vote on changing the demographics of the nation, and making the U.S. proportionately less white. A series of immigration laws, beginning in 1965, contributed to that largely unintended effect.
But the racial panic that pervades much of conservative politics shows how little faith such conservatives have in American democracy. After her remarks caused a stir, Ingraham insisted that they “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 editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.