Mollie Tibbetts was 20 years old when she disappeared on July 18, 2018. Tibbetts was taking an evening jog when Cristhian Bahena Rivera, a Mexican national working on a nearby farm, approached her and made advances, which she rejected. Instead of letting it go, he allegedly attacked her, stabbed her to death, and dumped her body in a cornfield. When her body was discovered a month later, her tragic murder was instantly recast, as though readymade for the Trump era.
Tibbetts was transformed—from a woman punished for rejecting a man, a woman punished for daring to run alone, or a woman punished for the cardinal sin of being a woman—into, simply, a beautiful white woman who was heinously murdered by an undocumented immigrant, the omnipresent villain first introduced by Donald Trump in a 2015 speech when he announced his candidacy. He would subsequently spend the rest of his campaign, and the first half of his presidency, invoking the danger of the undocumented immigrant—the rapist, the animal, the human trafficking deviant—ad nauseam.
The right couldn’t resist Tibbetts’s murder, quickly turning it into little more than a political opportunity. In an August 22 email, Newt Gingrich asked Axios’s Mike Allen if the site was covering the Tibbetts story. Ever the strategist, Gingrich added, “If Mollie Tibbetts is a household name by October, Democrats will be in deep trouble.”
The White House eagerly pounced on Tibbetts’s story too. That same afternoon, the official White House Twitter account posted a video featuring families whose family members had been killed by undocumented immigrants—a group Trump has used before. By that evening, a video was uploaded to Trump’s Twitter account, in which he decried Tibbetts’s murder with the solemnity of a jackhammer. “Mollie Tibbets, an incredible young woman, is now permanently separated from her family,” Trump says in the video, crudely referring to his administration’s unpopular “zero-tolerance” immigration policy which separated thousands of children from their asylum-seeking since early this summer.
“A person came in, from Mexico, illegally, and killed her. We need the wall, we need our immigration laws changed, we need our border laws changed, we need Republicans to do it because the Democrats aren’t going to do it,” he added.
Donald Trump Jr. penned an op-ed in the Des Moines Register blaming the Democrats for Tibbetts’s murder. “Despite what some Democrats may wish in the depths of their hearts, Mollie was murdered by an illegal alien and her murder would never have happened if we policed our southern border properly,” he wrote.
While CNN and MSNBC dedicated the lion’s share of their late August news coverage to the criminal convictions of Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former Trump lawyer Micheal Cohen, Fox News spent hours on the Tibbetts story. They even criticized their competitors for not doing the same.
The right has had few opportunities to, in Trumpian lingo, “politicize” a tragedy during Trump’s time in office. From mass shootings to the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in 2017, every righteously politicized death was a challenge to their blind defense of guns and cozy relationship with white supremacists.
But his use of Tibbetts’s murder put Trump back in familiar territory: It was hardly the first time that he promoted himself by using a beautiful, dead white woman in order to turn brown and black men into the boogeyman. The president has repeatedly capitalized on a narrative that is quintessentially American; the innocent white woman, the monstrous black or brown man, and the white man ready to defend her honor.
In 1989, Donald Trump spent $89,000 for advertisements in four New York City newspapers. Each ad was identical, and if not for the massive headline and Trump’s cramped signature, they could have been mistaken for an op-ed. “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE” they blared, followed by a screed against the Central Park Five, a group of five black and brown teenagers who were accused of assaulting and raping Trisha Meili, a white woman jogging in Central Park. Meili’s attack left her in a coma for 12 days.
The New York Times reported in 2002:
In the ad, Mr. Trump said Mayor Edward I. Koch had stated “that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts,” to which Mr. Trump replied: “I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.” At the time, the attack victim was still in a coma.
The ad does not name any defendant, instead referring collectively to “roving bands of wild criminals.”
Though Trump never explicitly said that he wanted the teenage boys to be executed, his message was clear: The “roving band of wildly criminals” should receive the state’s most severe punishment.
The Five initially denied their involvement, but admitted their guilt after coerced confessions. The DNA from the rape kit didn’t match any of the suspects, but it didn’t matter: They all received sentences ranging from five to 15 years. The conviction proved wrongful. In 2002, Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and rapist, admitted to attacking Meili (his DNA matched the rape kits), vacating the sentences of the Five.
Trump never apologized to the Five. Instead, he has doubled down—insisting on their guilt. In 2016, a skeptical Trump said in a statement to CNN, “They admitted they were guilty.” He continued: “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same.”
Inconveniently for Trump, Meili survived—she has both spoken and written about the attack. “The last thing I want is for innocent people to have been convicted,” she said earlier this year when she supported the public release of case records that would further clear the Five. Since she was not silent, he had to fetishize the injuries inflicted on her in an attempt to contrast the inhuman brutality of the Five. In Trump’s telling, Meili morphs into a fragile object, defined only by her injuries (she will, “never be the same,” he emphasized) instead of her recovery and survival.
Trump has had a decades-long obsession with the lurking black/brown brute, this omnipresent specter that haunts innocent white women; especially “beautiful” white women. The day Tibbetts’s body was found, Trump spoke to supporters in West Virginia about the tragedy and couldn’t resist mentioning her beauty.
“You heard about today with the illegal alien coming in, very sadly, from Mexico and you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman,” said Trump.
To a crowd in Ohio, he laid it on even thicker:
Just this week, we learned that Iowa authorities have charged an illegal alien in the murder of a college student, Mollie Tibbetts. You know, the amazing thing is that everyone was talking about Mollie—beautiful, wonderful, incredible person—everybody loved her. Everybody that met her loved her. […] When they found out that it was this horrible, illegal immigrant that viciously killed her, all of a sudden this story went down. They [the media] didn’t want to cover it the way it should have been covered. But what happened to Mollie was a disgrace and our hearts go out. We mourn for Mollie’s family.
The Huffington Post reports that Trump has not contacted the Tibbetts family to extend condolences. He prefers Mollie Tibbetts in the abstract—as a fragile object made to provoke crowds. The grief of her family might be too real for his racist narrative.
Kate Steinle was a beauty, too.
In 2015, Steinle, a 32-year-old white woman, was shot and killed in San Francisco. Jose Inez Garcia Zarate, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who was arrested for Steinle’s death, claimed the gun accidentally fired when he picked it up. Zarate had been deported from the United States five times prior to Steinle’s death.
Like Tibbetts, Steinle was attractive, white, and conveniently dead. Like Tibbetts, she too became a prop for the right to use as a clarion call against the undocumented “animals” roaming America and its sanctuary cities. Texas Senator Ted Cruz and now former Congressman Matt Salmon (R-AZ) introduced Kate’s Law, a bill that would establish mandatory minimums for re-entry into the United States after a deportation.
Then-candidate Trump tweeted his approval of the bill: “I absolutely support Kate’s Law—in honor of the beautiful Kate Steinle who was gunned down in SF by an illegal immigrant.” Like Tibbetts, Steinle was beautiful but hardly real—her power, for Trump, resided in the abstract, in a narrative of his own making.
In 2015, Steinle’s brother Brad told CNN’s that even though Trump speaks of Kate as if he knows her, he had never reached out to her family. “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,” said Brad.
Steinle’s looks appeared essential to Trump; essential to the empathy that Steinle deserved. At Slate, Jeremy Stahl noted that Trump once referred to her as “that wonderful, that beautiful woman in San Francisco” after calling Zarate an “animal.” The contrast was clear.
Trump calls many things beautiful: prospective gun bills are beautiful, as are Confederate statues, dying Syrian children, and some living women. But the word’s application to the dead white women whose names he keeps in his back pocket is a particularly grim fetish. Throughout his campaign, Trump infused Steinle’s murder into his anti-immigration screeds, asking: Where was her sanctuary? In August of 2016, he told an Arizona crowd that on his first day in office, he would ask Congress to pass Kate’s Law. The bill passed the House in the summer of 2017, but it has yet to make any significant gains in the Senate.
But in November 2017, Zarate was acquitted on all murder and manslaughter charges; the jury convicted him of the single charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Trump was furious.
On November 30, 2017, he tweeted, “A disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case! No wonder the people of our Country are so angry with Illegal Immigration.” In the early morning hours of the next day, Trump tweeted some more: “The Kate Steinle killer came back and back over the weakly protected Obama border, always committing crimes and being violent, and yet this info was not used in court. His exoneration is a complete travesty of justice. BUILD THE WALL!”
For Trump, it doesn’t matter that the alleged circumstances around the deaths of Steinle and Tibbetts—or the murder of any woman at the hands of a stranger—are incredibly rare. A study by the Centers for Disease Control determined that strangers contribute to just 16 percent of all “female homicides.” Fifty-five percent of American women are killed via intimate partner violence, and in 93 percent of those cases, the perpetrator was a current or former romantic partner. Additionally, these white women had a much higher chance of being killed by men who were also white, a statistic confirmed by the FBI in 2014.
On August 30, before a very white crowd of supporters in Indiana, Trump spoke of MS-13 gangs “slicing up” teen girls in the streets. It seems unlikely that the audience was imagining Latinx victims, especially since Trump didn’t bother to name the teen girls he was likely referring to, Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, Long Island teens who were murdered by MS-13 gang members in 2016. Both girls have Latinx parentage and lived in the majority Latinx hamlet of Brentwood, New York. This is consistent with the fact that members of the American-Salvadorian street gang almost exclusively target fellow Latinx in their communities, whether in the United States or abroad. Despite all the fear-mongering, MS-13’s violence is largely a Central American problem, not an American one. And while the grisly crimes committed by MS-13 members in the United States are devastating, the notion that this gang is a threat to the white American electorate that Trump has vowed to protect is simply untrue.
But none of this fits with the fantasy world Trump has erected. In Trump’s fantasy, beautiful and innocent white women are the victims of predatory black thugs and brown deviants, and the only thing holding us back from confronting this ill is political correctness, bad policy, and a lack of guts.
But Mollie Tibbetts was an inconvenient victim.
Soon after Tibbetts’s body was discovered, sleuths dug up her old tweets. In October 2016, she said, “When it comes to public speaking, comparing Hillary and Trump is like comparing the NFL and flag football.” In November 2016, she wrote, “People are more bothered by the word feminist than by the word retarded and that just ain’t right.” When she saw that an overwhelming majority of white Alabamians voted for Roy Moore for Senate in December of 2017 despite the slew of sexual misconduct allegations against him, you could hear the exhaustion in her tweet: “I hate white people.” Of course, that one got the most attention from right-wing trolls. And in July, she pointed out the hypocrisy of Trump’s anti-immigrant politics, when he himself is married to an immigrant.
Tibbetts still had agency—her opinions lingered, defying Trump’s easy racist narrative. The dead girl is usually silent, unable to speak; Steinle and others have been made unwilling martyrs of the right, transformed into objects of political expediency and stripped of both vitality and narrative.
Tibbetts’s family has rejected silence too. That could have easily become a poster family for Trump’s “permanently separated” agenda; become another parent with an ugly outlet for their grief. But they have not. Tibbetts’s aunt made a statement, saying “Evil comes in every color.” And Tibbetts’s father, Ron, has been the loudest of all. At her funeral, he said, “The Hispanic community are Iowans. They have the same values as Iowans. As far as I’m concerned, they’re Iowans with better food.”
But even speech can be erased.
A week after Tibbets’s body was discovered, robocalls paid for by the neo-Nazi website Road to Power flooded Iowa.
A recording of the call, submitted to Iowa Starting Line, revealed a deep voice with the melodramatic cadence of a political attack ad. Its contents are stomach-churning: It said Tibbetts’s alleged killer is a “biological hybrid of white and savage Aztec ancestors” known as mestizos, who are later described as “low-IQ, bottom-feeding savages” and “crime-ridden failures” infesting America. The message attempts to contradict the wishes of both Tibbetts and her family, boldly using Tibbetts to push an agenda of deportation and extermination:
Some relatives of Mollie Tibbetts are implying that despite having been murdered by a non-white, savage intruder, she would still support the invasion of America by a brown horde currently at a staggering 58 million. But you know in your heart they are wrong.
If after her life has now been brutally stolen from her, she could be brought back to life for just one moment and asked, ‘What do you think now?’ Mollie Tibbetts would say, ‘Kill them all.’
We don’t have to kill them all, but we do have to deport them all.
A woman’s voice chimes to deliver the “Kill them all” line with cartoonish malice, playing the role of Tibbetts as if she hasn’t already spoken for herself. Tibbetts’s father is one of many who received the robocall and told the Des Moines Register that it represented “everything that’s dark and wrong in America right now.”
Though Trump would likely condemn this robocall and maybe even the neo-Nazis behind it, the ideology isn’t that far from the President’s, and comes to the same conclusion: Despite ample evidence to the contrary, undocumented immigrants, and black and brown men, are a violent scourge, preying on white women. Lock them up; get them out of here.
This assures that Tibbetts’s death will continue to focus on everything except what actually killed her: The blight of male entitlement and violence.
Mollie Tibbetts wasn’t murdered because she was white; she wasn’t murdered because an undocumented man was offended by her beauty or because black and brown men prey on “vulnerable” white women. For Trump and those ideologically aligned with him, it’s easier to blame this on an “animal,” easier to lay the blame on an “illegal” than to examine the mundanity of violence women face. A Runner’s World survey, for example, found that 43 percent of women experience harassment on a jog compared to four percent of men.
It’s likewise easier to bemoan an imagined loss of law and order in sanctuary cities or the streets of Chicago—or, apparently, small towns in Iowa—than acknowledge that Tibbetts, Steinle, or Meili had a higher chance of being killed by a boyfriend than miscellaneous black and brown strangers. They’re grim outliers.
And it’s surely easier to galvanize the base—and Trump’s vain interests—around Tibbetts’s death than to do so with the death of Nabra Hassanen, the 17-year-old Muslim girl from Virginia who was allegedly kidnapped, raped, and murdered by an undocumented immigrant in 2017. A murdered brown girl doesn’t fit his modus operandi; she’s not the all-American white beauty. To Trump, a hijab-wearing Muslim girl can’t possibly represent the supposed downfall of American order and American justice.
Trump seems to only be interested in dead (or nearly dead) women who can stir up racial, chauvinistic animus. In contrast, he has no concern for women who are abused by white men; think of how he mocked Christine Blasey Ford or the women who have accused him of sexual misconduct. Little stirs up racial animus from Trump and his racist white peers like a dead white woman killed by a non-white man; reinforcing the lies about ruthless dark interlopers that they believe are true.
The media has long since moved away from Tibbetts, and so has Trump. At his most recent rallies, Trump has opted to spin tales of fictitious leftist mobs, gloat over the Supreme Court nomination of alleged sexual assaulter Brett Kavanaugh, and claim “clean, beautiful coal” is coming back to the United States. But Tibbetts will live on in the lurid imaginings of those whose politics relies upon vilifying black and brown bodies, and she’ll remain in Trump’s back pocket, ready to be wielded whenever the racist bloodlust of his supporters needs to be quenched.
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