Mollie Tibbetts was 20 years old when she died. She was murdered while out for a jog, killed by a man who was reportedly angered when she refused his advances. Because this man, Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, was an immigrant, her death has become a talking point for right-wingers across the country, including President Donald Trump.
During his rally in West Virginia on Tuesday night, the president included Tibbetts in his racist talking points about immigration. Wedged between pledges to build a border wall and his vendetta against MS-13, the president used Tibbetts’s death to make a point: Immigrants are dangerous.
“You heard about today, with the illegal alien coming in, very sadly from Mexico,” Trump said, in his best attempt at somberness. “And you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman. It should have never happened. Illegally in our country.”
“We’ve had a huge impact, but the laws are so bad,” he continued. “The immigration laws are such a disgrace, we’re getting them changed. But we have to get more Republicans.”
Moments after the president’s speech ended, Tibbetts’s family members began posting on social media, pleading that her death not be used to further racist, anti-immigrant sentiments. But it was too late.
Tibbetts’s last Instagram post, a selfie, has over 5,000 comments. Many are “rest in peace” and “gone too soon” notes from strangers. But others are filled with hatred about immigrants, about Mexicans, and about women. Fox News and some conservative websites also took the bait and expressed outrage over Tibbetts’s death at the hands of an immigrant.
The official Twitter account for the White House tweeted out a video of weepy white women talking about family members lost to immigrants, and again calling Tibbetts’s killer an “illegal alien.”
Trump posted a video to his personal Twitter account, again calling Mollie Tibbetts an “incredible young woman” that was “permanently separated” from her family. That’s all he says of Tibbetts before we hear that “a person came in from Mexico, ILLEGALLY, and killed her. We need the wall.”
Trump’s words of families “permanently separated” are an effective use of language. Tibbetts’s death is not only being used to push forward Trump’s immigration policy goals, but also to obfuscate his recent history. His administration is utilizing the idea that it will be easier to sanitize the “temporary” family separation of immigrant families when fighting against the permanent separation of American ones.
The president is not the first person to use violence against a young white woman as the platform for a racist political agenda — it is a tactic forever immortalized by Birth of a Nation, and regularly used by groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
This is not even the first time Trump himself has done it. There was the time he took an ad out for the death of five black teens for the rape of a white woman in Central Park. (The teens had nothing to do with the attack.) Or when he called Mexicans rapists, and when criticized, doubled down on those remarks.
While it is not new, it is still just as vile. And Tibbetts doesn’t have a chance to set the record straight. Only through the pleas of her grief-stricken family do we know that Tibbetts would not have wanted Trump to become her mouthpiece.
Like so many times before, Trump has used a woman’s body for his own gain. Mollie Tibbetts’s corpse is now his podium, and he will spew whatever vitriolic rhetoric advances his party’s goals.