Trump’s ‘Willie Horton’ Moment
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Trump’s ‘Willie Horton’ Moment

He Turns a Tragedy into a Racist, Anti-Immigrant Rant

Trump has found the perfect scapegoat to push his anti-immigrant agenda through the November elections—the tragedy of a student death in Iowa and the arrest of a man who is an undocumented immigrant.

The president is making clear that he will be beating this case as Exhibit A in his election rallies, accusing opponents of defending “open borders” that will allow more such crime.

Frankly, it is disgusting to exploit the tragedy for perceived political gain. Worse, he is using this single case to stand in for his continuing insistence that immigration laws create and support violence by violent gangs like MS-13. Trump is relying on fear as a political weapon.

Surely any American can feel empathy for the family of Mollie Tibbetts, 20, whose body was found in a field this week after a harrowing month of searching for her. A University of Iowa sophomore, Tibbetts had gone on a run and never returned home. According to news accounts, the suspect, Christhian Rivera, 24, arrested this week on murder charges actually took local police to the body.

Rivera has been working at a farm for the past several years less than three miles from where Tibbetts was staying the night she vanished in July. Coincidentally, the farm is owned by the Lang Family, including Craig Lang, a Republican who in June narrowly lost a primary bid for state agriculture secretary. The Washington Post added that Rivera used another name and identity to satisfy an employee background check.

Within hours of the arrest, Trump was using it at a rally, in tweets and in White House pronouncements. You can expect to hear it repeated a lot before November.

“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,” Trump told an obviously receptive West Virginia rally Tuesday night. “Should’ve never happened. Illegally in our country. We’ve had a huge impact, but the laws are so bad, the immigration laws are such a disgrace. We’re getting it changed, but we have to get more Republicans.”

The next day, the White House released an emotional video of direct-to-camera stories from families of victims of violence committed by undocumented immigrants. “The Tibbetts family has been permanently separated. They are not alone,” read a tweet from the official White House Twitter account. That night, Trump tweeted a video of himself arguing that the Tibbetts death highlighted the need for tougher immigration enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as government funding for a border wall.

Trump claimed Tibbetts’ death was “one instance of many, and warned of tremendous crime trying to come through the borders“ from Mexico into the United States. He also derided America‘s immigration laws as “strictly pathetic,” calling them “the worst laws anywhere in the world.”

Previously Trump has used the 2015 killing of Kate Steinle in San Francisco in 2015 as a similar symbol of immigrant crime—and the rationale for attacking so-called sanctuary cities. Steinle was shot by an undocumented immigrant who had been deported numerous times. Last year a jury acquitted the man charged in her death.

It is all reminiscent of a George H.W. Bush tactic in 1988 that used a crime by a weekend-furloughed black prisoner in Massachusetts named Willie Horton as a symbol for a need for stronger law enforcement. Over time, that tactic has gained notoriety as a racial attack on non-whites.

Just as when there is the possibility of a Muslim involved in a terrorist incident, Trump is quick to use ethnicity in his comments about public crimes, while ignoring such identity information when there is a Las Vegas-type mass shooting. It is a mark of a president who seems to rely on divisive actions whenever he has a chance.

Politico noted that over the summer, amid the nationwide firestorm over the Trump administration’s policies that separated children from their migrant parents at the border, Trump shifted the storyline by holding a news conference with so-called “angel families” — those whose loved ones were killed by undocumented immigrants.

The theme has been picked up by other Republican officials and candidates in Iowa and elsewhere; this week, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the senate minority leader, was responsible for Tibbetts’ death.

Fox News has been actively reflecting the political connection of immigration issues and the Tibbetts case. “The immediate reaction from the political world suggests the case could reverberate for months—in the form of legislative fights and campaign trail disputes, much like the 2015 death of Kate Steinle fanned the immigration debate flames,” Fox reported.

Simply put, I wish the Trump administration, even under pressure to find issues to deflect attention on the Manafort-Cohen-Mueller matters, would not be exploiting this single tragedy with a broad-brush attack on all immigrants everywhere.

August 27, 2018