While discussing the temporary end to the government shutdown on Friday afternoon, President Trump appeared to meander out of the Rose Garden and into a “Law & Order: SVU” episode. Once there, he described a horrific scene that seems to exist only in his own mind, but that he’s been repeating in speeches for weeks: There are migrant women at the border. They are being tortured. They have tape on their mouths.
Specifically: “Women are tied up, with duct tape on their faces, put in the backs of vans,” the president said, citing human traffickers who he alleges are the perpetrators of this violence against migrants.
But women are not tied up, experts have said. They do not have tape on their mouths. When Trump repeated this claim a few weeks ago, my colleague Katie Mettler contacted many authorities on trafficking who have spent time at the border, and none of them had seen or heard anything resembling the violence he described.
Nevertheless, there was Trump on Jan. 4, dramatizing the traffickers who “have three or four women with tape on their mouths and tied up, sitting in the back of a van or car.” There he was on Jan. 6: “They nab women, they grab them, they put tape over their mouths.” On Jan. 11: “Taping them up, wrapping tape around their mouths so they can’t shout or scream, tying their hands behind their back and even their legs.”
Sometimes the tape is explicitly duct tape, sometimes it’s electrical. Sometimes it has a specific color, as it did on Jan. 10: “Usually blue tape, as they call it. It’s powerful stuff. Not good.”
It’s hard not to be disturbed by the explicitness; one assumes disturbing explicitness is the point. Trump could have merely said the journey was dangerous for migrant women.
But he didn't do that. Instead, he deliberately repeats a scenario that appears to be a Mad Lib of SVU, CSI and whatever was playing on Lifetime last Tuesday. On movie and TV sets, duct tape and bound hands play an outsize role in female distress. Entire genres have been built on the idea that somewhere out there, there’s a woman tied to railroad tracks, and a good man needs to save her.
The president is obsessed with the idea of exploited women in peril, which is odd for a man whose empire was partially built on exploited women in bikinis. Women slain by undocumented immigrants are cornerstones of his speeches. He doesn’t merely mention them, he lingers on them, often with the same leering cinematic detail that he’s brought to his duct tape fantasy. “An Air Force veteran was raped, murdered and beaten to death by a hammer,” is how he described the death of Marilyn Pharis.
These speeches appear to focus on women, but they’re also, of course, a reflection of how he views some men. The “bad hombres” who are doing the duct-taping, the president implies, are not merely assaulting women who are en route, way down in Guatemala or Honduras. These men are coming into the country. They could do this once they’re here. They could do this to your daughter.
And, the implication follows, they’re not like you. They’re from a culture that silences women. With duct tape, or maybe electrical tape, but definitely blue tape of some variety.
It’s an oddly specific thing for the president to repeatedly insist upon, and so, I assume, it must serve some kind of thematic purpose.
It speaks to our greatest fears, of course, to inexplicable parts of us that have kept Mariska Hargitay on air for 20 years and paid Liam Neeson his last several million dollars. And perhaps it resonates for the president’s traditional, male supporters — the ones who see protecting femininity as a hallmark of their own masculinity.
But there’s also a purity to the duct-tape anecdotes, in the sense that it describes behavior that’s purely evil. Black and white.
Human trafficking, however, is often complicated: women who believe they’re coming to America for a job, for example, that later turns out not to exist.
Allegations of sexual assault are also complicated, as the president should know: He’s been accused of assaulting or inappropriately touching 19 women — and while he’s engaged in “locker room talk” suggesting he’s grabbed women, he’s also said his accusers are all lying. He nominated Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and later mocked Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s own accuser. He’s mocked the whole #MeToo movement, implying that victims have gone too far.
I wonder whether the president does care about victims, though. I wonder whether it’s just that his vision of victims is stuck in the fictional “Special Victims Unit” of NBC’s prime-time lineup. A world where to be a victim, you have to be almost fatally wounded, and to be a bad guy, you have to be almost evil.
Compassion requires a blatantly bad man, stuffing women in a van. Compassion requires duct tape.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.
Correction: An earlier version of this story cited a misleading statistic about assaults of migrant women. The reference has been removed.