Last night, at the culmination of his bombastic immigration speech in Phoenix, Donald Trump invited a group of so-called Angel Moms onto the stage. These are people, mostly mothers, whose close relatives have been killed by undocumented immigrants, and who blame lax immigration policies for the loss of their loved ones. Wearing white T-shirts bearing the images of their slain children or husbands, they stood shoulder to shoulder behind Trump, joining the crowd in a chant of USA! USA! USA! Several took turns at the microphone, naming a child or a spouse and expressing their support for the Republican candidate. “My daughter, Shayley Estes, 22 years old, was murdered here in Phoenix last July 24 by a Russian who overstayed his visa, and vote Trump,” Shannon Estes said.
To Trump’s supporters, Angel Moms are an obvious analogue to Mothers of the Movement, the black women who have lost children to police or gun violence, and who spoke onstage at the Democratic National Convention. Online, right-wingers are working themselves into gleeful paroxysms of outrage toward Trump critics who saw the Angel Moms’ presence onstage as a ghastly and manipulative spectacle. It’s not hypocritical, however, to admire the message of the Mothers of the Movement and not that of the Angel Moms. We rightly accord a measure of gravitas and moral authority to people who have suffered family tragedies, but that doesn’t mean we have to agree with them about the meaning of their loss.
White nationalists could assemble a group of people whose children were murdered by black Americans or by Jews, and it would not make their cause any more legitimate. All grief-stricken parents should move us personally, but they only move us politically to the extent that their pain connects to a broader cause. Conservatives have been contemptuous of Mothers of the Movement because they don’t believe that police violence against black Americans is a serious social problem. When the mothers spoke at the DNC, Fox News contributor Richard Grenell called it “an anti-police, anti-law enforcement rally disguised as ‘Let’s talk about the victims.’” The conservative writer Ben Shapiro tweeted:
The politics of bereavement necessarily involve value judgments. In the case of the Angel Moms, they have been marshaled in the service of a lie: that crime by undocumented immigrants is a menacing social problem. In fact, immigrants have a lower crime rate than native-born Americans. In his speech, Trump cited 25,000 homicide arrests by “illegal immigrants and other non-citizens.” As ThinkProgress has reported, this is a figure right-wing politicians have thrown around before, without noting that it covers a 51-year-period and isn’t limited to undocumented immigrants. Trump promises that, if the country enacts his plan to crack down on immigrants, “peace and law and justice and prosperity will prevail. Crime will go down, border crossings will plummet, gangs will disappear, and welfare use will decrease.” He is attempting to scapegoat undocumented immigrants for all the country’s ills, and making an almost millenarian promise of imminent utopia if only they can be removed. And he brought the Angel Moms onstage to help.
There is no record that the Angel Moms even exist as an organization outside the orbit of Breitbart News and the Trump campaign. The group doesn’t have so much as a website. They started appearing on Breitbart over the summer, when they dogged Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan during his primary campaign against Paul Nehlen, who ran to Ryan’s right on immigration. “Paul Ryan is personally responsible for the deaths, maimings, and sexual assaults of thousands of innocent Americans and lawful residents,” they wrote in a letter lambasting his immigration policies. According to a Nexis search, the Angel Moms were first mentioned on Fox News on Aug. 28, when Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway described them as “the face of our campaign.”
These are people who have lost more than most of us can conceive, and as individuals they deserve nothing but sympathy and respect. But they have been brought together in the service of maudlin demagoguery. Not all victims are martyrs.