Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address was stuffed with inspiring anecdotes, mostly about little boys, flags, military personnel, MS-13—standard State of the Union stuff. And then there was the very bizarre story that, if you happened to be only half-listening, kind of sounded like it glorified a police officer for stealing somebody’s baby.
“The most difficult challenges bring out the best in America,” Trump said as he introduced Ryan and Rebecca Holets, a couple from New Mexico. Trump explained that 27-year-old Ryan, an Albuquerque police officer, saw a pregnant homeless woman about to inject heroin. He stopped her and told her she was “going to harm her unborn child,” Trump said. “She told him she didn’t know where to turn. But badly wanted a safe home for her baby.” Ryan apparently showed the woman a photo of his wife and four children, convinced her to allow him and Rebecca to adopt her fetus, and got Rebecca on board. They named the baby, who attended but slept through much of Trump’s address, Hope.
This is far from the kind of feel-good anecdote that usually plays well in political speeches, mostly because it’s not clear whether anyone should feel good about it. For one thing, the power dynamics of the Holets’ situation are cause for concern: A woman in dire poverty who’s just been caught by a cop with illegal drugs is not in a position, free from undue pressure, to willingly surrender custody to her fetus. Sure, the agreement might have gone down above board, with appropriate discussion, social-services support, and legal representation for both parties. But without any more details than what Trump offered, it’s hard to imagine a cop asking a pregnant woman with a needle in her hand for the rights to her forthcoming child without some degree of coercion.
But the slippery ethics of this anecdote are a handy crystallization of the principles of the GOP, which treats women as mere tools of reproduction. In the narrative Trump and his Republican Party inhabit, the woman who gave birth to the Holets’ child is a forgettable footnote. We don’t know if Ryan Holets helped connect her with programs that could get her housing or treatment for addiction if she wanted it. (The Holets family is raising money via GoFundMe for her and her partner, a fact Trump never mentioned.) She didn’t even get a name in Trump’s story, never mind an update on how she fared after Hope’s birth.
The story Trump told ought to illustrate the threadbare state of America’s social safety net, the cruelty of an unimaginably wealthy nation that lets pregnant women sleep on the street. A progressive politician might have invoked Hope Holets to illustrate our need for a humane drug policy, better addiction treatment, more affordable housing, or better access to contraception and maternal health care. But Trump offered no policy implications alongside the anecdote—he let the Holets’ apparent act of kindness stand on its own, as if generous cops were a sustainable solution to unwanted pregnancies, drug abuse, and homeless youth. To Republicans, Hope Holets’ biological mother is merely the villain in the story of a heroic cop.
Members of Team Trump will probably remember the Holets story as a heartwarming tale of selflessness and valor, an example of a good man who saved a baby from a woman unfit to be a mother. According to a CNN piece on the Holets family, the story was supposed to be used to highlight the administration’s efforts in fighting opioid abuse. None of that context made it into Tuesday’s speech. All that was left in Trump’s teleprompter was a jarringly incomplete, characteristically GOP anecdote that tossed the pregnant woman aside once the baby was born.