Cindy McCain was buying sari cloth for her daughter from a “tiny wooden kiosk” in Kolkata, India, some years ago, she said, when she saw “little eyes” through the floorboards, peering up at her. The shopkeeper told her they belonged to members of his family, she recalled in an interview with a Phoenix radio program this past February, but she remained unconvinced. “There were just too many faces, too many eyes.” After returning home, she decided, “that man was trafficking little girls, right from underneath his shop … selling them on the open market, I’m sure.”
McCain has told this story many times: Sometimes, there are as many as “100 sets of eyes,” but she’s always certain they belonged to “little girls.” It was an unsettling awakening, she says, launching her new public persona: a concerned mother turned anti-trafficking leader.
McCain may lack the on-the-ground expertise, research background, or rigorous training to make her an expert on trafficking; it’s her philanthropy that elevates her to thought leader status. With $9 million in leftover campaign funds from her late husband’s 2008 White House bid, she helped launch the McCain Institute for International Leadership in 2012. Its trafficking advisory council now includes a former ambassador, a Republican strategist, and Ashton Kutcher. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement veteran heads its training programs, and in 2018, Uber and the McCain Institute offered a crash course for 750,000 drivers in how to spot human trafficking. Look for someone who “displays uncharacteristically promiscuous behavior or clothing” for their age, Uber now advises, someone with “tattoos or other forms of branding,” who “requests to be taken to a hotel or multiple hotels.”
Trafficking, McCain told the Phoenix local news outlet KGUN in January, is “something that all of us can see, every day, in the streets, in the malls, in the schools—and not recognize.” This, for McCain, is the white mom’s burden. She has spent years telling Americans to look out for suspicious men, particularly of a different ethnicity, coming to enslave their daughters. Now, she is left watching a man she abhors run away with her crusade.
Donald Trump has seized on human trafficking far more dramatically than any of his predecessors. Days after his inauguration, he claimed that “sophisticated” human trafficking networks were bringing “a significant increase in violent crime.” By that April, he was lying regularly about an “epidemic” at the southern border that only he could end. Trump’s lies had a deeper political purpose: They lent his “big, beautiful wall” a humanitarian gloss, while stirring up racist panic about immigrants from Mexico and Central America, who, Trump says, use “blue tape” to gag women and girls, “tying up their hands behind their back and even their legs”—a disturbing, baseless detail Trump mentions frequently (at least ten times in one month earlier this year, according to The Washington Post). Less fetishized forms of trafficking—in which immigrants are forced into domestic or agricultural work—went largely ignored by his administration, which also denied a record number of protective visas to immigrant victims. Trump instead imagines immigrants as criminals encroaching on the American border and on American women. “Traffickers,” he says, not his own violent decrees, are to blame for the cries of children in cages.
Trump’s spin on the issue is not unique; in fact, it’s not far from the norm. Those who claim to combat human trafficking are often caricatured as anti-sex feminists or religious right crusaders. But as sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein argues in her recent book Brokered Subjects: Sex, Trafficking, and the Politics of Freedom, these seemingly disparate groups are both bending the language of human rights to serve carceral and corporate mandates. For these groups, “fighting trafficking” means more policing and surveillance, along with greater opportunities for them to cash in on the crackdowns. Their tales of tough cops and big business saving good girls from bad immigrants are a script Trump can run with, depicting a rampant trafficking epidemic as part of a more grandiose story of an America under threat and how he will rescue her. By the time McCain went on the record opposing his wall this April, it didn’t matter: Militias were already loose in the Sonoran Desert, searching in vain for all the child “sex slaves” they’d heard about on the internet.
The roots of America’s fight against human trafficking go back to the Clinton administration, when right-wing think tankers courted women’s rights groups to make it a national issue. In 2003, George W. Bush took the fight a step further, declaring a global war on human trafficking. McCain was only one of many prominent women—from Swanee Hunt, a Texas oil heiress whom Bill Clinton made the ambassador to Austria, to Linda Smith, a former congresswoman from Washington’s 3rd District beloved by the religious right—to seize upon trafficking as a way to extend their brands to humanitarian intervention. So when Trump was searching for an ambassador-at-large to combat human trafficking, he had plenty of choices (he was even said to have considered McCain). Ultimately, however, he chose to rely on a woman much closer to home.
Like McCain, Ivanka Trump has perfected motherly concern on the world’s stage, building her #WomenWhoWork brand with all the precision of a Pinterest algorithm. One of the first meetings she hosted at the White House to discuss human trafficking included a who’s who from across the political spectrum and business world: a few members of Congress, a former Koch operative, evangelical brothel raiders, a former Republican congresswoman turned Google lobbyist, and a longtime feminist anti-porn activist. Ivanka Trump wore periwinkle blue. The name tag indicating her title was left blank, something the press took as an acknowledgement, however unintended, that she lacks any official role.
Human trafficking, she announced before the press was escorted out, is “a major priority for the administration.” It is also a win-win for Trump: Such photo-ops burnish Ivanka’s credentials as a champion of women while also ensuring she can still pass comfortably among the Lady CEO and World Bank sets—and both images help distract attention from the stories of real estate fraud and labor abuse that more typically follow her name.
It’s difficult to say what impact, good or ill, Ivanka Trump wrought with her unofficial gig as America’s trafficking czar, in part because there is so little work in this work. Last year, her father signed just one piece of new trafficking legislation, which made web sites liable for any content posted by their users that “facilitates” prostitution. Sex workers accurately predicted that the law—the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” and “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act,” or SESTA/FOSTA—would endanger them, making many more vulnerable to traffickers and exploitation. But Cindy McCain and Ivanka Trump applauded the law, and the Pizzagate faithful declared Trump the toughest president on trafficking yet.
Human trafficking is the perfect vehicle for the Washington politics of this era—an opportunity for morally unimpeachable showmanship, a dignified stage for disinformation. This paranoid wave of trafficking panic kicked off before Trump took office, when far-right conspiracy theorists alleged that “elites” and “globalists” were selling children into sexual slavery out of the D.C. punk venue and pizza restaurant Comet Ping Pong—a delusive meme that crescendoed with a Pizzagate true believer firing shots inside. One might think the violence would be enough for liberals to avoid such depraved fictions, yet some have eagerly signed on to the broader moral panic surrounding trafficking. In one national PSA commissioned by a lawyer and filmmaker lobbying for SESTA/FOSTA, liberal celebs like Amy Schumer warn viewers that buying a child for sex is “as easy as ordering a pizza.”
Cindy McCain herself only faced scrutiny for her trafficking fever dreams this year. In February, on the same radio program where she described “little girls” looking up at her through floorboards, McCain also narrated another, more recent incident that had disturbed her: a woman carrying a toddler of a different ethnicity through Phoenix’s international airport. “Something didn’t click with me,” she said. “By God, she was trafficking that kid.” She wasn’t. The officers whose help McCain had enlisted said they found no evidence of criminal conduct or child endangerment.
McCain eventually apologized for her intervention, an act of racial profiling thinly disguised as child rescue. But even now, very few have questioned the story that set her on this path in the first place. If McCain can’t recognize human trafficking in an Arizona airport after years spent fighting it, why should anyone believe she could have identified it while shopping in Kolkata?
Still, McCain goes on trading in tales of victims only she can spot. In April, she signed with the talent agency UTA to leverage her “charitable passions,” as she put it, and she appeared at Tina Brown’s Women in the World Summit to speak about her signature issue. Trafficking, McCain claimed, “is hiding in plain sight. It’s everywhere—it’s absolutely everywhere.” Now, thanks to human trafficking, so is she.