Don't Look Away Now
Trump's concentration camps are finally getting notice. Don't lose sight of the big picture.
This is The Long Version, a newsletter by Jonathan M. Katz. You can get it in your inbox by signing up here:
Three weeks ago this newsletter asked you to concentrate on the camps. Last week it noted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s special talent of focusing people’s attention on major issues while driving her opponents insane.
Those things came together today in a big way:
You can find plenty of people now litigating her statement that “concentration camps are now an institutionalized practice in the home of the free.” As I argued in Slate last year, this newsletter last month, and the Los Angeles Times last week, I think she’s clearly right. There’s little point in my retreading that ground here.
But since the camps have finally made it to the center of the news, I want to use this newsletter to make a possibly futile plea:
Don’t frame this as a war of words between a young congresswoman and her critics.
Don’t make this about “semantics,” like the folks who write Twitter trend summaries.
Don’t even make it a wonky, narrow story about illegal immigration, as if the atrocities being committed in the camps, vans, holding centers, and spaces in between are the Trump administration’s good-faith attempt to deal with a genuine crisis that exists outside of its own designs.
Let’s take a step back and see the picture as a whole.
Look at a president of the United States who ran openly as an authoritarian, promising, “I alone … will restore law and order.”
Remember that this is a leader who has been an aggressive white supremacist his entire life, who launched his campaign ranting about Mexican immigrants and declaring that the U.S. had become a “dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.” It’s a president who has declared that he wants more white immigration and less of everyone else, and tried to institute that through an unconstitutional ban on Muslim immigration.
Keep in mind that these camps are being created by someone who coyly waited to denounce America’s most famous Klan leader. A leader who refused to condemn the Nazis and their allies on their murderous riot through Charlottesville, then, under pressure, snapped at reporters that some unnamed members of the uniformly violent white supremacist rally were “very fine people.” Remember that, even as he gaslighted the press by lying to say that he wasn’t praising Nazis, Trump specifically singled out for praise the part of the march where Nazis carried torches and chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Remember that some of those Nazis were wearing his campaign hat.
Watch these camps in light of an administration that is openly trying to change the census so it can increase the voting power of “Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites” and disadvantage his opponents.
And remember that they are being run by a man who has made his political trademark threatening to “lock up” anyone who opposes him.
Then just look at the other stories happening today:
Customs and Border Protection, one of the agencies that runs the camps, announced it was hiring as its new spokeswoman Katharine Gorka. This is someone who promoted Islamophobic conspiracy theories, whose husband and former Trump aide Sebastian wore a neo-Nazi medal to the Inaugural Ball, and who reportedly worked to cut funding aimed at de-radicalizing American Nazis.
Violent white supremacists marched at a Trump rally in Orlando:
The president himself vowed to begin the mass round-up of millions of people he deemed “illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States”—the sort of generalized threat from a leader that, even if it is not followed through to completion, can spark terror and vigilante violence.
That’s why this clearly isn’t about semantics. It isn’t, as Chris Hayes put it, merely “an extremely charged term” that people “in good faith” might object to—a sensitivity that we as responsible stewards of the discourse ought to be mindful of.
Trump’s concentration camps are leading edge of a pattern of belief and behavior unfolding in plain sight. The comparison to atrocities of the 20th Century—whether the first U.S. concentration camps in the Philippines, the Soviet gulags, or even the Nazi concentration camps that after nearly a decade of slowly worsening crimes made the Holocaust possible—is obvious for a reason. Which is terrifying.
That’s why I know it’ll be tempting to retreat into old neutral standbys of “Democrat says thing, Republicans respond,” or to drop the story entirely when the news cycle passes. It feels dangerous to fully confront what’s going on. But if history is any guide, it will prove more dangerous to ignore.
ICYMI: Not coincidentally, I wrote about a white supremacist murder—and the attempt to dress it up comfortable fictions—that presaged much of the Trump era yesterday in Mother Jones.
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