When freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently described privately run ICE detention centers as “concentration camps,” it ignited a debate over the use of related words like “fascism” and “genocide” to describe the polices and actions being pursued by the Trump administration.
On the Right, her comments were condemned as outrageous because of the implication that our detention centers were similar to Nazi death camps. Some Jews were offended that US detention centers, where only few children have died, should be compared to the camps in the Holocaust where 6 million jews were murdered.
But Ocasio-Cortez fired back saying, “The academic definition is targeting a community and putting them in detention camps without a trial and that’s what the government is doing.”
Civics Lesson: Japanese Internment Camps
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which charged the military with rounding up anyone of Japanese descent and placing them in internment camps. An estimated 120,000 Japanese people living in the U.S. were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in these camps. It is considered one of the most shameful civil rights violations in American history.
Photo: Granada War Relocation Center, an internment camp set up for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Barbed-wire fencing surrounded the Colorado barracks. Credit: Shutterstock
“One of the lessons from the Holocaust is ‘Never Again’ – not only to mass murder, but also to the dehumanization of people, violations of basic rights, and assaults on our common morality. We fail to learn that lesson when we don’t callout such inhumanity right in front of us.”
Cortez responded on Instagram and called Mr. Trump’s administration:
“an authoritarian and fascist presidency,” adding: “I don’t use those words lightly. I don’t use those words to just throw bombs. I use that word because that is what an administration that creates concentration camps is. A presidency that creates concentration camps is fascist.”
Yale philosopher Jason Stanley described fascism as:
“… fascist politics would focus on the dominant cultural group. The goal is to make them feel like victims, to make them feel like they’ve lost something and that the thing they’ve lost has been taken from them by a specific enemy, usually some minority out-group or some opposing nation.
This is why fascism flourishes in moments of great anxiety, because you can connect that anxiety with fake loss. The story is typically that a once-great society has been destroyed by liberalism or feminism or cultural Marxism or whatever, and you make the dominant group feel angry and resentful about the loss of their status and power. Almost every manifestation of fascism mirrors this general narrative.”
Yesterday, Vice President Mike Pence visited a Texas Border Patrol station where hundreds of migrant men were caged and living on a concrete floor without beds.
Pence shrugged questions by CNN reporter Pamela Brown about some of the inhumane conditions at the detention facilities: “I can’t account for that.”
Earlier in the day, Pence had toured both a family detention center in Donna, Texas, and another one in McAllen that housed immigrant men. At the latter, reporters encountered nearly 400 men packed into a small, caged space with a strong stench of urine and without enough room for them all to lie down. They had no pillows or bedding of any kind except emergency blankets. Some of them told the press pool traveling with Pence they had been kept in these conditions for more than 40 days without the ability to bathe or shower.
“This is tough stuff,” Pence said afterwards.“I was not surprised by what I saw…I knew we’d see a system that was overwhelmed.”
During a one-on-one interview with CNN’s Brown after the tour, Pence tried to minimize or redirect questions about the unsanitary conditions that have been corroborated by a recent DHS Inspector General’s report.
“I hope we put to lie this slander against Customs and Border Protection. People saying that families and children are being held in concentration camps is an outrage. I mean the Nazis killed people. Our customs and border protection are saving lives every day.“ He then said, “I hope we move past this rhetoric of a manufactured crisis… this system is overwhelmed.”
And with those comments, we heard the latest example of the Trump administration lying to the public about issues of great national importance. Trump told a crowd in 2018 about his tariffs that “it’s all working out,” and he warned those in the audience against believing what they see in the news. “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” Trump said.
The quote recalled a line from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984:
“The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
The border crisis was in fact manufactured… by the Trump administration: in May 2018, Jeff Sessions announced on camera the Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance policy” that would enforce all unauthorized crossings as crimes instead of as civil violations, thus requiring the separation of families, whereas previously they did not result in separations.
This was an intentional choice made by the Trump Administration to handle these crossings differently than before and it is what led to the massive overcrowding and family separations. It was not an accident. It was not like anything done during the Obama Administration.
For Pence to claim “I can’t account for that” and “this is a manufactured crisis” is complete and utter bullshit.
The administration’s zero tolerance policy specifically led to these new inhumane conditions. Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, admitted in 2018 that the cruel policy was intended as a deterrent.
In recent history, Democrats have not promoted their policies using cruelty, lies and falsehoods while asking followers to suspend the use of their senses, logic and reason. Both parties are not the same.
In fascism, the racial and nationalist component plays a central role (as opposed to the class conflict central to communism and socialism) and it involves a majority race or nationality falsely claiming it is under attack and that there is a threat of being replaced by a minority group.
That’s what Stanley meant by the “dominant cultural group”: a white, Christian heterosexual patriarchy. And while that group remains the largest and most dominant cohort of people in the US, they have been made to, as Stanley wrote, “feel like victims, to make them feel like they’ve lost something and that the thing they’ve lost has been taken from them by a specific enemy, usually some minority out-group.” Thus, the nostalgia of ‘Make America Great Again.’
Conservatives are no longer the majority cultural group in America, as Liberals regularly win the popular vote, but straight, white, Christian men remain the dominant cultural group in terms of political and economic power, holding 44 of 45 presidencies, an outsized majority of legislative seats, the vast majority of executive leadership positions in the corporate world all while white privilege and power continue to prevent most racial minorities from achieving a level playing field with equal opportunity and justice for all.
Follow the Money
To learn how racial animus and resentment of outsiders and immigrants became one of the main tools of right-wing propaganda, all you have to do is follow the money. Libertarian ideologues, wounded from Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat at the hands of Lyndon Johnson in 1964 began funding the GOP’s new “Southern Strategy” for Richard Nixon in 1968.
By combining race and social issues to gin up support for tax cutting and union-union busting, the GOP would land on a winning message that allowed them to dominate American politics for the next 50 years. Connecting the “welfare queen” myth to supply-side economic policies, Lee Atwater and then his disciples Karl Rove and Roger Ailes forged the foundational narrative of the conservative movement. It goes:
“Those lazy, drug-abusing minorities and immigrants are using welfare to steal money from hard-working, morally upright ‘Real Americans.’”
And unfortunately, that manipulative narrative has manifested in a president who not only believes this story but who has derived most of his policies and political beliefs from the Fox News presentation of it. Now, this feedback loop of false narratives, a charismatic leader, and his passionate followers has created a cult. This Cult of Trump has been noted by many, including award-winning conservative commentator George Will, and even Trump himself who famously said that he could “shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still not lose any followers.”
Evidence of a Cult of Trump comes from people like GOP mega-donor Miriam Adelson who, like millions of Trump’s followers, views Trump as a messiah or a prophet. Adelson wants to see if a Book of Trump can be added to the Bible, and many evangelicals and their leaders have claimed Trump was sent by God.
Trump’s cult is founded on a basic condition required for all cults: the leader absolves or redeems his followers of sin and brings them salvation. Trump has redeemed his followers of the sin of being non-PC (“we’ll show those Coastal Elites and dumb libtards!”) and for that they will always be devoted to him. He has given them salvation here on Earth as long as he remains their leader.
Fascism, like most forms of full-blown authoritarianism, requires a massive political cult of personality and we now have one with tens of millions of followers and their savior, President Donald J. Trump. This cult requires a mortal enemy, and AOC and the blood-thirsty, baby-murdering, socialist Democrats have become their perfect foil. Democrats are no longer viewed as loyal Americans, but in the minds of many Fox News watching American conservatives, the “blue team” instead poses an even greater danger than authoritarian dictatorships like Russia.
Some Good News
A Federal Judge recently overruled the Trump Administration’s attempt to include a citizenship question on the census. As Constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe wrote:
“Watching a federal court refuse to play this administration’s lawless little game is among life’s most reassuring signs that the center might hold after all.”
He concedes, “There are obvious limits to the ability of an Article III court to work its will in the world: as Alexander Hamilton famously observed in Federalist 78, the judiciary lacks both the power of the sword and the power of the purse and thus possesses neither force nor will but merely judgment, backed by the power of public reason.”
That said, “within its realm, the judiciary remains supreme: not infallible, obviously, but final.” He adds that this “seems to me a wise reminder that the Constitution and Laws of the United States remain the Supreme Law of the Land. If the president and his lackey, the uniquely unprincipled Attorney General, want to defy the U.S. Supreme Court, the lower federal courts aren’t going to make it easy for them to do it behind a phony charade of musical chairs.”’
To watch the Trump administration finally back down this week from pushing ahead with the citizenship question on the Census, was to watch the center hold yet again, as Article III forced the Executive Branch to bend to the will of the law. It was a beautiful thing to behold, our Constitution hard at work.
But we cannot rest and we must continue to resist. President Trump will continue to bash against the norms and constraints of our Constitutional system as he seeks a way to make his presidency a supreme dictatorship like the world leaders he most admires.
We must remain vigilant.