Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has informed the American public that the Trump administration is running “concentration camps” on the Mexican border.
More than generating fresh debate over the handling of illegal immigrants, the accusation touched off a partisan slugfest over the exploitation of the Holocaust in political debate.
“The United States is running concentration camps on our southern border, and that is exactly what they are,” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez claimed.
“The fact that concentration camps are now an institutionalized practice in the home of the free is extraordinarily disturbing, and we need to do something about it,” she added, as she denounced what she termed the “authoritarian and fascist presidency” of President Donald Trump.
Republican Liz Cheney suggested that the first-term congresswoman “spend just a few minutes learning some actual history” about the six million Jews annihilated in the Holocaust.
“You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this,” Cheney said.
Ocasio-Cortez’s charge is, on the face of it, counter-factual, to put it politely. Jews were rounded up in the Holocaust for torture and death; the same cannot be said about the migrants who seek illegal entry of their own volition and are stopped by border guards enforcing the law. The U.S. government does not mark them for extermination, only for an asylum process which, however cumbersome and frustrating, leaves the applicants alive (with a few unfortunate exceptions), if often unhappy, on one side of the border or the other.
As for the miserable conditions in the detention facilities, she has a point. Congressional representatives like herself could ease that hardship by voting right away to allocate more resources.
In response to her critics, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez took cover behind a narrow, “expert” definition of “concentration camps,” as opposed to “death camps,” but this should fool no one. In the popular mind, the term “concentration camp” immediately conjures up Nazi death camps. In the congresswoman’s tirade against activities at the border, she also wrote, “Never Again means something.” The invocation of the Holocaust in that phrase is undeniable.
She knew exactly what she was doing, deliberately conflating the two terms in order to identify the president with ultimate evil.
Republicans Rick Scott, Lindsay Graham and Dan Crenshaw lined up with Cheney, while Democrats stood with their young colleague. But there was a difference. Fellow Democrats were disinclined to indulge in exploitation of the Holocaust for political purposes, no matter how worthy they might view the cause.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) tried to steer the conversation away from the Holocaust. “Call it a concentration camp or call it something else. What’s happening on our southern border is a moral stain on the U.S.,” he tweeted. Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) when asked about Ocasio-Cortez’s comments, also avoided the Holocaust comparison: “When I went down to see those facilities, I can tell you that it’s deplorable. And it’s inhumane with how those children are being treated,” Luján said.
One might ask these Democrats what the alternatives are, short of opening the border to all comers and giving up on the concept of sovereignty altogether. But at least the language they used was within the realm of acceptability. Condemning what one views as inhumane is not at all the same as equating it with genocide.
It is noteworthy that the Democratic leadership did not enter the fray this time, as they did in the matter of Ilhan Omar. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer publicly rebuked Omar’s anti-Semitic slurs. But the official Democratic party resolution that followed mentioned neither the offender nor the specific offense, and imposed no penalty.
The Democratic leadership might prefer to be rid of these young upstarts, but they realize that a similar resolution in this case would be similarly ineffectual. They know that criticizing Ocasio-Cortez is to court the displeasure of the progressive wing of the party, increasingly restive and increasingly powerful. It just wouldn’t pay.
And since exploiting the Holocaust would seem to be a lesser infraction of civil discourse than accusing rich Jews of buying congressional support for Israel, they decided to let it pass. Pelosi has enough trouble tamping down demands for impeachment from Ocasio-Cortez and others.
In an earlier era, such rants might have been ignored; a first-termer spouting slurs and inanities would have been told by the senior politicians that anonymity becomes them better. But thanks to social media, they can reach over the heads of responsible adults to a mass audience. Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter account has more than 3.1 million followers.
So, neither politicians nor journalists can afford to ignore this instant hero. The rest of us do so at our peril.
In a very short time, she has attained celebrity status. Some news outlets refer to her as AOC for short. In the past, it was usually only presidents — FDR, JFK, LBJ — who earned abbreviated endearment after years of headline-making achievements. Ocasio-Cortez’s achievements have been chiefly in headline-making.
There is no denying she has a talent for attracting attention. Unfortunately, of the wrong kind.