However, Ocasio-Cortez’s defenders are being a bit coy here, turning a blind eye (or ear) to her using the resonance of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen in her choice of words. The reason the term concentration camp is so rhetorically effective is not, let’s face it, due to its reference to places like the Soviet Gulag. Just as many people of late use white supremacy as a stand-in for racism because it summons images of lynching and burning crosses, one says “concentration camp” in order to summon grisly black-and-white images of horror from 1940s Europe.
The right cries foul—as did the left when Sarah Palin was cawing “Don’t retreat, reload” back in 2011, even in the wake of the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Republicans at the time expected all to understand that this was simply colorful, metaphorical language, not a literal incitement to violence. They defend Trump’s ravings today on the same grounds. He has fondly referred to certain “old days” when a protester at one of his rallies would have been “carried out on a stretcher.” And he has suggested that he would pay the legal bills of whoever put him there. Never mind the more lexical violence, such as referring to protesting black athletes as “sons of bitches.”
John McWhorter: It wasn’t “verbal blackface.” AOC was code-switching.
Anyone expressing outrage is told to read this kind of expression as Trump simply “being real,” part entertainer and part president, someone who is just plain hard to rein in. We are told he is joking and to get over ourselves.
Well, okay then—but surely the right can let Ocasio-Cortez get away with implying certain parallels that are hard to miss between, yes, fascism and Trump’s behavior. We have no reason to suppose Trump desires to herd Mexicans and Central Americans together and put them to death. However, we have every reason to see his actions and statements as manifestations of the kind of ideology that has led to horrors of that kind. Ever floating, if not spelling out, the idea that violence is a permissible means to a glorious national end; the cult of leadership Trump encourages; the suggestion that the openly bigoted members of the alt-right are essentially good people whose views constitute a legitimate counterpoise to those who combat racism—only denialism explains how anyone could not see glimmers of likeness between Trump and Messrs. Hitler and Mussolini.
Add to this the utter heartlessness with which the Trump administration has penned people into spartan facilities, blithely separating small children from their parents, and depicting the people themselves as sinister, marauding aliens. The term tender-age facility qualifies, here, as exactly the kind of Orwellian language we associate with the fascist leaders of old. As such, the term concentration camp would seem quite admissible, when we consider that language is used to convince as much as to merely observe.