Do you smell something? That’s the stench of freedom dying, and it’s coming from America’s southern border, where refugee children seeking U.S. asylum as they flee murder, rape and degrading conditions in Central America have instead been tossed into a growing gulag of squalid concentration camps, created by an administration desperate to cling to four more years of power.
Warren Binford, a law professor at Willamette University tasked with monitoring government compliance with a court order on how long migrant kids can be held in detention, said not only is Trump’s Border Patrol not complying, but attorneys are shocked at what they found at a Clint, Texas, facility where hundreds of youths have been sent: Children sleeping on frigid concrete floors, covered in filth, unable to shower for days, and taking care of one another because the authorities are looking the other way.
Binford told the New Yorker that some of the kids who’d been in Clint for three weeks or longer “were filthy dirty, there was mucus on their shirts, the shirts were dirty. We saw breast milk on the shirts. There was food on the shirts, and the pants as well. They told us that they were hungry. They told us that some of them had not showered or had not showered until the day or two days before we arrived. Many of them described that they only brushed their teeth once.”
This report was just one of several in the last week about the rapidly expanding number of young migrant children detained in conditions that aren’t just substandard but inhumane to the point where they fall short of international standards such as the 1949 Geneva Convention, which demands that detained people receive “conveniences which conform to the rules of hygiene,” such as showers equipped with soap and water.
Instead, the Trump administration sent a Justice Department lawyer named Sarah Fabian into a federal appeals court to argue, in the words of the Washington Post, “that it shouldn’t be required to give detained migrant children toothbrushes, soap, towels, showers or even half a night’s sleep inside Border Patrol detention facilities.”
The progression here is both horrifying and yet blandly predictable to anyone who’s followed modern world history. An authoritarian strongman rides a populist wave to power by demonizing The Other —in this case, refugees — as people who are murderers, rapists and something less than human.
Now in power, the Trump administration is pursuing foolish policies (like eliminating the aid to Central American countries that can stop people from making the dangerous trek north in the first place) that then turn asylum seekers into next-level political props, as “defenders” of prisoners whose detention proves to Trump’s base the threat that Dear Leader is defending them from “an invasion.” These policies are shocking crimes against humanity from a nation that once held itself out as a beacon of human rights, and it’s getting worse. At least six migrant children have died since September in U.S. custody along the border, most in the growing gulag of American concentration camps.
After an initial 29 months of the Trump presidency that has infuriated and yet somehow numbed the president’s millions of critics with a state of what could now be called “normal chaos” — a daily parade of lies, outrageous tweets, firings, mini-scandals and giveaways to Big Business — the past week should have served as a wake-up call.
With Congress, most of the media, and even much of the electorate seemingly desensitized by what it means for the United States to have a strongman president who thinks never of the national interest but only his own, Trump this month has been taking his regime to a dangerous Phase 2 of America’s experiment with authoritarianism. It’s the place where dangerous or hateful words — the hallmark of early Trumpism — get turned into dangerous or hateful actions.
The ring of wretched detention centers for thousands of children and other migrants along the southern border — which the most knowledgeable writers and historians say places the U.S. in the grim global tradition of concentration camps — is the most palpable example of talk translated into cruel actions needed to keep Trump’s angry base frenzied and whipped up.
But this week brought America to the brink of an even worse state of affairs. The nation and the world came within a couple of hours, if not mere minutes, of a military conflict in Iran that had enormous potential to trigger a regional inferno in the Persian Gulf. The launch and recall of a U.S. strike on the Islamic republic was an inevitable next step in a policy that ripped up a working peace deal for a non-nuclear Iran and traded it for confrontation at the behest of Trump’s patrons — Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel — and to prove the “toughness" of the American autocrat. The rampant militarism and national pride of authoritarian governments is always a road to war. Do you really think Trump will turn out any different?
Iran wasn’t the only alarming operation that the president launched and called back this week. Shortly before Trump kicked off his 2020 reelection campaign with a raucous rally in Orlando attended by members of the Proud Boys and other extremists, he tweeted that an operation would commence this weekend to deport “millions” of unauthorized immigrants from inside the United States, ripping apart families in mostly blue-state big cities. The number of immigrants to be raided, detained and deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, dipped into the low thousands and then the entire operation was put on hold for two weeks — but it’s a fight that’s far from over.
Then in the midst of America’s most chaotic week was dropped a new political bombshell — a credible allegation by veteran New York magazine writer E. Jean Carroll (supported by two people who were aware of the incident contemporaneously) that Trump had raped her in the dressing rooms at Manhattan’s Bergdorf Goodman department store in the mid-1990s. The saddest thing is that few were shocked by the allegation; after all, Trump had been caught on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape bragging about his proclivity for assaulting women, and was elected anyway.
But the incident did drive home how much America has changed — and not for the better — since Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about his consensual affair with a young adult woman a generation ago. News organizations that have been relentlessly bullied and degraded by Team Trump and their screaming allies for the last four years have now either ignored or downplayed a credible rape allegation against the president of the United States.
The New York Times — which spends millions on its PR as defenders of “the truth” in the Trump era — would only cover the story as a review of Carroll’s book. Neither the newspaper editorial boards nor the members of Congress who wanted Bill Clinton to resign or be driven from office 20 years ago had much to say about a much, much more serious charge against Donald Trump.
Here’s the big picture, and it’s as alarming as it can get. Phase I of Trump’s assault on democracy is over. The public and to some degree the press has grown numb to thousands of lies and to outrageous and even allegedly criminal behavior by the 45th president. The Democratic House that was elected in 2018 to hold Trump in check has had nearly six months to prove that it’s remarkably ineffective at doing its one job — by allowing the White House to walk all over them in defying subpoenas, in following the law or even providing basic information.
All of this masks a bigger truth, that Trump’s abuses of power are making him more powerful but not more popular. The president has been rattled — and understandably so — by head-to-head polls that show him consistently losing to every top Democrat in the key battleground states. His only path to the second term that he now needs — not just for ego but to keep him out of jail — is to divide and inflame America far beyond the disunity we see today.
So Phase 2 is now here, and it’s as bad as your worst fears about a Trump presidency. To rally his base and get the anger that he needs out of his opponents, that means moving from rhetoric to roundups on immigrants, which will not shrink but swell the population of America’s concentration camps. It’s no surprise that Trump’s immigration-crackdown plan coincided with both his own reelection launch and this week’s Democratic debates, because he wants his opponents playing defense. And if Trump’s tough talk and his utter disdain for smart diplomacy triggers war in Iran or North Korea or somewhere else, he will challenge the electorate to dare oppose “a war president.”
The strategy of Phase 2 is twofold — to keep Trump’s base inflamed but to create new divisions among those who oppose him, to make Democrats furious at each other over impeachment/lack of impeachment, and to rile up key voting blocs such as young people or African Americans who in enough cases voted for third-party candidates like Jill Stein or flat out stayed home in 2016. They may do so again in 2020 if egged on by enough Facebook ads, whether they come from Trump Tower or from St. Petersburg. And all it will take to get there is this amped-up strain of neo-fascism.