The New York Times has reported that, if reelected, Donald Trump has a plan to round up immigrants “on a vast scale and detain them in sprawling camps while they wait to be expelled.” Trump was reportedly frustrated last time by his failure to deport millions of people, and so is preparing an “enormous expansion of a form of removal that does not require due process hearings.”
Trump’s team have been very clear: they are serious about this. They are going to build huge camps and put millions of people in them without any semblance of due process. They are going to have the military tearing people out of their homes and workplaces and putting them behind barbed wire. There will be “sweeping raids” and Trump plans to massively expand ICE’s enforcement power by supplementing it with soldiers from the National Guard and local cops.
Stephen Miller, the anti-immigrant fanatic who is designing Trump’s policies, told the Times that it would be very unwise to assume that Trump won’t follow through with this:
“Any activists who doubt President Trump’s resolve in the slightest are making a drastic error: Trump will unleash the vast arsenal of federal powers to implement the most spectacular migration crackdown…The immigration legal activists won’t know what’s happening.”
The plan is to do it so fast, and so drastically, that immigrant rights lawyers will be overwhelmed. Plus, Trump has a much more favorable judiciary to deal with this time around, as he appointed many federal judges himself.
The announced plan is terrifying enough. To those who are undocumented, or have undocumented friends and family members, the threat is serious. Deportation can mean a death sentence, of course. But what about the camps? If other countries won’t take the undocumented immigrants Trump rounds up, will they languish there forever?
I don’t think we should assume that this ends with undocumented immigrants, though. Building giant “detention” camps, and giving government agents sweeping new powers of arrest, is a very significant step on the road to outright fascism. Remember that Trump has not just promised to expel the entire undocumented population from the country. He has also vowed revenge against his political opponents, who he calls “vermin.” He and his team “have begun mapping out specific plans for using the federal government to punish critics and opponents should he win a second term” and he is “practically bragging about his intentions.” Trump claims that because he is being prosecuted for political reasons (since he does not believe he has committed any crimes), it’s perfectly legitimate for him to turn around and conduct political prosecutions against the Democrats. They “let the genie out of the box,” he says.
Let’s assume for a moment that Republicans mean what they say when they describe their feelings about immigrants, Muslims, transgender people, Black Lives Matter activists, pro-Palestine protesters, and socialists. In Republican rhetoric, these groups are described as a threat to the entire civilized order. “If the left gains power,” Trump told the RNC in 2020, “they will demolish the suburbs, confiscate your guns, and appoint justices who will wipe away your Second Amendment and other Constitutional freedoms.” They say that radical leftists are trying to destroy the constitution, take away your basic rights, and create violent havoc that threatens your family and everything you hold dear.
Assuming someone believes this, isn’t it easy to see how they could justify extraordinary measures to deal with the internal threat? Measures like, say, indefinite detention of “subversives,” “terrorist sympathizers,” “criminal elements,” etc. I’d like you to consider the collective implications of seven things we know already:
- Trump plans to build a giant network of “detention” camps and empower the federal government to round up millions of people without any due process
- Trump insists that Democrats and leftists imperil the foundations of civilization, and has promised to “root out” the “threats from within.”
- Trump is an aspiring dictator who would have simply defied the election result and remained in power if he had been able to.
- Trump is now angry and vengeful, and determined to punish those who forced him from office.
- Trump and the Republicans have a sweeping radical plan called Project 2025, part of which involves purging tens of thousands of civil servants from the federal government to eliminate potential opposition to his plans.
- Trump has no qualms about killing people without trial and openly encourages police brutality.
- Trump is beating Joe Biden in the polls, meaning he is currently on track to be the next president.
These facts, taken together, should make us very worried that we are on the brink of a fascist nightmare. There is a tendency to assume Donald Trump is clownish, ineffectual, and not actually very committed to following through on his stated agenda. It’s true that Trump doesn’t have much ideological commitment to the Republican platform. But he is also deeply vengeful and hates being humiliated or seen as weak. I do not think we should be surprised if the second term is very different from the first.
Do I think Trump will imprison political dissidents in the concentration camps? I don’t know if he will, but I do know that it would be quite easy for him to justify putting political dissidents in concentration camps, based on things he has already said and promised to do. We know he wants to build sprawling camps and start rounding people up. We know he wants to root out internal threats. And we know he couldn’t care less about the law. Personally I do not feel reassured.
To those skeptical that Trump would actually round up those he deems “internal threats” and put them in camps, I’d like you to consider how rapidly things can change in a situation of national emergency or panic. Of course, after 9/11, torturing and indefinitely detaining people was used as a tactic against perceived enemies. But remember, too, what happened after Pearl Harbor in 1941. The most liberal Democratic president we have ever had established internment camps and rounded up Japanese Americans for indefinite imprisonment. If there was a major terrorist attack, do you not think Donald Trump could conceivably seize the opportunity of an emergency to deal brutally with the “internal threats”? Consider, too, that the U.S., through its support of Israel, is currently creating anger across the world, which increases the risk of violent blowback. Look at the destructive rage unleashed by Israel after the Oct. 7th attacks. Now consider what Donald Trump might do if something similar ever happened here. Perhaps in ordinary circumstances, Trump will not move to imprison those he considers “vermin” and a “threat.” But what about in extraordinary circumstances?
Of course, even if Trump only tries to prosecute his political opponents, and puts immigrants in the giant camps, that’s enough of a nightmare. He’s talking about deporting millions of people. There is no way to do this that isn’t very ugly and violent. Conditions in these camps are almost certain to be unsanitary and crowded–do you think Trump is going to give the “detainees” decent medical care or food? He thinks they’re animals, and they’ll be treated accordingly.
The right has one argument that it uses consistently to defend its brutality toward immigrants: The Rule Of Law. Undocumented people, they say, broke the law by coming here. Deporting them is therefore just a simple matter of upholding the law. Miller told the Times that the law shouldn’t “magically” cease to apply to a certain subset of the population. Under this thinking, no matter how violent the enforcement process is, it can be justified on the grounds that not to deport people makes the law meaningless.
This argument can be powerfully persuasive to people, so everyone needs to be clear on what the response is. The most straightforward is: the punishment should fit the crime. In other words, an unauthorized immigrant has broken a law, sure, but that doesn’t mean deportation is automatically the just remedy. There is no reason we can’t view unauthorized immigration as a fairly minor bureaucratic offense, a failure to file proper paperwork, one that can be fixed by giving people a path to rectifying their status. Elaborate immigration bureaucracy is a relatively new development in the United States–you used to be able to pass freely between the US and Mexico just by crossing the street. Even those who think there should be screening of entrants to the country can still regard “illegal” immigration the way we regard speeding or littering. They could advocate a punishment that didn’t tear families apart. Belief in the “rule of law” might require treating unauthorized immigration as punishable, but it in no way logically necessitates a militarized response.
When Stephen Miller says he’s serious, I believe him. I remember that in the 1920s, the New York Times made the catastrophic error of suggesting that Hitler didn’t really mean his anti-Semitism, and that it was just a ploy to get votes. Miller says they’re building camps and coming for your neighbors. I recommend taking him at his word.
I am deeply worried about next year. Joe Biden is weak, and behind in the polls, especially in swing states. The Democratic Party does well on its policy issues, but voters perceive Biden himself as old and useless, and he’s only going to get older by this time next year (assuming no miracle breakthroughs in aging-reversal science). Trump is a more frightening force than ever, and I think we should find it pretty alarming that the leading candidate for the U.S. presidency is openly announcing his plan for a network of concentration camps. If you have any familiarity with history, you know how this story can go. First it will be the immigrants. Then there’ll be some incident, and some other group is “detained” “temporarily” on an “emergency basis” for “reasons of national security.” You can watch the whole thing play out in your mind’s eye.
When Trump celebrated the killing of an antifa activist by federal agents, without an arrest or trial, I thought it was one of the darkest moments in his presidency and should have gotten a lot more attention. He described the killing as “retribution,” and said that he sent in the feds and they “took care of business.” Pure mobster mindset. And that was first-term Trump, not the far more demented and determined Trump that we face now. If it wasn’t already clear, our democracy is in very serious danger and everyone needs to wake up to the threat. Once new prison camps are built, they do not tend to close down. The time for stopping them is before they get built. It’s important to see major historical threats coming, before it’s too late to change course.