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Opinion Trump’s first pardon: An authoritarian racist who thinks he’s above the law?

Former Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff Joe Arpaio ignored a judge’s order to stop detaining people because he merely suspected them of being undocumented immigrants. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

President Trump may have gotten pressured into making a statement condemning Nazis (a bold moral stance, that), but you can bet that while he’s doing it he’s already thinking of ways to give back to the people who put him in office. While his Twitter activity may get the most attention, Trump has sent another clear signal to his most avid supporters that his support of white nationalism and xenophobia has not diminished a whit:

“I am seriously considering a pardon for Sheriff [Joe] Arpaio,” the president said Sunday, during a conversation with Fox News at his club in Bedminster, N.J. “He has done a lot in the fight against illegal immigration. He’s a great American patriot and I hate to see what has happened to him.”
Trump said the pardon could happen in the next few days, should he decide to do so.

We’ll get to the particular crime Arpaio was convicted of in a moment, but it’s no surprise that Trump is upset that the former Arizona sheriff might have to face justice. The full list of actions that made Arpaio such a malevolent force is too long to relate here (Radley Balko has a good summary), but let’s take a moment to examine just a few of its more rancid aspects.

In his effort to create a reputation as “America’s toughest sheriff,” Arpaio made blatant and illegal racial profiling the hallmark of his two decades in office. A 2011 Justice Department investigation found systemic and widespread discriminatory practices in the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO), covering both its interactions with the public and its operation of county jails. Not only were Latinos in the jurisdiction profiled, harassed, detained and abused in myriad ways, but Arpaio also used the tools of his office to go after those who criticized him. Here’s a particularly vivid passage from that report:

Under the direction of Sheriff Arpaio and other command staff, MCSO deputies have sought to silence individuals who have publicly spoken out and participated in protected demonstrations against the policies and practices of MCSO — often over its immigration policies. MCSO command staff and deputies have arrested individuals without cause, filed meritless complaints against the political adversaries of Sheriff Arpaio, and initiated unfounded civil lawsuits and investigations against individuals critical of MCSO policies and practices.

All that surely warms the cockles of Trump’s heart, but there’s something else they share. You’ll probably remember that the president often pines for a time in the past when violence was doled out to the powerless without any accountability. During campaign rallies, he would respond to protesters by telling his supporters to “knock the crap out of ’em, would you?”, and at times specifically cited that kind of mob violence as the mark of a lost and better time: “I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks. It’s true. … I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell you.”

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Trump wasn’t only complaining about the “political correctness” of social mores; he was also lamenting the fact that legal protections against violence and discrimination have grown stronger in recent decades (granting that they aren’t nearly strong enough). For his part, Arpaio looked for nostalgic ways to humiliate and brutalize the prisoners in his care, making them wear old-fashioned striped uniforms and putting them into roadside chain gangs. He too was someone who saw the “good old days” as a better time, when racial minorities knew that laws and institutions would not protect them from powerful people who wanted to put them in their place — indeed, those laws and institutions would be wielded against them, civil rights be damned.

And of course, Arpaio and Trump were partners in another bit of racist publicity-seeking:

In the end, it was Arpaio’s belief that he was above the law that eventually brought him down. In 2011, a federal court ordered Arpaio and his department to stop detaining people on the mere suspicion that they might be undocumented immigrants, without some evidence that they had committed a crime. In subsequent months, Arpaio made repeated appearances on television in which he announced his intention to ignore the order and continue detaining people he and his staff suspected of being undocumented.

This then led to Arpaio’s trial for criminal contempt, in which the judge found that he “announced to the world and to his subordinates that he was going to continue business as usual no matter who said otherwise,” which he then proceeded to do. He was found guilty and is scheduled to be sentenced in October. While he could serve up to six months in prison, most legal observers think it unlikely that an 85-year-old man would be put behind bars, meaning Arpaio will once again escape accountability for his actions.

So that’s the person Trump is considering making the first recipient of a pardon in his presidency: someone with a long history of racist actions and racist policies, who was finally convicted of a crime he proudly owned up to. Should anyone be surprised?