By J.D. Munch
Friday night, August 25, the nation focused on Hurricane Harvey bearing down on Texas. In the meantime, Donald Trump used that cover to pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio, his political ally best known for illegally targeting Latinos in police actions. This act falls within the presidential pardon powers, to be sure. But for many, it confirms what many in the resistance have known for some time now: that Trump’s “law and order” presidency is a sham, one more phrase he tosses out to justify the most brazenly divisive and racist politics we have seen from a United States President since the Civil Rights Act was passed. He does not serve the Constitution, but rather the cast of sycophants who line up to kiss the brass ring in exchange for the favors only the most corrupt administration could grant. And he does it with 1984-level doublespeak.
Direct Opposition to the Constitution
The United States Constitution provides that it, along with the laws created under it, exists as the “supreme law of the land.” It came about in part to create a government capable of serving the people of the United States, through the power of a government composed of three equal branches. The courts, the legislature, and the President all have their roles to play, with the President and Executive Branch having the job of carrying out the laws written by Congress. The Founding Fathers recognized the dangers the rule of a king posed to freedoms of the people, and thus created a system designed to avoid exactly that.
This means that Trump has a duty to follow the Constitutional framework of our country. Indeed, the Presidential Oath requires the President to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. If “law and order” means anything for a United States President, it must mean giving respect to the legal system we have in place: enforcing faithfully the laws that are in place and working within the system we have.
From the beginning, Trump has violated this duty. When he faces challenges to his illegal Executive Orders (remember when Trump attacked Obama for issuing Executive Orders?), he attacked any judge who dared rule against him. He attacked an Indiana-born Latino judge as being Mexican and therefore unable to rule on his Trump University lawsuits, and referred to a “so-called judge” for striking down his Muslim ban. And now that Congress is not cooperating, he has taken to attacking Representatives and Senators, whether Republicans or Democrats. He is, in essence, threatening every other branch of government in every moment that he faces opposition.
In this light, the pardon of Joe Arpaio demonstrates another instance in a pattern of behavior that is precisely the opposite of the role President Trump is required to play. Joe Arpaio received a court order to stop illegally targeting Latinos without evidence of crimes being committed. He willfully violated the order. Thus, this was a clear case of a law enforcement officer choosing not to follow the law and choosing not to respect the judicial branch of the government. And Trump, while proclaiming himself the law and order president, struck out against the rule of law by demonstrating to the world that he believes the law should not apply to the people who support him.
Obstruction of Justice
Of course, given Trump’s resistance to any instance of the law affecting him negatively, this should not come as a surprise. When Michael Flynn was under investigation, Trump asked more than one official to back off that investigation. He demanded loyalty of James Comey, who as Director of the FBI had a duty of loyalty to the country and a requirement of independence from the President. This was a man held in high esteem for his honesty and integrity by members of both parties. But he pushed forward in the Russia investigation, and Trump fired him for it. Law and order, indeed.
In fact, even with Sheriff Arpaio, Trump tried to push the Justice Department away from prosecuting the crimes Arpaio committed. Specifically, he asked Jeff Sessions to stop investigating, only backing off when he was told something he should know by now: that it is improper for the President to push the Department of Justice not to pursue criminal activity. So he sat back and waited to see what happened. And after Arpaio was found guilty of contempt of court, Trump hinted in his Phoenix campaign rally that Arpaio would be fine. Putting aside why a President with almost no accomplishments is holding a campaign rally just over seven months into his first term of office, we knew then that Trump would not respect the judicial process. But with his stated desire to avoid controversy, he waited for the distraction of a hurricane to issue his pardon.
Respect for Law vs. Strongman Tactics
This pardon means more though. We are living in a time of incredible racial tension. After decades of progress that led to an African-American President in Obama, the United States is seeing the backlash of a racism at levels many thought was relegated to the dark corners of our history. Trump has encouraged white supremacists and KKK members to emerge from the shadows and proclaim their hatred proudly, to attack minorities without even hiding their faces in the shame they should be feeling. Violence rises up daily, it seems, and the man who should denounce it every day continues to encourage hate with a wink and a nudge.
But for Trump, strength does not come from lifting others up. Rather, it comes from subjugating people to your will. He respects Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan, and other strongman dictators because they are bullies in his mold. They bluster, lie, and attack anyone who opposes them. Trump models his own leadership after people like this, those who inspire fear in others and divide their opponents into manageable groups.
Sheriff Arpaio did exactly this while he peddled racism every day. He targeted the Latino community, without cause, using the force of his position to create fear among those he was supposed to serve. He ignored a court order to stop, instead continuing his illegal practices under the cover of his law enforcement position. He built an outdoor prison camp with conditions so bad that he proudly called it a concentration camp. In the midst of protests by people who self-identify as Nazis, the notion that anyone acting as a United States official would celebrate this terrible human being should make the most cynical among us do a double-take. Trump’s pardon condones racism, encourages hatred, and legitimizes a man who acted out against the rule of law to inflict his hatred of others onto a community.
Respecting the Office
Trump remains the President of the United States, despite acting more thoroughly unpresidential as anyone who has ever held the office. A call from many has been and will be to respect the office, and in doing so, to automatically respect the person holding it. My first response is that said person clearly does not respect the office himself. Trump tweets like an insecure teenager, spouting off in unhinged anger whenever the mood hits. He spends millions of dollars of taxpayer money on golf outings; conducts unsecure meetings at his properties to generate profits in interests of which he never divested himself; and proclaims to the world that he takes no responsibility for anything that happens. He said he would sign any Obamacare repeal placed in front of him, details and human casualties be damned. He stirs up and thrives on hatred every day, boasting among his dwindling followers every manner of racist, misogynist, and religious bigot. We have a President who thinks little of the presidency, who appoints individuals to run agencies they have attacked over entire careers. How are we to respect an office the President himself does not?
The other problem with the respect argument is that to respect someone, you must hold that person accountable. To hold the Office of the President of the United States in any esteem, we must demand more of the person who holds it. The President should be a great person, someone whose ethics rise above reproach. And if we truly respect that person, we must call him to account when he fails to meet those standards. To do less, to accept that our President can foment hatred, flout the Constitution, and make the nation a laughingstock for every other developed country, is to reduce the Office itself to one more reality television show. We must resist the urge to treat our government as mere entertainment for the masses, or to accept as normal the disrespect with which Trump treats it. If our country is to be great in any meaningful way, we cannot accept a President who pardons a man like Arpaio, or who would seek to escape responsibility for his own actions. This is not normal, and it cannot stand.