Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore\Flickr

The president committed to pardoning former Sheriff Joe Arpaio last night during his campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona. It wasn’t the only news he made, but it was the thing that stuck out most for me. There’s a substantive case to make about why Arpaio doesn’t deserve a pardon. The ACLU points out that in addition to defying a court order to stop racially profiling Latinos and placing himself in contempt of court, Arpaio has a record of abusing his public office, coddling sexual predators, and creating inhumane conditions for his prisoners and doing harm to their health. In truth, even the briefest glance as his Wikipedia page should convince you that the man is a scoundrel and a charlatan in addition to being one of the most brutal racists to hold public office in the last four decades.

On July 31, 2017, Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt of court by District Judge Susan Bolton. Bolton explained that Arpaio had failed “to ensure his subordinates’ compliance” with court directives by “directing them to continue to detain persons for whom no criminal charges could be filed.” Therefore, the judge found, Arpaio had “willfully violated an order of the court.”  She set his sentencing hearing for October.

The president claimed last night that Arpaio is guilty of nothing more serious than “doing his job.”

Trump and Arpaio are connected for one thing by the fact they are the most and second-most famous Birthers in the country. It seems to have created a bond between them.

[Arpaio] said in an interview on Tuesday night that he did not know Mr. Trump was going to mention his name at the rally and reiterated that he had not talked to the president since last fall. But Mr. Arpaio said he “wasn’t really surprised” to hear he would likely be pardoned.

“I just know him,” Mr. Arpaio said of the president. “And even though everybody said he’s not going to talk about it — deep in my heart, I knew he was going to say something. I had no hints, but that’s who he is.”

You can call it “Birther Solidarity.” I guess there’s a code. Birthers don’t let Birthers go to jail.

And maybe the code is a better explanation than trying to discern some kind of greater strategy. Trump seems to be ping-ponging between taking the most pro-Nazi position available to him and denying that he has done so, but last night he did three things that made it appear that he thinks his political survival depends on rallying racist support to his besieged banner.

The first was his verbal commitment to pardon Arpaio. The second was his promise to cause a government shutdown if he doesn’t get his border wall paid for not by the Mexican government (as promised) but by our own. And the third was maybe the most disturbing, to me, of all. Trump told his assembled supporters that people are trying to take away “our culture.”

“In the proud tradition of America’s great leaders, from George Washington — please don’t take his statue down, please. Please! Does anybody want George Washington’s statue? No. Is that sad? Is that not sad? To Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt. I see they want to take Teddy Roosevelt’s down too. They’re trying to figure out why. They don’t know. They’re trying to take away our culture. They’re trying to take away our history. And our weak leaders do it overnight. These things have been here for 150 years, for 100 years. You go back to a university and it’s gone. Weak, weak people.”

There’s no way to read that broadly. When the president speaks about “our culture,” he clearly means the culture of those who celebrate the Confederacy. He wasn’t talking to the nation. He was talking to the crowd and to his supporters. In other words, his comments about “our culture” were addressed in the same way as his comments about Arpaio:

“By the way, I’m just curious. Do the people in this room like Sheriff Joe? [Crowd cheers.] So, was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job? He should have had a jury, but you know what? I’ll make a prediction. I think he is just going to be fine. Okay? But — I won’t not do it tonight because I don’t want to cause any controversy. Is that okay? All right? But Sheriff Joe can feel good.”

If there was any doubt that Trump was claiming the racists as his own, he erased it with his conclusion:

“We are Americans and the future belongs to us. The future belongs to all of you. This is our moment. This is our chance. This is our opportunity to recapture our dynasty like never before.”

The “Americans” he is talking about are not all Americans, and what dynasty could he be referring to? It isn’t a Democratic or Republican dynasty. It’s an uninterrupted record of unquestioned white supremacy that was disrupted and can only now be “recaptured.” What interrupted that record? First, the Union armies. Second, the Civil Rights Movement. Third, the election of a black president.

Maybe Trump is right that he does better politically when we focus on race. He’ll take the side of the American flag and the police and let his opponents talk about the merits of diversity. It remains to be seen if Trump knows what he is doing from a strictly political perspective.

What’s unambiguous, however, is that he’s leading a pro-Confederate movement that sees white nationalists and white supremacists as “good people” and real Americans. He complains that the media report this accurately, but he’s tripled down on it at this point.

So, like with the Civil War and World War Two and the civil rights era, the “real” Americans have to do battle. But, this time, our own president is the enemy.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at