Joe Arpaio’s Pardon Hardly Matters. His 24 Years In Power Do

For over two decades, “America’s Toughest Sheriff” peddled brutal solutions to imaginary and overblown problems. And we ate it up.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

It happened. Did you really think it wouldn’t? President Donald Trump had praised the man. They were brothers in the belief that former President Barack Obama was not really a natural born citizen of the United States. They shared a common hostility toward undocumented immigrants. They had praised and supported each other.

So was it any surprise that, on August 25, Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, the long-serving former sheriff of Maricopa County, a man known for his hardline stance on illegal immigration and his soft adherence to the law?

Found guilty of criminal contempt of court in July, Arpaio faced up to six months in prison for flagrantly disobeying a court order to halt his office’s racial profiling practices. Six months would have been a small punishment for a man whose 24-year tenure had unleashed what former Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon termed a “reign of terror” for the Latino community.

In the ensuing days, a slew of op-eds have stressed that the pardon is a disgrace. This is a constitutional crisis, this is an impeachable offense, they declare. Do you realize how bad Arpaio is? they ask.

I grew up in Joe Arpaio’s Phoenix during the ’90s and 2000s. I won’t bother listing all the former sheriff’s crimes (you can find a good summary here), but there is no doubt that he is a criminal. I too believe he deserves to serve time. But I find the indignation over Trump pardoning “America’s toughest sheriff” to be too little, too late — a kind of ritualized outrage in response to the utterly predictable.

Trump pardoned Arpaio because he could, because Arpaio represents the identity that he attempts to embody: a free-wheeling, tough guy leader who does whatever he wants, laws and constitutional rights be damned.

To me, the bigger question is how this man managed to stay in power for over two decades and how do we ensure that this never happens again. Arpaio’s actions were never a secret. You didn’t have to be an investigative journalist or a news junkie to know about them. All you had to be was vaguely cognizant of local politics and not a subscriber to the Arpaio cult of personality. And yet the people of Maricopa County elected him over and over again.

If American politics today seems like a parallel reality, Arpaio was the bellwether of that reality. Today we have a White House that, to a large degree, is promising simple solutions to fake problems, while the real ones go unresolved. In this sense, Arpaio may be the “grandfather of Trumpism.” Long before Trump entered the political scene, Arpaio understood that leadership didn’t necessarily require solving the real problems.

Instead, you could replace the real problems with fake or overblown ones and hail your own success when you “solved” them. You would be especially successful if those “problems” struck at the core of people’s fears. “Tough on crime,” “tough on illegal immigration” — these clichés were difficult to oppose. After all, everyone, to a certain degree, fears crime, and talk of illegal immigration frequently mixes with stereotypes about Mexico and plays upon racist images of Mexican people. Arpaio understood that he could win an election riding a wave of support from people who had never been in jail, couldn’t imagine ever winding up in jail, and had few deep interactions with the people most likely to be affected by his policies. His electoral victories grew from the public’s unwillingness to confront society’s “others” — convicts, “illegal immigrants,” Mexicans, the poor — as anything more than “others.” Arpaio understood that the average person’s gut instinct is to assume that a person in pretrial detention must have done something to wind up there. Good people just aren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In essence, Arpaio built himself a cult of personality. He presented himself as a man sent to bring law and order to a disordered land. “Law and order” here was not procedural, but performative and theatrical. The question to ask was whether our land was actually so disordered and whether we needed the kind of order Arpaio promised. The pink underwear, the tent jails, the 15-cent prison meals, the enforcement of patriotism in jail — it was all a spectacle to let the public know Joe was working. Like many a media savvy authoritarian, Sheriff Joe had a gentler side: he was “tough on crime,” but soft for the Humane Society. It humanized an overly aggressive image that might otherwise have made him unlikeable to the public. And it helped to disguise the brutality of Arpaio’s approach.

It is indeed an outrage that Trump pardoned Arpaio. But I never expected Arpaio to see real justice. I never thought he would pay for the lives he ruined — after all, we already paid for all the court awards and settlements with our tax dollars. But here’s what really worries me. Arpaio was Trump before Trump. We all knew about his wrongdoings. He still lasted two decades.

Since the pardon, some have asserted that Joe Arpaio was actually an ineffective or incompetent sheriff. They note that his anti-immigrant crackdowns distracted police officers from real crime. That’s true, but I disagree with the characterization. “Ineffective” and “incompetent” sound innocent and accidental. Arpaio rejected the standard measures of competence. And people loved it.

Trump is similar. His utter unpreparedness for the country’s highest office is crystal clear. He makes up problems and then claims to solve them. But I’m increasingly worried that may prove a successful re-election strategy. It worked for Joe Arpaio.