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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — President Donald Trump has pardoned former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-professed “toughest sheriff in America” who was elected in Maricopa County not to be tough on crime, but to be tough on Mexican Americans. Had he been elected to protect the law, he wouldn’t be a criminal himself, having been convicted for ignoring a court order to stop profiling Latinos in his crusade against undocumented immigrants.
Some have said Trump perhaps doesn't understand what an Arpaio pardon means to Arizona's Latinos, but enraging the Hispanic community while energizing Trump's base is the point of the pardon. To many Latinos, a pardon of Arpaio is yet another monument to white supremacy that scars our country.
The fact is, and will always be, that Arpaio is a criminal. Whatever monument is erected in his name will be forever marked as a stain on history, should one stand long enough in Arizona. In case you are interested, the local alternative newspaper, the Phoenix New Times, sent out a useful tweet in response to the pardon, listing the years of outrageous facts about Arpaio's career.
But Arpaio is beside the point. Like his service to Maricopa County, Arpaio is a celebrity because he is a manifestation of the anxiety and futility of those who yearn for a time in the past that only exists as a figment of their limited imagination. Arizona was admitted into the Union just 100 years ago, not long before Arpaio was born.
In that time, despite Sheriff Joe’s efforts, Arizona is over one-third Latino, and Hispanics will continue to grow and contribute to the prosperity of all of Arizonans, just as they always have, even before Arizona was a state.
The real point, however, is that the pardon is yet more evidence of how Trump plans to embolden his voter base. From the beginning, Trump has drawn red lines against Mexican-Americans, the Muslim community and immigrants.
His order to ban transgender persons from military service is yet another example of his playbook. The military leadership, and even conservatives like Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have spoken out against a ban on transgender personnel. “Look, people who are transgender, they don’t choose to be transgender,” said Hatch. “They’re born that way. And why should we hold that against them? And they’re human beings, and many of them are extremely talented human beings.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida whose son is transgender, spoke out against the president’s discriminatory edict, as well.
But like Arpaio, the issue of transgender persons serving in the military isn’t the point. The point is to draw clear lines between “us and them” and force those in the country standing on the sidelines to make choices.
This reminds me of a wonderful scholar, Joel Olson, a colleague who was writing on the subject he called “fanaticism” and how it could be used to pursue justice for the poor and the disenfranchised. He premised this on a philosophy called Manichaeism, a dualistic view of the world between good and evil, between lightness and darkness.
Olson felt that Manichaeism was an important framework to understand the deployment of potential strategies by those fighting for social justice. Strategically picking issues that forced the country to choose between good and bad could help mobilize society into a conflict that could result in progress.
Those Olson called zealots were fanatics about issues in the uncompromising pursuit of justice, such as abolitionist orator Wendell Phillips, who took this approach and forced moderates to take a position on slavery.
Forcing people to make a decision about where they stood on a controversial issue, Olson felt, was an underutilized strategy. Perhaps it wasn't always effective, since this strategy required “fanatics” who were willing to enter into fights for progress on the premise that they would not compromise their values.
This is precisely what the Trump administration has done. Trump, Steve Bannon and others in the entourage have from the beginning employed a Manichaean approach to politics, and they have made progress of their own. In the meantime, the Democratic Party, the media and the country as a whole have been slow to understand Trump’s politics, much less develop a strategy to respond to it.
Approaching disagreements over civil rights, reproductive rights, police reform, etc. from a fanatical position is a legitimate strategy, perhaps even the best one, professed Olson. Trump knows this.
The pardon of Arpaio is entirely consistent with the president’s approach to politics. Trump is provoking those sitting on the fence on issues like immigration and white supremacy to take a side.
This provocation can only be faced in one way; to accept that this is indeed what Trump’s strategy is and finally, get on with the business of fighting the ancient evil forces he is trying to breathe life back into.