President Donald Trump’s decision – announced late Friday night – to pardon controversial former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was the Platonic ideal of Trumpism.
“Throughout his time as sheriff, Arpaio continued his life’s work of protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration,” read a statement released by the White House. “Sheriff Joe Arpaio is now 85 years old, and after more than 50 years of admirable service to our nation, he is (a) worthy candidate for a Presidential pardon.”
The pardon of Sheriff Joe checked so many boxes for what we know about how Trump views the world and operates that, in retrospect, it was utterly predictable.
* Trump likes people who like him: Arpaio had been a fierce advocate of Trump since the billionaire began running for president back in June 2015. Their relationship, in fact, extended back before Trump’s presidential campaign; Arpaio has said Trump sent him “thank you” notes earlier this decade for his aggressive pursuit of false claims that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States.
Arpaio formally endorsed Trump’s presidential campaign just before the Iowa caucuses in 2016, saying “I have fought on the front lines to prevent illegal immigration. I know Donald Trump will stand with me and countless Americans to secure our border.” From that point on, Sheriff Joe became a fixture at campaign rallies for Trump. He was given a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention. He was floated as a possible head for the Department of Homeland Security.
The point: Trump rewards loyalty. And Arpaio has been unflinchingly loyal.
* Trump likes “tough” people: Arpaio came to national prominence in the early 1990s for his “Tent City” – an open-air prison in a state where temperatures in the summer often rise well above 100 degrees. He dyed the prisoners’ underwear pink. He cut three meals a day to two to save money. He eliminated salt and pepper from the prison diet. He proudly touted his nickname as “America’s toughest Sheriff.”
Trump is drawn to all of that. He views the country and its politicians as having softened – as not being tough enough to deal with the challenges the world now presents. Remember that Trump said on the campaign trail that he “would bring back waterboarding” and “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”
* Trump likes people who aren’t politically correct: This ties closely to Trump’s desire for more “tough” people. Arpaio, to Trump’s mind, was willing to do whatever it took to lower crime and stop illegal immigration. “He kept Arizona safe!” Trump tweeted about Sheriff Joe following the pardon.
To Trump, the vilification of Arpaio as an overly aggressive bully who targeted Hispanics even after the courts had warned him not to is a perfect example of the liberal left enforcing its ridiculous standards of political correctness on a populace that doesn’t see things the way the coastal elites do.
In pardoning Arpaio, Trump reaffirms his war on political correctness – one of the central tenets of his 2016 campaign and, he believes, his appeal.
* Trump is a provocateur: At root, Trump likes to provoke. He knows he does best when he has an opponent, an enemy to compare and contrast himself to. It’s why he prospered as a candidate – with an unpopular opponent – and has struggled mightily as President without any obvious foil.
Any chance Trump gets to needle the left, the elites, the media or anyone else who is not his political base, he takes. Because controversy means attention. And controversy means opposition. And Trump desperately needs attention and opposition in order to thrive.
* Trump plays to his base: Trump has never seemed to understand – or care – about the conventional wisdom that the way elections are won is securing your base and then reaching out to independents and other voters who aren’t hard partisans.
Every policy proposal during the campaign was in the service of his base. Since he has been President, the same has held true. From the so-called “travel ban” to his ban on transgendered people serving in the military to the Arpaio pardon, it’s all been a base play.
Trump appears to believe that the path to political success runs entirely through his base. And that he simply does not need to move to the middle or moderate in any meaningful way.
Add it all up and the pardoning of Sheriff Joe feels inevitable. Because, well, it was.