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Trump may see himself in Joe Arpaio

Catherine Rampell on

WASHINGTON -- There are lots of compelling reasons not to pardon the country's most famous racist in the middle of a hurricane.

So why exactly did President Trump decide to pardon Joe Arpaio?

Maybe, some speculated, Trump wanted to toss some red meat to his base. Trump's recent Phoenix campaign-rally crowd practically frothed at the mouth when he hinted at a coming pardon of the former Maricopa County sheriff. As Trump's overall approval hovers around 35 percent, a high-profile pardon of a notorious racial profiler might be a way to shore up his support.

But Trump had also previously pursued more behind-the-scenes moves to help Arpaio avoid facing justice, as my Washington Post colleagues reported over the weekend. Which suggests that public credit may not have been the primary goal.

Others speculated that the pardon was about rewarding a longtime ally for his loyalty. Arpaio was, after all, one of the first politicians to board the Trump train. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions was also among Trump's earliest political supporters, and loyalty alone did not shield him from public torment and humiliation at the hands of the president.

Another popular theory is that the pardon was a signal to other Trump confederates coming into special counsel Robert Mueller's orbit that the president will protect them.

In my view, the most likely explanation for this stomach-churning pardon is much simpler: It's projection. Trump sees himself -- or what he sometimes aspires to accomplish, anyway -- in this local tin-pot dictator.

Think about it. Trump has not exactly proved himself to be the forward-looking, calculating mastermind implied by those alternative explanations. And he makes everything -- including the Charlottesville violence, the Houston catastrophe, even the eclipse -- about himself.

Trump and Arpaio both built their political careers by demonizing immigrants. They also both raised their national profiles by claiming that Barack Obama was secretly a Kenyan-born Muslim, a racist conspiracy theory that Arpaio even sent a taxpayer-funded deputy to Hawaii to investigate.

And more broadly they both seem to use "law and order" as code for encouraging law enforcement to harass people of color.

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