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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.

Those are the best-known parallels between the two politicians, but they're hardly the only ones. There are many other ways in which Arpaio has proved to be Trump's mini-me.

Arpaio has, for example, jailed journalists who wrote critical stories about his hidden commercial real estate transactions. Trump's antipathy for the media likewise goes beyond bashing us as "the enemy of the people" and threatening to "open up the libel laws" -- he reportedly asked the FBI director to fight leaks by throwing journalists in jail.

Or consider their preferred forms of pomp and circumstance.

For years as sheriff, Arpaio rode a giant tank in local parades. Trump hoped (but failed) to emulate this in his own inaugural parade in January. Trump also plans to issue an executive order expanding the militarization of local police forces, which Obama had rolled back.

Both Trump and Arpaio also have launched attacks on the independence of our federal judiciary.

Trump did this by, among other things, questioning the ability of a U.S.-born judge of Mexican descent to remain impartial in a Trump University case. Arpaio, for his part, refused a court order to stop racial profiling -- earning him a contempt-of-court conviction, the crime for which he was pardoned.

Before that, Arpaio secretly investigated a judge assigned to his trial, and then claimed that this same judge could not be impartial because the judge had learned about the politically motivated investigation.

Politically motivated investigations were actually a mainstay of Arpaio's law enforcement career, as well as Trump's campaign rallies ("Lock her up!"), while both claim to be victims of political witch hunts themselves.

And woe betide those who actually find themselves imprisoned under either's authority.

Trump throughout the presidential campaign repeatedly advocated torturing prisoners held abroad; Arpaio often acted on this brutal impulse in his own jails. He set up a "tent city," which he sometimes referred to as a "concentration camp," housing inmates in temperatures reaching up to 145 degrees; conditions got so hot that prisoners' shoes sometimes melted.

And at least three prisoners died -- each at the time held down in a "restraint chair" -- via suffocation.

Trump and the White House repeatedly alluded to 85-year-old Arpaio's advanced age when justifying his absolution, perhaps another reason that the oldest man to assume the presidency empathizes with the recipient of his first pardon.

Over the two years of his political life, Trump's insults have often been of the I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I projectional variety. Turns out his praise and clemency are, as well.

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Catherine Rampell's email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

(c) 2017, Washington Post Writers Group

 

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