The Problem with Arpaio

One of the more interesting books that I’ve run across has been Critchlow and MacLean’s Debating the American Conservative Movement: 1945 to the Present. Unlike most books on politics, it doesn’t point you to any specific conclusions, rather, Critchlow and MacLean debate, among other things, what they see as the motivating force behind the the conservative movement. Critchlow takes a sympathetic view, and emphasizes the good that the conservative movement has done; MacLean is less charitable, and has a tendency to ascribe more nefarious motives to what, on the surface, may seem like reasonable policy goals.

Of course, neither Critchlow or MacLean is able to account for all of the evidence, but the fact that they’re both able to martial some evidence doesn’t mean that their right, either: reality is large and complicated enough that if you wish to find something that at least seems to support your point of view, you’re probably going to be able to find it, even if it takes some misinterpretation of evidence and fallacious reasoning. 1 Arguments about what motivates people are rarely able to be completely resolved, but I would maintain that the best way to do it – and what Critchlow and MacLean are trying to do – is to build a coherent narrative, cite what they would argue are important original documents, and describe how the movement operates based on the motivations of the majority of the adherents of the movement.

MacLean’s and Critchlow’s main disagreement, as I understand it, is that when conservatives argue for something like, for example, the reduction of the welfare state, Critchlow would be more inclined to frame this in terms of fiscal responsibility, a desire to reduce deficit spending, the encouragement of fiscal responsibility, and all the sort of virtues that we routinely hear GOP candidates extol during campaign speeches. MacLean would be more inclined to see this in terms of how this policy would benefit the existing power structures – if something like this is seen as protecting business interests, or because it keeps minorities from breaking the cycle of poverty, or if this is only discussed because it increases voter turnout from white middle-class voters, then this should be treated with suspicion even if conservatives claim that they’re not doing it for these reasons.

On some intellectual level, it’s tempting to say that MacLean’s point is largely irrelevant, and that debates of policy would be more productive if we all agreed to debate policy only, instead of impugning the motivation of opponents. While that may be true in some ideal world, it misses a larger point about politics, though, and that is this: people act on what they perceive to be reality, and not reality itself, and so the perception of motivations matters very much. Policies have to work in the real world, but they also have to appeal to voters.

Besides, most careful observers of the conservative movement would admit that MacLean has a valid point: there are some elements of racism that do explain some GOP political positions.   While there are plenty of disagreements about how much the Southern Strategy actually influenced conservative positions – not to mention how much it still does – I think it’s safe to say that no one credible would deny that it somehow didn’t exist at all.

To the extent that MacLean has a point, though, it’s a point that conservatives would do well to consider: to the extent that racism, for example, is the motivating point behind any conservative policy positions, it should be taken apart and examined. There’s no room for this in a healthy conservative movement: candidates shouldn’t be willing to exploit these sort of features in order to win elections.

For years, however, there have been conservative intellectuals that have insisted that there wasn’t racial motivations behind policy proposals, and – and this is key – also insisted that these were not used to motivate the base. If voters were willing to support conservative policy proposals, it’s because they were good policy proposals, not because they were dog whistles for racist ideas.

If the election of President Trump made this position harder to defend, the pardon of Arpaio takes a sledgehammer to the base, and this is the first of two reasons why I believe that this pardon is one of the most revolting things that Trump enacted so far. Where MacLean’s point becomes impossible to rebut is when someone like Trump 2 does something that absolutely cannot be defended on policy grounds. There is no conservative reason for this pardon. There is no reason to issue it during a hurricane for higher ratings, there is no reason to do this without the involvement of the Department of Justice, and there is no reason to do it when it is quite clear that Arpaio is in no way apologetic for his egregious violations of the Constitution. What it does do is make it perfectly clear to everyone that cares to listen that Trump will do his best to bail out racists that engage in this sort of behavior.

Secondly, the GOP has claimed – for as long as I can remember – to be the party of law and order. This undercuts those claims: even within conservative policy positions, conservative skepticism of something like affirmative action – at its best, anyway – is based on the idea that we should all be given equal opportunity before the law. There should be no favorable treatment. The pardon of Arpaio stands this on its head: if the law prevents you from deporting as many Hispanics as you would like to, well, just throw the law out. That’s what Arpaio did, repeatedly, and this is what Trump apparently thinks is fine. This is what you need to know about the current state of the GOP, which has traditionally prided themselves on being the law-and-order party: their leader fired James Comey and pardoned Joe Arpaio.

This pardon makes it clear to minorities that they are not welcome in the GOP. It undermines any claim that the Republicans have to being the party of law and order. It does lasting harm to the reputation of the GOP, and it embarrasses conservative intellectuals. This will do long-term harm to Republicans, and this pardon should be condemned by all of them, as loudly and as boisterously as possible.


  1. If you’d like to see some rather spectacular examples of this, I would invite you to search YouTube for videos describing why the earth is flat.
  2. I realize that Trump isn’t a conservative, but now, I’m conflating the ideas of “Republican” and “Conservative” and “Trump” – even though I don’t believe that they are the same thing, most of society uses it to refer to the same phenomenon now.

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