Like many of you this summer, I found myself scrolling through headlines, peaking through the cracks of my fingers, anxious to see what the next bombshell would be from our current commander in chief, Donald Trump. If it wasn’t one thing, it most certainly was another. We saw him escalate nuclear tensions with North Korea, ban transgender Americans from serving in the military despite an ongoing assessment of the matter by Defense Sec. Jim Mattis, and a massive failure to adequately condemn the bigotry on display by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
So, on Friday — the night before a Category 4 storm was set to hit the coast of Texas — it came as no surprise that Trump was choosing to focus on a different issue. In this case, it was to pardon his old ally Joe Arpaio. Arpaio is a former Arizona sheriff who was convicted of criminal contempt of court last month after a federal judge ordered him to stop detaining people based on mere suspicion of their immigration status, according to The New York Times. Seems like quite the disregard for law and order coming from a man who dubbed himself “the law and order candidate” during last year’s election.
For those of you not familiar with Arpaio’s track record, here’s a summary. In the 90s, Arpaio made a name for himself by banning coffee, cigarettes and sex magazines for inmates in Maricopa County, while also forcing some of them to wear pink underwear and stay in tents during the summers in Arizona. His staff has also been accused of racist abuse, needless intimidation and the fatal mistreatment of prisoners, according to The NYT.
More recently, though, Arpaio is known as a champion of the “birther” movement, which claimed former President Barack Obama’s birth certificate was fake, and that he was not a lawful U.S. citizen. Arpaio even went so far as to send a group of his deputies to Hawaii — Obama’s home state — to check on the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate. President Trump was a well-known proponent of this bogus theory, as well, at one point praising Arpaio’s initiative.
“Congratulations to @RealSheriffJoe on his successful Cold Case Posse investigation which claims @BarackObama’s ‘birth certificate’ is fake,” Trump tweeted in 2012, according to The Washington Post.
More troubling still is Arpaio’s hard-line stance on immigration, which prompted the Justice Department to accuse him of operating his office with a “pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos” in 2011. Later on, a federal judge would rule these practices had violated the constitutional rights of Latinos, according to The NYT. But Arpaio and his staff continued their racist practices under the guise of a moral fight against illegal immigration, landing him with his criminal contempt charge and an eventual pardon from a president known for his similar stance on immigration.
With all the elements of this shameless display of cronyism aside, it is important to understand the message that President Trump is sending with this pardon. This is especially the case when the move is put in context with his lackluster condemnation of white supremacists, which vocal Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer said only a dumb person would take seriously, according to Politico.
And that message is this: Trump isn’t on the side of the majority of Americans who thought his response to Charlottesville was not strong enough, according to an NPR poll. When it comes to the problems our country faces with white supremacy, he isn’t even neutral on the matter. His actions — or lack thereof — over the past few weeks have been an olive branch to his white supremacist supporters. A silent nod to the groups he emboldened which reassures them that they have a friend in high places. Even if he must remain mostly silent on the matter, his actions speak louder than his words.