Pardoning the racist, ex-Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio was a win-win for Donald Trump.
First, by overturning a judge’s decision to punish the controversial lawman, Trump had the satisfaction of putting the federal courts in their place after judges had repeatedly shot down Trump’s anti-immigrant Muslim ban as discriminatory and unconstitutional. And so, when a federal judge found Arpaio in criminal contempt for ignoring the court’s order to stop tormenting Latino residents based on looks alone, Trump was only too happy to weigh in that Arpaio was just “doing his job” when he and his deputies engaged in racial profiling.
Second, by tacitly condoning the former sheriff’s racist behavior, Trump’s pardon amounted to “a presidential endorsement of racism,” said the ACLU, as Trump chose “lawlessness over justice, division over unity, hurt over healing.”
Could it be that what Trump has in mind is a Trump-brand version of the GOP’s infamous “Southern Strategy,” only this one bigger, better and more "beautiful" than the original? Inquiring minds want to know.
With seven months of Trumpian outrages piling higher every day, I don’t think it ludicrous to wonder if Trump is now upset he won the presidency since the daily demands of that office leave him little spare time for indulging his obvious enthusiasm, which is to incite populist tantrums against elites like bankers, senators, judges, the media -- in short, any group that has the power to hold Trump accountable for his bad behavior.
In an op-ed earlier this week, New York Times columnist Charles Blow spoke for a growing number of concerned citizens when he insisted that Trump has no interest in leading the country as our president but instead has gone out of his way to tailor his presidency to satisfy the whims of the “white racial-grievance tribe," otherwise known as Trump’s most loyal “base.”
Nothing Trump has done since inauguration day six months ago makes sense from the perspective of a president who has a policy agenda he wants to get through. Indeed, Trump’s indiscretions are counterproductive to those ends. How, for example, does it move the ball forward to repeatedly insult, both publicly and in private, the leaders of the House and Senate who Trump will surely need for those “wins” he so often craves?
In contrast, Trump’s erratic behavior makes perfect sense for a president who seems bored with the compromises and glacial pace of serious legislating but is almost giddy when leading a protest movement to restore white Christians to what they see as their rightful place atop America’s social hierarchy. Nothing else explains why Trump would hold a campaign rally in a red-state like Arizona and then spend nearly all his time feeding the idol-worshiping crowd a steady diet of white resentment.
The most chilling thing Trump said during his 77-minute tirade in the desert, was his assertion that those taking down or relocating Confederate statues are intent on taking away “our” history and “our” culture. That public service announcement in support of treason and sedition came shortly after he put Neo-Nazis and the KKK on an equal moral footing with those protesting racism when he said that both were equally to blame for the protests in Virginia that turned deadly.
Blow’s colleague at the Times, Thomas Edsell, says it’s impossible to understand the Trump presidency without factoring in the role that race played in his election.
Issues such as immigration, civil rights for women and minorities, the election of the nations’ first black president, and the approaching end of white majority status in the US – all these factors combined, said Edsell, to create “a political environment ripe for the growth of white identity politics.”
There is no question that Trump exploited racial animosities to get elected. But Edsell said it is important to distinguish between hardcore white supremacists and “white identifiers” who are driven less by racial antagonism than by anger at their sense of lost status. Trump was speaking to both factions of his base when he said there were some “very nice people” marching alongside the Klansmen and Neo-Nazis who’d descended on Virginia to stop the removal of Confederate statues.
When more than one-third of the white electorate describe their racial identity as either “very important” or “extremely important” to their political worldview, the ingredients for a reactionary, race-based backlash are there for the taking by any shameless demagogue, like Trump, who wants to exploit them.
Many of us who have watched with growing alarm over the past 25 years as the Republican Party has marched with parade-ground precision to the anti-democratic right, have little sympathy for those Republicans who unleashed these dark and malevolent forces to get elected and now find themselves prisoners of their own demagoguery.
Today’s Republican Party is the latest victim of a stubborn political truth, namely that every major party throughout American history that tried to add race-based Southern conservatism to its governing coalition has either been seriously damaged or destroyed by the effort.
The South’s parochial tribalism split the Whig Party in two before the Civil War and rendered the Democratic Party badly weakened in national affairs for more than 50 years after as Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson were the only two Democrats elected president during this long stretch of post-war years.
Nearer to our own time, Southern conservatism tore apart the Democratic Party in 1948 when every Southern state walked out on Harry Truman’s Democrats to form the separate Dixiecrat Party in protest of Truman’s desegregation of the army and the Democratic Party’s growing embrace of civil rights.
In 1964, the “Solid Democratic South” voted solidly Republican after Barry Goldwater announced his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of that year. In 1968, Southern Democrats helped Richard Nixon win the presidency when they cheered George Wallace’s race-based, third-party campaign instead of Hubert Humphry and the Democrats. That same year saw coordinated efforts by Republicans to win over the hearts and minds of Wallace supporters. It was this notorious “Southern Strategy” that eventually forged today’s “Solid Republican South.”
It’s true that reactionary conservatism exists throughout the nation. But for historical reasons, right wing viewpoints about group solidarity and ethnic purity have sunk deeper roots in the South than anyplace else. The present dispute over the fate of Confederate statues is just one manifestation of a party whose highest priority is to preserve the interests, identity and supremacy of the one cultural subgroup the South has in abundance -- white Christians.
Nearly a half century of pandering to Southern conservative prejudices has left Republicans with a protest party, not a governing one, as we’re learning every day from the GOP's racial inciter-in-chief, Donald Trump.
What we may be witnessing as the Republican Party wages war with itself, is the arrival of that day of reckoning when Republicans are forced to pay a steep price for their self-defeating strategy of finding political success with far-right reactionaries, whether they reside in the South or some place else.
Political coalitions are fragile organic compounds. They consist of similar, but different, elements that combine for shared purposes. Only too late would Republicans discover that their coalition-building strategy was in shambles since, among Southern reactionaries, assimilation and cooperation are code words for surrender.
Only too late would Republicans learn that the representative voice of their new Dixified political party belonged to disgraced House Majority Leader Tom Delay of Texas, who once told fellow Republicans in his grudging farewell address that: “It is not the principled partisan, however obnoxious he may seem to his opponents, who degrades our public debate, but the preening, self-styled statesmen who elevate compromise to a first principle. For true statesmen are not defined by what they compromise -- but by what they don't.”
With attitudes like that, it is little wonder that in a national survey conducted not that long ago, Republicans said, by an overwhelming 66 to 33 percent margin, they preferred leaders who stuck to their principles no matter what rather than compromise on anything with the other side. The ratio was reversed for Democrats who said they preferred compromise to obstruction.
The changing nature of the Republican Party resembles a snake shedding its outer skin as it grows. Instead of sanding down the rough edges of this reactionary movement’s most provocative positions so that Republicans could add this movement to the party’s pre-existing national coalition, the GOP has been largely reshaped and re-engineered to reflect the ugliest pathologies of Old South conservatism itself.