Trump Won't Back Down

What the president is saying by pardoning America’s second-most famous birther

 Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio supported Donald Trump’s birther crusade and presidential campaign. Now, Trump has pardoned Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt for violating a federal court order.
Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio supported Donald Trump’s birther crusade and presidential campaign. Now, Trump has pardoned Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt of court. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

At 11:46 a.m. on Friday, August 25, President Trump issued the first of what would become a sequence of 12 tweets that day about the government’s readiness for Hurricane Harvey.

Seldom if ever before in his tenure has this president so publicly performed the role of chief executive: the demonstrations of command, the expressions of concern for the wellbeing of citizens. The one obviously false note was the performance itself. Perhaps a president truly immersed in disaster preparations might not have so much time available for social media? Still, a good show.

And then, at exactly 10 p.m. came the show’s kicker: the late-night mid-hurricane reveal of the real business of the day, the pardon of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Who and what Arpaio is—and why he was convicted of a misdemeanor count of contempt of court—is a story you probably already know. (If not, a good place to begin is with this Twitter thread posted by the Phoenix New Times, an alt-weekly newspaper that has long covered the controversial former sheriff.)  Along with ferocious abuses of his law-enforcement powers in Maricopa County, Arpaio also made a name for himself as America’s second-most famous Obama Birther, next only to the current president of the United States. You’ll hear a lot more about all this in the next 48 hours.

But you probably won’t hear about it on cable television, not with a hurricane raging. President Trump timed this pardon for what a compulsive TV viewer would regard as maximum stealth, for a time when the imperatives of viewership demand non-stop coverage of the dangers and drama of a great storm. Then will come the aftermath: the heart-rending stories of loss; the harrowing stories of survivorship. Then the storm will pass, the untelegenic work of rebuilding will commence, and it will be next week, and soon after that back to school—and time for the president to generate new dramas.

Donald Trump, a showman who understands better than any of his recent predecessors how to seize and command the nation’s attention, will have applied that same showman’s talent to a diversion of attention from a story he would prefer that most Americans not hear about.

At the beginning of the Trump presidency, I quoted a wise observer from Hungary: “The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty.”  Trump has exhibited what that power of protection can do.

Here’s what he will accomplish while most of the nation follows the all-absorbing human drama from the Gulf Coast:

1. He has intervened in the Senate race he cares about most in the whole 2018 cycle—boosting enthusiasm among the die-hard Republicans who back Kelli Ward in her primary challenge against the incumbent senator Jeff Flake. Ward is an Arpaio supporter. Meanwhile, Flake, an Arpaio non-fan in a pro-Arpaio party, has been thrust into an awkward middle position. “Regarding the Arpaio pardon, I would have preferred that the President honor the judicial process and let it take its course,” Flake tweeted Friday night. Flake may be the GOP’s best hope to hold the Arizona seat in a difficult electoral year. Trump does not think in those terms. Instead, Trump notices that Flake has opposed him and criticized him. So Flake must be destroyed, regardless of consequences for Senate Republicans or even Trump’s own longer-term interests. In that goal, Trump has just succeeded.
2. The president has proven that he is master within his own White House. It is hard to imagine that anybody in the White House—even his deferential White House counsel Don McGahn—could have advised or approved this provocative pardon of an unrepentant defier of court orders. Obviously the pardon could not have flowed through the usual presidential review process. That process is, among other things, slow: President Obama issued his first round of pardons on December 31, 2010, almost two full years into his presidency; George W. Bush not until May 20, 2004; nearly three-and-a-half years into his.
3. Trump has given hope to anyone implicated in his own scandals that—if they keep loyal to him—he will defy all other considerations and ignore all contrary advice to protect them. Like his presidency, Trump’s pardons will be a one-man show, conducted without regard to ethical niceties or even ordinary political calculations. That must come as reassuring news to a whole host of characters embroiled in the Russia probe.
4. He has punched back against the Joshua Green book that so irritated him by portraying Steve Bannon as the political mastermind of Trump’s rev-up-the-racists campaign strategy. Here is Bannonism without Bannon. Take that, Joshua Green!
You may think, It’s impossible that a president of the United States would be so vain and petty. You would be wrong.
5. He has delivered his favorite of all political and personal messages: No apology, no matter how wrong I was! Donald Trump plays “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at his rallies, but a better anthem for him would be Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” Tell him his response to the tragedy in Charlottesville was humanly and politically wrong, that he made a serious moral mistake that needs to be corrected, and watch him do it all over again. Only more so. And in a way to prove that even if his actions the first time weren’t intentional, this time they are.
6. Trump has bolted himself back to his political base, defying all mainstream opinion. It’s not just a matter of appealing to nativist voters, although Donald Trump is always glad to do that. Many conservative voters who are not especially nativist will rally to the Arpaio pardon too. Conservatism has been leaking its ideological contents for a long time now, and the Trump experience has ejected whatever little remained. Yet conservative voters remain passionately attached to Donald Trump, at least as compared with anyone else in politics, as a recent poll from George Washington University demonstrates. Among Republicans in Republican districts, 53 percent complained their member of Congress was not doing enough to support President Trump; only 4 percent complained that the representative was doing “too much.”
How can this be, given how little Trump has accomplished from a conservative point of view? No Obamacare repeal, no significant budget changes, no tax reform or tax cut, no border wall. Other than a Supreme Court appointment that would have been done by any Republican president, really nothing at all. Except this, from a columnist at the conservative Townhall site to 115,000 Twitter followers:

If it weren’t for the atavistic hatreds—and of course the micro-targeted paybacks to favored lobbying constituencies—not much would remain in the Trump era of the party of Reagan and the Bushes. But the hatreds still rage hot and fierce, and having been powered into the presidency by them once, Donald Trump hopes he can do it again. After all, what other choice does he have? Not only because he has accomplished nothing better, but because it’s not in his nature even to imagine what that “better” could look like.