The longer-lasting problem is that the nation is wrestling once again with its founding injustice: the unequal application of state power, on differential racial grounds. That was the essential logic of slavery, and after it of Jim Crow and legalized segregation. Joe Arpaio is a symbol of using state power to maintain racial advantages and disadvantages. If you think this is overstated, please read the New Times account and the many references it links to, or this report on Judge Snow’s findings.
And at this moment, in these circumstances, this is the man Donald Trump has chosen to praise, and to protect. The symbolism is exactly as clear as if Lyndon Johnson had gone out of his way in the 1960s to pardon Southern sheriffs or mayors who were intimidating civil-rights protestors. But of course Lyndon Johnson didn’t do that. It would have sent a dangerously bad message, a message like the one Americans have just received from Donald Trump.
Update: An astute reader points out one complication in my statement that the Arpaio case was the first time someone was pardoned for “using state power toward racist ends.” What about — wait for it — Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy? He was pardoned by none other than Jimmy Carter, and during the time when I was on Carter’s White House staff.
That is an intriguing case, but I think its full context underscores the cruelty and divisiveness of what Trump has just done.
For one thing, Carter was signing a Congressional resolution recommending that “full citizenship rights” be restored to Jeff Davis. He wasn’t just going on his own, like Trump. For another, Carter presented the decision in terms very different from Trump’s. (Yes, this is the kind of signing-statement that my speechwriting colleagues and I would have been involved in.) You might compare the tone of Carter’s statement with Trump’s exultation about his friend Sheriff Joe:
In posthumously restoring the full rights of citizenship to Jefferson Davis, the Congress officially completes the long process of reconciliation that has reunited our people following the tragic conflict between the States. Earlier, he was specifically exempted form resolutions restoring the rights of other officials in the Confederacy. He had served the United States long and honorably as a soldier, Member of the U.S. House and Senate, and as Secretary of War. General Robert E. Lee's citizenship was restored in 1976. It is fitting that Jefferson Davis should no longer be singled out for punishment.
Our Nation needs to clear away the guilts and enmities and recriminations of the past, to finally set at rest the divisions that threatened to destroy our Nation and to discredit the principles on which it was founded. Our people need to turn their attention to the important tasks that still lie before us in establishing those principles for all people.
Bonus update: Other readers have pointed out that in 1868 Andrew Johnson granted “Full Pardon and Amnesty for the Offense of Treason Against the United States During the Late Civil War,” which of course also involved the use of state power toward racist ends. This actually strengthens the case against the Arpaio pardon—Andrew Johnson was an abysmally bad president, this decision was one of his many ways in which he empowered the post-Civil War white resistance in the South—but it might be more precise to say that Trump’s decision is the worst of its sort in nearly 150 years.