Maisei Raman

Opinion

Criminal Campaigns: Why the GOP Is No Longer the Party of Law and Order

Vice President Mike Pence makes news about as often as fire hydrants piss on dogs, which is probably wise when your boss is the world's biggest mastiff. That's all the more true now that the president has secured a meeting with North Korea's supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, on June 12. Even so, it's still a midterm year, which is why we find it necessary to recognize how, earlier this month, Pence hailed ex-Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who’s currently running for U.S. Senate, as a “tireless champion” of “the rule of law.” Really? Maybe we should be grateful that the Veep stopped short of saying that nobody ever went hungry raiding Jeffrey Dahmer’s fridge.

He’d have been on safer ground if he had. Unless you’re some kind of picky vegan, that claim is at least hypothetically true. By contrast, Pence was certainly aware that "Sheriff Joe," as Arizonans know him, was convicted of criminal contempt last July for ignoring a federal court order to stop his aggressive racial profiling of Latinos. Long before then, his idea of industrious police work was notorious nationwide for its white-supremacist bigotry and brutality. He once told CNN it was an “honor” to be compared to the Ku Klux Klan.

Even Maricopa County finally got enough of him and tossed him out in 2016, largely thanks to the Latino voters he’d motivated like nobody’s business. He was facing a potential six months in the slammer when Donald J. Trump pardoned him in August, after gleefully teasing the MAGA crowd at a rally in Phoenix by saying, “I’ll make a prediction. I think he’s going to be just fine, okay?” Arpaio announced his Senate bid early this year. “I think I can bring some new blood to Washington,” he told the New York Times.

All he’ll need to do to make good on that hope is to not wash his hands. No garden-variety sadist, Arpaio kept ill-fed prisoners in an outdoor “Tent City” where temperatures rose to 145 degrees and their shoes melted from the heat. He—not his critics—was the one who proudly called it a “concentration camp.” A staggering 160 or so people have died in his custody over the years.

That’s the man that much of Trumpland now considers a martyr and a hero. But no matter what East Coast libtards imagine, “Trumpland” and “Arizona” aren’t synonymous. Both of its current senators may be Republicans, but neither Jeff Flake (who’s retiring) or John McCain (who’s dying) is a Trump supporter. Trump only won the state by four points in 2016, a far cry from his 28-point advantage in, just for instance, Alabama. Thanks to Roy Moore’s peculiar idea of courting the youth vote—it really helps when they’re over 18 years old, Judge—Alabama’s newest senator is a Democrat.

Trumpism is about keeping millions of (white) Americans feeling permanently aggrieved, besieged, alienated and hostile to institutional government in all its forms.

That’s why the state’s GOP leadership, not to mention Mitch McConnell, aren’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of Arpaio winning the August 28 Republican primary. He’d almost certainly be running against three-term Democratic Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema, who’s moderate enough to have a good chance of prevailing even against a Republican opponent less extremist and divisive than Sheriff Joe. Flipping Arizona blue could be fatal to McConnell’s already precarious Senate majority.

From that perspective, Pence’s virtual endorsement of Arpaio almost four months before primary day makes very little sense. But the care and feeding of Trump’s base, which eats divisive extremism for breakfast, lunch and dinner —just not brunch, because that would be elitist—no longer has much relationship to the pragmatic business of winning elections. In its purest form, Trumpism is about keeping millions of (white) Americans feeling permanently aggrieved, besieged, alienated and hostile to institutional government in all its forms.

Dating back to the 1791 Whiskey Rebellion, that attitude is one of this country’s most venerable addictions. (It hasn’t always been confined to right-wingers, as any aging 1960s leftist can tell you.) But even Ronald Reagan, who won the White House by demonizing government as the problem, not the solution, was smart enough to substitute occasional zaps of methadone for raw heroin once he was in office. Whatever you think of him, Trump doesn’t do methadone.

One reason he can cater to his constituency as irresponsibly as he does is that his scornful indifference to governance is unfeigned. Another is that he’s never understood or cared about the difference between having a constituency and having an audience. To that constituency—or audience—Sheriff Joe’s contempt conviction is a merit badge, not a disqualifier. It just proves that “they” were out to get him, making his guilt either irrelevant or a contradiction in terms. Since an awful lot of Trump voters don’t see anything objectionable in racial profiling, which is putting it mildly, defying a court order to stop the practice looks heroic to them, not criminal.

Arpaio isn’t even the only right-winger to leverage a perp walk into a run for office this year. As a Washington Post headline primly put it last week, “Crimes Are No Longer A Disqualification For Republican Candidates.” In New York, former GOP congressman Michael Grimm, who did eight months in the pen for tax evasion, is talking up his status as a convicted felon in his current re-election campaign to demonstrate he’s got the right enemies: Obama, the Department of Justice. In West Virginia, mine owner Don Blankenship, who spent a year in prison for violating mine-safety laws after 29 of his employees got killed in a mine explosion, just barely lost his Senate primary bid to oppose Democratic incumbent Joe Manchin this fall.

Besides giving a fresh meaning to the old cliche about having the courage of your convictions, all three have explicitly identified themselves with Trump. “I can read his mind without even talking to him. I think he may be reading mine,” Arpaio has said. (He’s serious, too; he wonders if “telepathy” is involved.) Upping the ante, Blankenship claims he’s “Trumpier than Trump.” Lowering it, but not by much, Grimm says the federal investigation that led to his indictment on 20 counts of fraud, tax evasion, and making false statements under oath was “almost identical to what the president has been going through.”

If the likes of Arpaio, Blankenship and Grimm can pass themselves off as victims of a system wickedly rigged against them, not malefactors, you know who’s most responsible for normalizing the idea.

Welcome to the Republican Party’s version of #MeToo. Once Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation got underway, Trump set out to discredit our legal system purely to save his own skin, and he plainly doesn’t care what kind of wreckage he’ll leave behind. But going by these three cases, not only is the tactic working. At least inside Trumpland, it’s no longer working only for him, because anyone campaigning for office as a Trump ally can now turn running afoul of the feds into a boast. Even George W. Bush’s most ardent Capitol Hill boosters didn’t triumphantly dig up their own youthful drunk-driving rap sheets to prove they were on Team Dubya, but times have changed.

Trump himself waited until the day before West Virginia’s primary to tepidly (by his standards) urge the state’s GOP voters to “remember Alabama” and back one of Blankenship’s more electable primary opponents instead. But one proof his heart wasn’t in it was that he didn’t specify which one, all but guaranteeing the plea would be ineffectual. Anyway, starting with Blankenship himself, everybody realized that this was Mitch McConnell talking, not their Donald, and shrugged. Trump’s base has learned to be forgiving about his occasional, grudging concessions to dreary Establishment wisdom. Those lapses never mean much, and the real Trump is always back in the saddle soon enough.

In fact, he launched a fresh attack on Mueller’s investigation the same day, threatening legal action to expose the “conflicts of interest” among the “13 Angry Democrats in charge of the Russian Witch Hunt.” (It gets tiresome to keep repeating this, but Mueller is a rock-ribbed Republican.) That was a useful reminder that nobody has done more than he has to foster the toxic belief that his own Justice Department can’t be trusted to be impartial—and indeed, he’s made it clear that, in his perfect world, it wouldn’t be. He just thinks the DoJ’s job should be to protect him and smite his enemies: in other words, exactly the same “politically motivated” use of the law he’s pretending is now working against him.

One reason he’s getting away with it is that his whole Alamo-on-the-Potomac routine taps into a deep and long-standing right-wing fantasy that they’re being persecuted—even though, as in Arpaio’s case, they’ve frequently been the ones doing the persecuting. (It’s downright uncanny how the pernicious mindset right-wingers routinely attribute to those demon liberals—cults of victimhood, identity politics, noxious grievances, special rights and so on—actually describes their own world-view to a T.) But that chronic persecution complex has never been expressed —and personalized—to this extent by a sitting president of the United States before. If the likes of Arpaio, Blankenship and Grimm can pass themselves off as victims of a system wickedly rigged against them, not malefactors, you know who’s most responsible for normalizing the idea.

Don’t blame us if we’re nostalgic for the days when the GOP used to tout itself as the party of law and order, no matter how often that was code for the sort of racially charged “justice” Arpaio brought to Maricopa County. These days, we seem to be watching a whole political party going rogue, including the Capitol Hill Republicans industriously abetting Trump’s attempt to delegitimize the Justice Department and the FBI. The Trump voters who not so secretly don’t see anything wrong with Russia’s interference in the 2016 election so long as it helped Trump get elected aren’t much farther down the list. By now, it may make no difference in Trumpland if Mueller proves he’s a criminal; even his impeachment and conviction wouldn’t dissuade Trump’s base from thinking he’s a martyr to the cause and not a crook. Figuratively speaking, at least—well, let’s hope so—his famous claim that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue without alienating his supporters may turn out to be the most prescient prediction he’s ever made in his life.

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