‘Sheriff Joe’ and Everyday American Authoritarianism

This is normal. Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

When progressives wish to express their darkest fears for what the Trump presidency could become, they often invoke the specter of 20th-century fascism. And, contrary to Godwin’s Law, the analogy has its merits. In the depths of its illiberalism, Donald Trump’s style of politics owes more to foreign autocrats than to his Republican predecessors. Our commander-in-chief has praised white nationalists, political violence against those who protest him, police brutality, torture, and the use of mass murder as an anti-drug policy. He has excoriated the very concept of an adversarial press, judicial review, the legitimacy of election results he does not like, and the independence of federal law enforcement. While Trump’s authoritarian instincts have, to this point, manifested far more in rhetoric than in policy, it’s still reasonable that some liberals feel compelled to remind their fellow citizens of where such rhetoric once took Europe.

If there is a problem with such allusions, it is not that they are inherently hyperbolic, but rather that they are unnecessarily remote. To see what racist, authoritarian tyranny would look like in the United States, liberals don’t need to look to Germany’s past — only deeper into their own nation’s present.

Trump offered progressives a potent reminder of this fact when he pardoned former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio last week. Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt for refusing to honor a court order. His office had made a regular practice of detaining its Latino constituents solely because they looked, to Arpaio’s (overwhelmingly white) deputies, like they weren’t legal U.S. residents. The judiciary said this was unconstitutional. Arpaio said (essentially) that he couldn’t care less — and then, so did the president of the United States.

The Arpaio pardon has been described as a scandal, and an attack on rule of law in the United States. And it is both those things. But beneath the recent headlines lies a bigger scandal — one that does not merely expose this president’s tolerance for racist lawlessness, but that of our criminal-justice system and broader society.

This scandal has been obscured by the fact that Arpaio was only held legally accountable for his practice of racial profiling. That profiling was heinous. But conservatives can fit such an offense comfortably into the perennial, mainstream debate over the trade-offs between security and (nonwhite people’s) civil liberties. So long as we focus exclusively on the offense that Arpaio was convicted of, mainstream publications can describe him as merely “controversial”; and we can all pretend that the only thing standing between Arpaio and justice was Donald J. Trump.

In truth, “America’s toughest sheriff” didn’t need Trump’s mercy to get away with his gravest crimes, only the justice system’s mindless deference to law enforcement, and our collective indifference to the suffering of the most vulnerable among us.

During his decades-long tenure as sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, Arpaio presided over (what he himself called) a “concentration camp,” where low-level offenders and undocumented immigrants were subjected to daily cruel and unusual punishments. In Tent City, men and women who’d been convicted of — or, in most cases, merely charged with — crimes like drug use, shoplifting, and working with false documents were forced to live outdoors, year-round. In the summer, they sweated through 130-degree temperatures; in winter, they shivered through frigid nights, barred, by rule, from wearing any form of jacket or coat; when it rained, water poured through holes in the tents, soaking them in their beds. Arpaio forced his prisoners to march in pink underwear, work in chain gangs, shower in boiling-hot water, and eat rotten food (the sheriff boasted about this last point). His guards forced them to suffer worse. As William Finnegan wrote in The New Yorker in 2009:

Thousands of lawsuits and legal claims alleging abuse have been filed against Arpaio’s department by inmates—or, in the case of deaths in detention, by their families. A federal investigation found that deputies had used stun guns on prisoners already strapped into a “restraint chair.” The family of one man who died after being forced into the restraint chair was awarded more than six million dollars as the result of a suit filed in federal court. The family of another man killed in the restraint chair got $8.25 million in a pre-trial settlement. (This deal was reached after the discovery of a surveillance video that showed fourteen guards beating, shocking, and suffocating the prisoner, and after the sheriff’s office was accused of discarding evidence, including the crushed larynx of the deceased.)

At least 157 of Arpaio’s prisoners died before they got out. At least a quarter of these deaths were the result of suicide — for nearly half of them, authorities provided no official cause of death whatsoever.

Arpaio’s reign of terror extended beyond his prison’s gates. His officers subjected Latino Arizonans — citizens and noncitizens alike — to routine harassment and abuse. For Arpaio’s forces, “racial profiling” could involve slamming a pregnant Latina citizen into a car three times, stomach first, for refusing to follow arbitrary orders; while being “tough on crime” could mean forcing an innocent suspect’s dog back into a burning house, and then leaving the canine’s corpse to rot for days in 100-degree heat.

If such practices made going about the activities of daily life terrifying for Arpaio’s Latino constituents (especially the undocumented ones), well, that was the point. As the sheriff told The New Yorker in 2009, “If they’re afraid to go to church, that’s good.”

In truth Arpaio was not tough on crime, in the conventional understanding of that term. Sheriff Joe preferred pursuing “illegals” — and publicity — over tracking down violent offenders. Among other deficiencies, his office neglected to investigate hundreds of reported sex crimes, even though many cases had workable leads.

The sheriff’s office was tough, however, on anyone who tried to hold it accountable for its abuses. Nathan J. Robinson deftly summarized this aspect of Arpaio’s tenure for Current Affairs:

Infamously, after a critical report on him had appeared in the Phoenix New-Times, Arpaio had his deputies stage late-night raids on the homes of the paper’s publishers, arresting them in front of their families. When the county Board of Supervisors cut Arpaio’s budget, Arpaio and the county attorney conspired to indict board members on dozens of bogus felony charges as an “anti-corruption initiative … When the wife of the mayor of Mesa criticized Arpaio, he immediately told a deputy: “We gotta raid Mesa again.” When the mayor of Guadalupe, one of the poorest cities in America, criticized Arpaio for an immigration raid in which he “descended on the town with multiple ‘command centers,’ approximately 100 deputies, and a helicopter,” Arpaio canceled the town’s policing services. When judges ruled against him, he filed racketeering lawsuits against them. When critical comments were made about Arpaio during the public-comment section of a board of supervisors meetings, audience members who applauded were arrested.

Arpaio’s lawlessness may have reached a peak of unhinged sociopathy in 1999, when, in a bid to boost his reelection hopes, he oversaw a plot to blackmail a man into trying to assassinate him. That man spent four years in jail before a jury ruled that he had been a victim of entrapment.

Arpaio’s myriad abuses cost Arizona taxpayers $140 million in fees for litigation and settlements. But the sheriff himself was rewarded with six terms and national fame. Had Trump declined to intervene, Arpaio would have faced, at most, six months in jail. More crucially: Had the sheriff agreed to restrict his cruelty to the boundaries of his “concentration camp” — when a court finally made that modest request in 2011 — he may have faced no criminal prosecution whatsoever for any of his deeds.

In blue America’s nightmare version of the Trump presidency, the mogul subordinates the rule of law to his own whims; uses his power to crack down on dissent; puts minorities into concentration camps; defies court orders; neglects the legitimate duties of his office; encourages police to terrorize marginalized communities; and, through it all, builds so much popular support that his political opponents are afraid to challenge him, while our cultural institutions helplessly normalize him — and he remains in power for decades.

All this, Joe Arpaio already accomplished on a smaller scale. For Maricopa County’s Latino residents, authoritarian tyranny already happened here. And throughout America’s prisons and most disadvantaged communities, it’s still happening.

Arpaio was never going to face criminal punishment for overseeing a prison where inmates had their human rights routinely abused — because we, as a nation, have decided that inmates have few rights that our society is bound to respect. Arpaio was comfortable subjecting his prisoners to life-threatening heat; we, as a nation, are comfortable subjecting them to the constant threat of sexual violence.

More than 80,000 people are sexually abused in U.S. prisons every year. This epidemic of rape has not been abetted by the public’s ignorance, but by its well-informed indifference. That America’s approach to “corrections” involves leaving convicts vulnerable to sexual violence from their fellow inmates and guards is not a secret, but a fact so widely understood — and serenely accepted — that indirect references to it function as ubiquitous punch lines in our popular culture.

While our carceral institutions are, at least, officially opposed to subjecting prisoners to rape, the same cannot be said for torture. As of this writing, American prisons are keeping tens of thousands of inmates in extended solitary confinement — a punishment that psychologists have deemed destructive to long-term mental health, and that the United Nations has declared a form of torture prohibited under international law. 

This, too, is widely understood and tacitly accepted. As is the fact that “the land of the free” incarcerates a greater proportion of its people than any other nation on Earth — and that members of historically oppressed racial groups are overrepresented among our prodigious prison population.

Meanwhile, in disempowered communities throughout the United States, police routinely violate the civil rights of those they’re meant to serve and protect. In Ferguson, Baltimore, and Chicago, the Obama Justice Department found that police regularly breached African-American residents’ constitutional rights. In these and countless other municipalities, law enforcement has recently made — or is currently making — a standard practice of subjecting the nonwhite population to stops without reasonable suspicion, arrests without probable cause, and, most infamously, the use of excessive force.

Our nation is not merely comfortable with such bastions of authoritarianism, but fiercely committed to maintaining them: The current president drew no small part of his electoral support from outrage at modest attempts to rein in the systemic abuse of African-Americans’ civil liberties.

Joe Arpaio’s lawlessness was more comprehensive and spectacular than that regularly practiced by (ostensibly) ordinary American prisons and police forces. But that does not make the latter’s tyranny any less real.

We are all taught that democracies give authoritarianism a foothold when they allow the rights of the marginalized to be suspended. Many of us had posters of the German pastor Martin Niemöller’s most famous poem on our classroom walls (“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist…). But we forget this wisdom when we treat Trump’s rise as an anomaly — or fail to connect it to the forms of illiberalism that are very much normal in our country.

Arpaio’s xenophobic demagoguery lay the groundwork for Trump’s — just as mainstream “tough on crime” politics lay the groundwork for Arpaio’s. First they came for the prisons and dispossessed nonwhite communities; then for Maricopa County; then the White House.

As progressives monitor the Trump administration for signs of creeping authoritarianism, we must keep an eye out for signs that it has already crept into our local prisons and precincts.

And if you see something, say something.

‘Sheriff Joe’ and Everyday American Authoritarianism