The Arpaio Story Exposes a Deeper Rot in America

by Neil H. Buchanan

Donald Trump's pardon of former Maricopa County (Arizona) Sheriff Joseph Arpaio will almost surely sink into the morass of outrages that somehow seem to cancel each other out, rather than accumulating in the public's mind.  That in itself is an indictment of our political system.

Before that happens, however, we should use this opportunity to take notice of just how corrupt a system of government has to be for someone like Arpaio to have done what he did, for as long as he did it, and with the impunity that he enjoyed.

Even though Trump's pardon was an affront to simple decency, and even though that pardon might well be the next big leap toward Trump's goal of becoming an unchecked dictator,  the deeper issue that the Arpaio story should also force us to confront is the failure of accountability (and basic reasoning) at all levels of government in this country.

The citizens and politicians of Maricopa County, the citizens and politicians of Arizona, local and national Republicans, and ultimately all of us allowed a monster to terrorize innocent people for decades.  What is wrong with us?

Before getting back into the grim details of the Arpaio story, however, a short digression will be useful.  In a classic click-bait-and-switch headline this past weekend, The Washington Post offered this: "Letting Teens Sleep In Would Save the Country Roughly $9 Billion a Year."

As the headline writers surely intended, I began to read the story, thinking that it would be light fare about some bogus study where teenagers say that they should be allowed to sleep until noon.  Instead, the article examined a fascinating new study by researchers at RAND that showed that starting the school day no earlier than 8:30am would almost immediately (that is, in two years) pay for itself, and then some.

It turns out that early school starting times predictably are "a significant public health problem," linked to car crashes and reduced academic performance.  And this is not based on some random study by someone looking for publicity.  The article cites recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics in support of the RAND researchers' conclusions.

The quantifiable benefits of reducing that significant public health problem would more than outweigh the costs of adding more school buses and installing lights for after-school activities -- again, in only two years.

Here is the big takeaway: "Co-author Marco Hafner added that the rapid return on investment from implementing the change is 'unprecedented in economic terms.'"  That is, even when economists like me tout the benefits of public investment, we never expect to see such immediate payoffs to any policy initiative.  The nature of investment all but requires longer time frames.  This study's findings are, in short, astounding.

Even so, my first thought after reading the article was simple: "That's never going to be happen."  Based on everything that I know about this country's decision making processes, it is impossible for me to imagine that people and their representatives are going to believe the study or act on it.

True, some pockets of sanity like Ithaca, New York, have responded to the evidence and changed their school schedules accordingly.  Those isolated examples aside, it seems clear that the public's suspicion of experts will combine with their refusal to consider changing long-established norms to kill any broad-based move to save lives and improve education.

In short, people can be relied upon to reject out of hand perfectly good policies, not for any good reason but simply because of groupthink and inertia.

Now consider the problems that arise when we try to change law enforcement practices.  Earlier this summer, Trump decided to tell a police force on Long Island not to be "too nice" to criminal suspects.  The good news is that police leaders across the country quickly denounced Trump's suggestion, and Trump's spinners quickly claimed that he had been merely making a joke.

The bad news is that this is something that Trump thinks is funny.  While I continue to reject the abuse of the word "genius" to describe Trump's political instincts, there is no doubt that he is able to link to a particularly dark view of the world that he shares with a politically potent non-majority of the population.  (I say non-majority rather than minority because I am sure that Trump would not want to be associated with minorities -- and vice versa.)

And it is those people to whom Trump is appealing with the pardon of Arpaio.  What is even worse, however, is that the national revulsion to the pardon has focused almost exclusively on the question of what it means about Trump.

Again, I understand that.  Trump is the president, and what he is doing is truly dangerous.  But we need to think carefully about what Arpaio's career means about our ability as a nation to deal with even the most obvious and extreme problems facing us.

By now, the press has complied a sort of "greatest hits" of Arpaio's barbarism.  In my first column about the pardon, I quoted part of a long list provided by Harper's, including abuses of people who were not convicted of any crimes, the breaking of a paraplegic prisoner's neck, and a female prisoner's delivery of a baby while in shackles.

With a seemingly bottomless well of stories about the depravity over which Arpaio presided, the one that broke my heart the most was the time in 2004 when Arpaio's department sent a SWAT team to break into the house of a man who was wanted on a misdemeanor warrant for "a couple of traffic citations."

Why is that one so memorable?  Because during the operation, the house caught fire, and when the owners tried to call their puppy from the house, Arpaio's officers blasted the puppy in the face with a fire extinguisher to force it back into the house, where it burned to death.

Amazingly, I cannot say that this is definitely the most vicious thing on the bill of particulars against Arpaio, but it certainly is stomach churning.  Moreover, it is the kind of thing that ought to have gotten some negative attention.  Yet according to the Phoenix New Times, "the Arizona Republic, where Arpaio's son-in-law, Phil Boas, serves as deputy editor of the editorial pages, buried the story in a community section," while another local paper "ignored it entirely."

Even though that particular story (and most of the others, including a false-arrest case from 1999 in which Arpaio framed a man for supposedly trying to kill the sheriff, causing the innocent man to spend four years behind bars) was not well known to the public, Arpaio's reputation as "America's Worst Sheriff" certainly was.

Indeed, it was Arpaio's reputation as a racist and an anti-immigration vigilante that brought him to Trump's attention.  If people knew nothing else about Arpaio, they knew that he hates immigrants and that he thinks that he is above the law.  No wonder Trump loves him.

And even if the good people of Maricopa County were not sickened by Arpaio's shamelessness and thuggish tactics, they were also paying for his illegal activities, to the tune of $141 million in (disclosed) settlements from taxpayer funds.  One might think that this would get some attention.

Arpaio's story, then, is not limited to his refusal to obey the 2011 federal court order banning Arpaio's blatant racial profiling -- a case that actually began in 2007 but took ten years to reach the point where Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt.

Arpaio, we must recall, was the sheriff of Maricopa County for twenty-four years.  Less than four months after the incident with the puppy that I described above, Arpaio was reelected to his fourth term in office.  He was reelected twice more, in 2008 and 2012, before finally losing last year.  Public condemnation of animal abuse quite appropriately derailed an NFL quarterback's career, but even as only one part of a parade of horribles, burning a puppy alive did not stop people from voting for Arpaio again and again.

Even if Trump had not pardoned the unrepentant bigot, justice delayed is surely justice denied for Arpaio's countless victims.

Again, long before Trump came along, local voters were perfectly happy to reelect a monster -- an expensive monster -- to be their sheriff.  Local Republicans were too scared to cross him, and too many voters bought into the "tough on crime" excrement that people like Arpaio are all too happy to serve them.

Why did Arpaio keep winning?  It is not as though Arpaio was benefiting from gerrymandering, which prevents Louie Gohmert's blithering idiocy or Steve King's hateful ignorance from costing them their seats in Congress.

As a matter of basic politics, is this merely a matter of local elections being low-turnout affairs in which voters know virtually nothing about the candidates, such that name recognition alone can explain electoral longevity?  If so, is Arpaio's career merely proof that professional positions of government should not be elected?

We know, of course, that plenty of Arpaio clones have thrived over the years in appointed office.  J. Edgar Hoover's career at the FBI comes to mind.  Even so, it is at least possible that the Arpaios of the world would be paradoxically more accountable if they were not on the ballot.  Imagine being the Republican candidate for governor of your state and having to defend Arpaio's record when you reappoint him (and then when you run for reelection).

Again, that is by no means a perfect solution.  After all, Trump believes that he will win reelection in 2020 even with the Arpaio pardon on his list of offenses against the republic.  And like all autocrats, he will surely respond to claims about Arpaio's deplorable record with retorts about criminal-hugging liberals.

As a matter of probabilities, however, it is at least a testable proposition whether popularly elected sheriffs (and judges and other state and local professionals) are worse than they would be if those positions were appointed by public officials.

There is in fact a large literature addressing just such questions.  My ultimate point here, however, is yet again a concern about hopelessness.  As worried as I am about what Trump will do to the country, I look at the decades of criminal behavior for which Arpaio was rewarded and wonder how much abuse is going unchecked around the country every day, year after year after year.

If there is virtually no prospect that the American political system can do something as basic as save lives and money by changing school schedules, how much hope is there to stop the entrenched despotism that Arpaio represents?

As always, the response cannot be to give up.  This is, however, a reminder of how deep the rot is in America, where many voters and pandering right-wing politicians alike cannot be bothered to notice that people are suffering and dying unnecessarily.  We have a lot of work to do, and Trump's outrages should not make us forget about everything else.