Bloom Briefing 33: Arpaio Pardoned; Thoughts on Resistance

Welcome to the thirty-third edition of The Bloom Briefing: Notes from the Resistance. This week, I dwell momentarily on Trump’s Friday night news dump, but the focus is on an op-ed in the New York Times from several weeks ago which identifies the hysteria of #TheResistance as a greater threat to American democracy than Trump himself. Needless to say, I disagree.

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Trump Signs Transgender Military Ban, Pardons Arpaio

It was a Friday evening news dump for the ages. The push notifications from the New York Times came swiftly: Trump signed an Executive Order banning transgender people from serving in the military and then pardoned former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Both actions follow a by now consistent Trump playbook of largely symbolic actions that rile up lefties while catering to his base of white supremacist supporters. Though largely symbolic, these actions will have very real consequences, particularly for those men and women who serve or desire to serve their country through the military but will now be unable to do so because the president is more considered with othering than governing.

And while of little immediate impact, the pardon of Arpaio is particularly galling. Arpaio is a Nazi wannabe who was empowered by his position as sheriff to inflict irreparable harm on communities of color in Arizona. The Phoenix New Times covered him “for more than 20 years” and repackaged a collection of that coverage for easy access. Here is a mere selection of the most alarming anecdotes:

  • Arpaio referred to his jails as “concentration camps.”

  • The death rate in his “concentration camp” prisons was, unsurprisingly, high.

  • Many of these deaths were from people hanging themselves, which happens in his prisons at a disproportionate rate.

  • Nearly half of all deaths in Arpaio’s prisons went unexplained.

  • Though mandated to be public, information pertaining to prisoner deaths was never made available to members of the media who requested information.

  • A federal judge twice ruled that medical care in these prisons was so lacking as to be unconstitutional.

  • More than 13,000 claims were brought against his office for mistreatment, abuse, and untimely death.

  • Arpaio once marched inmates from one jail to another in nothing but pink underwear and flip-flops.

  • He once put 200 undocumented immigrants (all of whom were Hispanic) in a tent city ringed with an electric fence.

  • He sent a deputy to Hawaii to look for Obama’s birth certificate.

  • He staged an assassination attempt against himself.

  • He tried to destroy evidence the court mandated that he turn over.

  • Maricopa County paid out over $44 million in damages on racial profiling charges alone.

  • Arpaio installed a camera in the women’s restroom for the purposes of “monitoring” prisoners that was available to livestream on the internet.

Trump’s pardon of this monster is, without subtext, an exoneration of America’s and Americans’ ugliest impulse towards racism, xenophobia, and the prison-industrial complex. The pardon is unacceptable, reprehensible, disgusting, yet unsurprising. Everything about Trump’s administration is about othering groups of people to pander to his white supremacist base. This is just the latest example.

But Republicans have a problem. I wrote last week about how at a policy level, Trump represents no great aberration from recent Republicanism. But the longer that Republicans fail to pass any major legislation and rely on the symbolism of Trump’s executive actions to appease their base, the harder it becomes to disentangle Republicanism from Trumpism. Congressional Republicans can disagree, disavow, declaim, decry, and distance themselves from Trump’s actions, but as long as they continue to abide Trump’s presidency, the more any distinguishing features of Trumpism and Republicanism erode and we are left with a single entity.

Misguided Arguments Against #TheResistance

The thesis of an ill-founded op-ed in the New York Times several weeks ago is two-part: first, that “there is no real evidence that Mr. Trump wants to seize power unconstitutionally, and there is no reason to think he could succeed.” And second, “By postponing serious efforts to give greater priority to social justice, tyrannophobia treats warning signs as a death sentence, while allowing the real disease to fester.”

The first proposition is unsubstantiated, presumably because it appears obvious to most. Trump is generally incompetent. He doesn’t understand how governance works. Congressional Republicans aren’t likely to proactively help Trump seize power unconstitutionally. And the United States remains a place where most people have a commitment to the norms and principles of democratic governance.

But Trump’s lack of commitment to democracy is unprecedented in the history of the American presidency. The country has never had a president who was openly hostile to the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 10th amendments, or who pardoned a man held in contempt of court for violating the constitution itself. Other presidents have undermined democracy in various ways, but they did so for an explicit, trade-off that could at least be argued to have strengthened in others (see Franklin Roosevelt threatening to pack the Supreme Court).

While many people rightly point out that political posturing about freedom, democracy, liberalism, and the like is nothing more than posturing, the ritual of repeating our shared commitment to these values, even if we occasionally fail to live up to them, has value. It reinforces the notion of our shared commitment to them. It calibrates society to the idea that these are in fact values to be upheld.

Furthermore, we have already seen, as the authors rightly acknowledge, Trump’s willingness to violate these and other political norms. Violation of some norms seems likely to be correlated with violation of other norms, so why should we not anticipate that Trump might manufacture some international security crisis, perhaps involving threats to electoral integrity, to in some way make voting harder for folks in urban centers? Being aware of such a possibility doesn’t seem to me to be the fanciful thinking of a doomsday Cassandra, but rather the prudent vigilance of someone committed to fair and free elections.

Speaking of fair and free elections, the obvious and most direct way Trump has already initiated a move away from democratic principles is with his Commission on Electoral Integrity. They have already asked for frightening levels of information from individual states, and are likely to push for more draconian anti-democratic voting restrictions than state-level Republican legislatures have been pushing for some time. If such measures are brought to pass, it may make it even more difficult for people of color to cast ballots at election time. It’s hard to imagine something more explicitly authoritarian than the government taking away the right to vote from people who are unlikely to vote for the government.

All of this is to say that liberal democracy’s existence is not bipolar, either existing or not. Liberal democracy exists on a sliding scale. The more consistently easy it is to vote, the more democratic; the more participation in civil society is equal across racial and socio-economic lines, the more democratic; the more people are free to practice faith, speak as they like, write what they like, etc., the more liberal. As long as Trump inhabits the White House, there is every reason to think that we will continue to move away from liberalism and democracy at a relatively rapid pace. We need not fear a military coup to believe that there are real threats to liberal democracy immediately at hand.

The second claim, however, is the bolder one: “By postponing serious efforts to give greater priority to social justice, tyrannophobia treats warning signs as a death sentence, while allowing the real disease to fester.” In short, by organizing around the concept of resistance, by treating Trump as a unique and dangerous threat to the perseverance of our system of government, we shortchange and undercut the issues we care about most.

At face value, this feels nonsensical. Efforts to improve social justice are of an accord with the preservation of liberal democracy. A recurring characteristic of authoritarian states is their marginalization of minority populations, whether that be based on race, religion, political ideology, or some other characteristic.

By militating against authoritarianism while at the same time pushing for a more inclusive society, particularly on such issues as voting rights and economic redistribution, #TheResistance is arguably the most unified articulation of leftist values to hit the mainstream since the 1960s. #TheResistance helped save healthcare for millions, it helped defeat the travel ban, it motivates activism, it has brought thousands of people to the cause of racial justice, and it does so while all the while recognizing these as necessary to liberal democracy.

The authors’ principal concern about tyrannophobia seems to be that by focusing on liberal democracy, its defenders may become too committed to liberalism, and thereby move to show this commitment by defending a potent form of economic liberalism, i.e., capitalism. I find this unsubstantiated claim perplexing. In my conversations with those who count themselves among #TheResistance, I have yet to meet anyone who is against more economic redistribution.

For many who count themselves among #TheResistance, Trump’s election sparked or reignited a desire to be more politically active, to fight for the values one holds, to be “in the arena.” Those in #TheResistance hold many views, some of them diffuse, others fairly consistent. The art of politics is the art of convincing others that your own views are worth pursuing. Convincing others that the values of #TheResistance are worth upholding in no way compromises some other set of values, for those of us in #TheResistance see our collective value set represented in the concept of resistance.

The threat of Trump leading the country down an authoritarian path may yet abate. If that proves to be the case, perhaps we wasted mental energy on our vigilance. But it seems foolish when the threat of a dark turn towards authoritarianism is real not to activate against that turn, and be prepared for its worst eventualities. Let us hope that wasted mental energy is the biggest regret we have of the Trump presidency.

Additional Reading:

At The Atlantic, Tanvi Misra wrote about how natural disasters disproportionately impact low-income households, with a particular focus on the way this trend is manifest in Houston.

Also at The Atlantic, Kurt Andersen has written the cover story for the September print edition titled, “How America Lost Its Mind.” I’m only about halfway through it myself, but it has interesting nuggets (not all of which I agree with) about how the left and the right were captivated by irrational thinking.

At the New York Review of Books, Robert Pogue Harrison has written a review of many recent works on Henry David Thoreau, taking them as an excuse to write about Thoreau and America and their defining characteristics.

The Bloom Briefing will be off next week.