Trump, Arpaio, and the Right’s “Tough” Trap

In writing about Pres. Trump’s pardon of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, it occurred to me that the parallels between the two figures may be instructive beyond the obvious.

First, briefly, the obvious.  Arpaio can be seen as one of the prototypes or forerunners for Trump.  The primary focus on illegal immigration as a political appeal, and the defiant “tell it like it is” political correctness are blatant similarities.

But the commonality relevant to this discussion is that Arpaio and Trump both made “tough” their brand, and were completely unafraid of embracing meanness in order to preserve that brand.

Arpaio relentlessly promoted himself as “the toughest Sheriff in America,” running the Maricopa County jails in ways often criticized as cruel.  Arpaio, in turn, would use the horrified reaction of his critics to fuel his political fire.

Similarly, Trump sold himself to the GOP as the “tough” candidate.  He mocked John McCain’s P.O.W. status, a reporter’s disability, “low-energy” Jeb Bush, “little” Marco Rubio, and “lyin'” Ted Cruz.  He was the hard-nosed business negotiator.  There would be no one tougher on illegal immigrants than Trump.  He would order war crimes.  His speech accepting the GOP nomination focused on restoring safety to lawless cities and called “the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction and weakness.”  He would praise Vladmir Putin, Marine Le Pen and the Butchers of Beijing for their strength.  He FIGHTS!

But when you look behind the rhetoric, what sort of record did Arpaio really have?

In December 2008, when Arpaio still had federal authority to conduct field operations against illegal immigration, Clint Bolick put out a report for the Goldwater institute on the topic.  The executive summary states in part:

Although MCSO (the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office] is adept at self-promotion and is an unquestionably ‘tough’ law-enforcement agency, under its watch violent crime rates recently have soared, both in absolute terms and relative to other jurisdictions.  It has diverted resources away from basic law-enforcement functions to highly publicized immigration sweeps, which are ineffective in policing illegal immigration and in reducing crime generally, and to extensive trips by MCSO officials to Honduras for purposes that are nebulous at best.  Profligate spending on those diversions helped produce a financial crisis in late 2007 that forced MCSO to curtail or reduce important law-enforcement functions.

In terms of support services, MCSO has allowed a huge backlog of outstanding warrants to accumulate, and has seriously disadvantaged local police departments by closing satellite booking facilities.  MCSO’s detention facilities are subject to costly lawsuits for excessive use of force and inadequate medical services.  Compounding the substantive problems are chronically poor record-keeping and reporting of statistics, coupled with resistance to public disclosure.”

In short, Arpaio’s obsession with immigration sweeps — quite apart from the legal issues — was ineffective and resulted in significantly worse policing of everything else.  But it did keep him in office — at least until immigrant smuggling in Arizona declined and provisions of Senate Bill 1070 were found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Voters then began looking at the tens of millions of tax dollars being paid to settle lawsuits arising from Arpaio’s antics in a different light.

Toughness and meanness, backed with populist/nativist rhetoric instead of results.  I suppose that could be a cautionary tale or a winning formula for Trump, depending on how you want to view it.  Arpaio lived on it for years, though I doubt he got the sort of sustained scrutiny any President gets, even as the “Toughest Sheriff in America.”

That sort of scrutiny may already be taking a toll on Trump’s image.  YouGov has been polling whether people think Trump is a strong leader or a weak one.  In February, 29% thought he was very strong and 30% thought he was very weak.  This month, it’s 22% very strong and 35% very weak.

Among Republicans, the overall “strong” number hasn’t changed significantly over the last six months (88% vs 85%).  But the very strong number dropped from 61% to 45%.

Among Trump voters, the overall “strong” number remained basically steady (95% vs 91%).  But the very strong number dropped from 70% to 50%.

When the “tough” guys stop being seen as strong and the “tough” talk wears thin, what’s left?  Mean, distracted, ineffectual, and racially inflammatory is probably not a good brand.  And the clock seems to be running faster on Trump than it did on Arpaio.

Pres. Trump may want to look less like Sheriff Arpaio and more like Mayor Giuliani.  Results count for a lot.

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