My first take on the president’s pardon for Joe Arpaio was that it was unnecessary, even by his cellar-dwelling standards. Sure, it reflects Trump’s portrait of an America besieged by job-stealing criminals from south of the border, with the former sheriff as a bulwark of our defense. But Trump supporters who admire Arpaio’s bigotry already saw the president as their leader in the war to keep America white. So the pardon seemed to be a hateful but gratuitous slap at Hispanics and Trump’s opponents.

On second thought, though, there’s a method to his madness. It involves Trump’s fixation on the Mueller investigation into Russian election-hacking. As Josh Marshall noted last month in an aptly titled blog post, “The President at War”:

We are far, far past the point where there is any credible reason to doubt that President Trump is hiding major and broad-ranging wrongdoing. No mix of ego, inexperience, embarrassment or anything else can explain his behavior. It just can’t. He’s hiding bad acts. And the country is likely heading toward a major constitutional and political crisis because Trump is signaling that he will not allow the normal course of the law to apply to him – a challenge which puts the entire edifice of democratic government under threat.


In one sense, no new news there. But in another, the Arpaio pardon should be seen as a part of a multi-pronged salvo by the president. According to one political extremism expert:

[T]he timing is probably, as several others have also noted, more linked to the issue that predominates President Trump’s mind: the Russia investigation. There are several key people in his former entourage who are at the point of caving to pressure to working with the [Robert S.] Mueller investigation. Trump has shown them that they have nothing to fear, because he can and will pardon them, irrespective of the circumstances. This, of course, is a fundamentally undemocratic position, but not so much informed by ideology but by naked self-interest.

That analysis is good, as far as it goes. But there’s also something else at stake in the Arpaio pardon: Trump’s appeal to his base’s basest instincts. It’s not mainly a matter of sustaining their support.

Instead, it’s about the intensity of that support.

It’s about getting them to push President Pence to pardon Trump, should he resign or be impeached.

To preclude even reaching that point, it’s about riling up his potentially rabid base in his battle with Mueller.

And ultimately, it’s about Donald Trump’s unpardonable war on democracy.

Based in Oakland, California, Stephen Golub writes, consults and teaches about international development, with a particular focus on justice, democracy, human rights and governance issues. Currently teaching part-time at Central European University in Budapest and previously at the University of California at Berkeley, he has worked in over 40 countries and with such organizations as Amnesty International, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Ford and Open Society Foundations, the U.K. Department for International Development, the U.N. Development Program and the World Bank

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