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Opinion: The Rule of Law, the Role of History

What happens if Arpaio runs with Trump’s backing?

Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio listens as then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke to the press prior to a rally on January 26, 2016 in Marshalltown, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio listens as then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke to the press prior to a rally on January 26, 2016 in Marshalltown, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

It was as predictable as clockwork. When I worked at a newspaper in Tucson, Ariz., the letter would arrive or the phone would ring and the message would be filled with outrage and surprise. Imagine being in a store or on the street and hearing two or more people having a conversation — in Spanish.

The spanking new desert denizen— just arrived from Michigan or Minnesota or somewhere else where it got cold in the winter — could not understand a word and this is America, right?

I wondered if the snowbirds, as they were called, knew Arizona officially became the 48th state in 1912 and that the folks they heard probably had relatives living in the same place for generations and that they probably could easily switch to English. (Fluency in two languages rather than one is usually thought of as a sign of erudition, intelligence and sophistication, unless of course that language is Spanish and your skin is brown. For a thought experiment, think French accent and white.)

I don’t mean to pick on Arizona. The desert landscapes were stunningly beautiful and the people were quite nice to me in their libertarian, live and let live attitude. Admittedly Pima County was more casual and progressive than Maricopa, and that was the 1980s, seemingly a lifetime ago. Plus, being African American, I was aware of my existence under the radar, knowing from my friends and my observations that Arizonans of Mexican and Native American ancestry provided a greater political and historical threat for some in power.

No place is immune from this fight to control the narrative, because it matters. Americans like their history just fine, as long as it is simplified, sanitized or downright wrong. Sand off the rough, contradictory edges, and you get the comic book version, even in 2017. That’s a shame, since the real-life version, filled with unlikely events and unexpected enemies and allies, is so much more interesting.

In Arizona, with its fluid borders crisscrossed for centuries, and its Native American reservations, whose residents were not allowed to vote until a World War II veteran took his case to court in 1948 and won, the history is too rich to ignore. But that doesn’t stop a lot of people from trying.

A federal judge recently ruled that Arizona violated the constitutional rights of Mexican American students when it eliminated a successful Mexican American studies program several years ago. The ruling said officials “were motivated by racial animus” and politics, despite pieties about unity. Learning about every group’s contributions was the right way to make America great again.

At odds with history

History is at odds with those revisionists in the same way it tweaks the die-hards who believe Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s character is best served by commemorating him nobly on horseback, leaving out his practice of breaking up families of the enslaved mothers, fathers and children he owned or instructing overseers to use the lash to teach a bloody lesson to those whose attempted escapes to freedom proved unsuccessful.

Often, the convert to a region or cause embraces the myth with particular zeal, which brings us to former Maricopa County sheriff and newly minted “pardonee” Joe Arpaio, who started life in Massachusetts as the son of Italian immigrants before ending up famous — or notorious — in Arizona.

Arpaio has a history of his own, one he will never be able to escape. It is a long and sordid trail that is a distortion of every Tombstone tough-guy tale tenderfoots from the East try to live up or down to.

The poster child for racial profiling was also well known for corruption, cruelty and lawlessness before he was found guilty of criminal contempt and got a pardon from our self-proclaimed law and order president who suspends the moniker for friends and supporters.

A California friend, whose family has been in the U.S. more than 125 years, paid an extra fee for a passport ID card for fear she would be stopped and forced to prove it on trips through Arizona and Texas — which should sadden and outrage every American.

While focusing attention and resources on his version of immigration enforcement and a Barack Obama birther obsession that rivaled Donald Trump’s, Arpaio’s department ignored hundreds of sexual assault cases, many with child victims. He did find the resources to send a deputy to Hawaii on that Obama “cold case.” Criminal cases were closed without investigation, deputies went wild, beating and mistreating male, female and juvenile prisoners; some of those in his jails were not yet charged.

Arpaio investigated his judicial and journalistic investigators, and the sheriff’s office, or more accurately, taxpayers paid for those and other transgressions with multimillion-dollar settlements. The fed up citizens eventually voted him out by a wide margin.

Now, the 85-year-old is hinting he wants to add senator or some other elected office to his resume, perhaps challenging incumbent and Trump criticJeff Flake. Both Flake and the state’s other GOP senator, John McCain, criticized the president’s Arpaio pardon, with McCain saying in a statement: “No one is above the law and the individuals entrusted with the privilege of being sworn law officers should always seek to be beyond reproach in their commitment to fairly enforcing the laws they swore to uphold.”

Several other GOP politicians in the state are backing Trump and Arpaio, including House members Trent Franks, Andy Biggs, and Paul Gosar. Other Republican members of Congress have been silent or not quite full-throated in their condemnation. Reading House Speaker Paul Ryan’s statement disagreeing with the decision, one can imagine that if Trump made good on his fanciful campaign boast that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, Ryan would manage to condemn the act without naming names.

A showdown coming?

So if Arpaio actually decides, with Trump’s backing, to run, what kind of reactions would that showdown lead to?

It took founding father Alexander Hamilton hundreds of years to get his own hit musical. The history of the future is being written right now.

A final thought experiment: Imagine the chapter in that history book on politicians of 2017, and where they stood on the separation of powers and their obligation and oath to stand up on issues of moral right and wrong.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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