On Friday night, as Hurricane Harvey struck Texas, President Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, who had been convicted of criminal contempt of court for disobeying a 2013 order by a federal judge to stop racial profiling. By shielding a rogue official from legal sanction and accountability, Trump once again asserted just how much he fetishizes the shallow, brutal image of “law and order” that Arpaio represents—at the expense of actual rule of law. But it wasn’t just the pardon. On Monday, the president rescinded an Obama-era directive restricting the sale and transfer of military-grade equipment to local law enforcement, a move made in the wake of several widely publicized police abuses. This too represents an attack on accountability, and together with the Arpaio pardon, they show a key priority for this administration: impunity for those with state authority and attendant disregard for the people that authority is wielded on, often cruelly.
It’s this commitment that prompted Trump to pardon (and praise) a man infamous for his dehumanizing treatment of inmates, subjecting them to deprivation and humiliation for reasons that had little connection to actual law enforcement. He was held in contempt for refusing to stop actions such as canvassing Hispanic neighborhoods and detained people his department merely suspected of being undocumented. Although the Constitution gives presidents broad discretion to issue pardons, it’s still possible to abuse the power. In the days before the pardon, Harvard law professor Noah Feldman argued it “would be an assault on the federal judiciary, the Constitution, and the rule of law itself.” He continued: “Arpaio didn’t just violate a law passed by Congress. His actions defied the Constitution itself, the bedrock of the entire system of government. For Trump to say that this violation is excusable would threaten the very structure on which his right to pardon is based.”
This authoritarian vision of “law and order” not only condones the lawlessness of Arpaio, it celebrates it. And in turn, it sees virtue in militarized, heavily armed police departments and wants those officers to deploy those arms with near-unlimited discretion. Among the most disturbing images from the 2014 demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri—sparked by the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson—were those of armor-clad police officers outfitted with military-grade weapons and vehicles. The choice to use that equipment against largely peaceful protesters sent a clear message: that law enforcement was there to subdue protests, not police them. And that message described the larger relationship between cops and citizens in Ferguson: The latter, who had long been subject to “policing for profit,” weren’t protected by police as much as they were under occupation by capricious institutions of law enforcement.
In the wake of those events, the Obama administration announced a review and eventual scaling back of the “1033 program” that provided military-grade equipment to local police departments. Under this revised policy, the Justice Department banned police departments from obtaining large-caliber weapons and ammunition, grenade launchers, bayonets, weaponized aircraft, tanks, and other armored vehicles. It also stopped the transfer of camouflage uniforms and other military-style gear. “We’ve seen how militarized gear can sometimes give people the feeling like there’s an occupying force—as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them,” President Obama said in announcing the change.
The Justice Department under President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has now changed course, removing these restrictions on military gear and armament for local police departments. In a speech to the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville, Tennessee, Sessions explained that the policy change “will ensure that you can get the lifesaving gear that you need to do your job and send a strong message that we will not allow criminal activity, violence, and lawlessness to become the new normal.”
Given the circumstances of the original ban, this statement equates protests with “lawlessness” and justifies the draconian behavior of Ferguson’s militarized police department. All of this is in line with Trump’s more blunt rhetoric, including his outright endorsement of police brutality, which press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later spun as a joke.
Both Joe Arpaio and the Ferguson Police Department provide vivid examples of contempt for the rights of ordinary Americans, particularly black and brown people—who often incur violence and abuse for simply existing. It’s a contempt that holds nonwhites as inherently suspect, people who embody disorder, and thus require a harsh hand. And it’s similar to the racialized contempt that animated Trump’s campaign for president, to say nothing of his “birther” advocacy—the crusade that tied him to Arpaio in the first place.
With his actions the past few days, Trump has further elevated that contempt, treating it as a symbol of his cherished “law and order,” and sending the clear signal that those in law enforcement who indulge it will not be punished. Donald Trump may never deliver on his pledge to help his base become great again, but he has made steady ground on his other promise: to turn the power of the state against the people they fear and resent.