The baleful legacy of America’s most corrupt, racist ex-sheriff and his media enablers
Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY
Joe Arpaio lost his bid for the Republican Senate nomination in Arizona this week, earning just under 19 percent of the statewide vote and finishing third behind Kelli Ward and primary winner Rep. Martha McSally. In Maricopa County, where he served as sheriff for over 20 years until he was voted out in 2016, Arpaio got crushed, pulling in just 17.5 percent of the vote. The fact that Joe Arpaio is no longer even a distant threat to win election to the Senate is an unalloyed good, given that he is a pernicious racist, persistently corrupt, an inveterate conspiracy theorist, and an authoritarian cretin.
But while he lost badly, Arpaio was still the first choice of nearly 95,000 Arizona Republicans, including a slim plurality of GOP voters in Yuma County, which he won by about 250 votes. That Arpaio was even considered a remotely plausible threat to win the nomination is a fact that must be reckoned with, given that he was convicted on criminal contempt charges in 2017 stemming from his defiance of a federal court order to stop profiling Latinos as sheriff.
A good measure of blame for Arpaio’s continued relevance lies with President Donald Trump and his administration. Arpaio dodged jail time because Trump pardoned him in a flagrant act of cronyism, and just a few months ago Vice President Mike Pence celebrated this many-times-disgraced former lawman as a “tireless champion of strong borders and the rule of law.” Arpaio is useful to Trump both as a symbol of grievance (his indictment came during the Obama administration, which implicitly makes him a martyr of “political correctness”) and a champion of draconian immigration policy (the suspected undocumented immigrants Arpaio detained were forced to wear pink underwear in a sweltering tent prison that he himself described as a “concentration camp.”) Arpaio, for his part, says Trump is his hero.
At its core, however, the Joe Arpaio phenomenon is a creation of conservative media generally, and Fox News specifically. Arpaio first became a national figure during his tenure as sheriff of Maricopa County -- an office whose powers he grossly abused in order to illegally target minority populations. He was able to spin his own flamboyant lawlessness and racism into an image of “toughness” thanks to an accomplice right-wing media apparatus that celebrated his degrading and criminal mistreatment of immigrants and Latinos.
Arpaio was a constant presence on Fox News for years and he was frequently celebrated on the network with his preferred moniker of “America’s toughest sheriff.” Back in July 2000, Arpaio swung by Hannity & Colmes to defend his new policy of installing publicly accessible webcams in his jail. Hannity loved the idea and introduced Arpaio as “my favorite sheriff,” telling him: “No bigger fan than me right here.” (Arpaio’s webcams showed female inmates using the bathroom and were found to be degrading by a federal court.)
Whenever Arpaio came up with a new gimmick -- forcing inmates to listen to patriotic songs, installing a hotline so county residents could report suspected undocumented immigrants, having the public vote online on inmates’ mugshots -- you could expect to see him on Fox posturing as an immigration tough guy who was happy to incarcerate as many immigrants as space would allow. When the Obama administration launched its investigation into Arpaio’s racial profiling and mistreatment of prisoners, Fox heralded him as a victim of federal persecution. “There is another case of bullying -- this time, the government bullying the police, or, in this case, the sheriff,” Glenn Beck told his viewers in June 2009.
When Arpaio glommed onto the racist conspiracy theorizing about Barack Obama’s birth certificate and formed a “Cold Case Posse” to investigate, it did nothing to diminish his credibility or popularity at the network -- the “results” of his inquiry were featured on Fox News’ flagship “straight news” program, Special Report, as were Arpaio’s ensuing gripes that his ludicrous investigation wasn’t being taken seriously by the press.
In 2016, as Arpaio’s scandals multiplied and his political standing eroded, he was still enjoying softball interviews on Fox, where he’d advocate for then-candidate Trump’s immigration policies. Arpaio appeared on the May 30, 2016, edition of Hannity -- just two weeks after a federal judge found that Arpaio had “engaged in multiple acts of misconduct, dishonesty, and bad faith with respect to the plaintiff class (Latinos) and the protection of its rights” -- where he was introduced by Hannity as “Mr. Pink Underwear himself, Joe Arpaio, our favorite sheriff.”
Even Arpaio’s pardon by Trump flowed through Fox News; a Fox legal analyst discussed the idea with Trump and then reported that the president was “seriously considering” issuing a pardon. When the pardon came down, the network celebrated and defended the action. And after Arpaio declared his intention to run for the Senate, Fox treated him to still more soft-coverage publicity.
While Arpaio himself looks to be through as a political figure, the legacy he crafted will endure. He forged the template for low-rent authoritarian public officials who use conservative media as a path to national stardom (this strategy was emulated by former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a Fox regular who promoted his brand on TV while inmates died in his jail). The popularity among conservatives that Arpaio built up through his years of punditry helped to spare him from accountability for the manifold crimes and abuses he committed while in office.
Joe Arpaio figured out how to break the law, violate the public trust, abuse minorities, spout off racist conspiracy theories, and get off scot-free while also enjoying venerated status as a martyr and quasi-folk hero. All he had to do was go on Fox News.