I’ve never met Joe Arpaio, but I’ve felt his influence. Arpaio, who served 16 years as the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, made a career out of terrorizing Latinos in his state and degrading people who ran afoul of the law. This week, President Donald Trump called Arpaio a “great American patriot” and then pardoned him of criminal contempt, a conviction that could have landed the former sheriff six months in prison. Trump’s pardon sends another shocking signal of what’s wrong in our country and exposes the political void that exists in America today.
Conventional wisdom says Americans suffer from a great divide between the Fox News crowd and the MSNBC crowd. I think our problem is much more serious than that. Divides are hard but can be bridged through careful data analysis, meaningful negotiations, effective advocacy and, ultimately, compromise. Welfare reform in 1996 is a great example. The left and the right joined forces to restructure our nation’s welfare system to reward work.
A void or vacuum in public discourse and leadership is completely different than a divide and much more difficult to resolve. There’s nothing of substance to stand on and no middle ground. There’s no bridge to the other side, or better yet, to meet in the middle. Devoid of substance, words flow but have no meaning. Until the void is filled, it’s difficult to find purpose and direction. Such is the state of America today.
Trump’s pardon of Arpaio symbolizes this void. Arpaio violated the rule of law in an effort to defend the rule of law. Once convicted, he showed no remorse for violating our constitution. When he lost re-election in 2016, he left Maricopa County with $142 million in legal fees, settlements and compliance costs. And for the trouble he caused was granted a presidential pardon. Welcome to the void!
We see the same thing repeatedly in Washington, D.C., in the form of doublespeak. Our president has no business deals in Russia, then he has business deals in Russia. He respects transgender people, then he defies them. He sympathizes with “both sides” of the Charlottesville tragedy and then he calls out the hate groups once he is scripted. What’s up is down, until it's up again. That’s the void.
Some will say Arpaio’s tough-love law enforcement helped a southern border state gain the upper hand on illegal immigration. Maybe so, but in the process, he violated our constitution, dehumanized people and instilled fear into Latino families, many of them citizens. He built an outdoor jail called Tent City in the sweltering Phoenix heat and forced inmates to, among other things, wear pink underwear, eat green bologna sandwiches and labor in modern-day chain gangs.
I’m not alone in my reaction to the pardon. House Speaker Paul Ryan said through a spokesperson he “does not agree with this decision.” Sen. John McCain said 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.” Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake tweeted, “I would have preferred that the president honor the judicial process and let it take its course.”
How do we fill the void? I’ll share three thoughts.
First, it’s going to take time. We didn’t enter the void all at once. It developed over years as our nation failed to address a cadre of problems like entitlement, tax and regulatory reform, as well as widening disparities in income.
Second, we have to find a leader who can fill the void. Trump doesn’t fill it; he reveals it. I yearn for more inspired leadership from the good men and women of this country.
Third, learn from our forefathers and commit to doing the right thing, even when it’s hard. Abraham Lincoln was fond of a sermon where the speaker said: “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad, and that’s my religion.”
I think we are doing too much bad and not enough good. Let’s go about the business of doing good and filling the void in this country.