As seems to be the case for many folks, President Trump’s Friday night pardon of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio hit me quite hard. I’m still not entirely sure why. It’s not the worst thing that Trump has done in his seven months in office. In terms of the volume of human suffering caused, the travel ban is much worse. Nor is it even the most tone-deaf pronouncement he’s made.
My best explanation is that the Arpaio pardon eliminates any shred of ambiguity about where Trump’s sympathies lay with regard to state power and force. Arpaio’s record of abuse is horrifyingly clear. But, as Trump has suggested previously, he has few qualms about the use of force by police, ICE officers, and other officials acting on behalf of the government. He has especially few qualms when the people on the receiving end of that force are minorities or immigrants.
The Arpaio pardon – and Trump’s views more generally – force us to reconsider how we teach moments when force has been used by the U.S. government against Americans, especially when those Americans are racial and ethnic minorities.
In previous semesters, when I’ve addressed instances of government use of force, I’ve taught them – sometimes without even realizing that I’m doing so – as one-off events that somehow deviate from the norms of U.S. history.
When New York City police beat a crowd made up largely of immigrant workers who wanted economic help in the aftermath of the Panic of 1873, or when Alabama police clubbed Civil Rights protesters on the Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965, these were, in my implicit interpretation of things, bad events done by bad people. And so were countless others.
This is the comforting narrative, and it’s certainly the easier one to teach. Sure, a lot of bad stuff happened, we say. But that was then, and this is now. The U.S used to tolerate abhorrent behavior on the part of police and the military, but each bad instance was a one-time thing that society moved past.
As a historian, I know that’s not true. I recognize that these events are connected, and many of them have their roots in larger ideologies of American identity, state power, and the role of violence in enforcing norms.
The uncomfortable truth of the Trump presidency is that it forces those of us who teach to publicly acknowledge this reality: the use of state-sanctioned violence and force against perceived undesirables in the dominant narrative of U.S. history, not a series of unfortunate, unconnected events that exist on the boundary of that narrative.
What previously we knew was true but would have preferred to sidestep for the sake of avoiding controversy in the classroom or ensuring good student evaluations cannot be ignored in the era of Trump.
For me, this has the greatest effect on a special topics course I teach called Panic in America. When I last taught the class, I billed it as a lighthearted course on all the things that have made Americans anxious: strange conspiracy theories, paranoia about certain groups in society, and seemingly perpetual fears about youth. The fact is, though, that even these seemingly lighthearted foibles came at a real cost for disempowered groups. The line from conspiracy theories or paranoia to executing imagined witches or slave conspirators is a very short one. And the people enforcing state power were always those with power and authority.
I fear that the next time I teach Panic in America (which, fortunately, is not this year), it will be a much more somber course. The real history of anxiety in the United States has been the anxiety that generations of Sherrif Arpaio’s have inflicted on countless people – anxiety backed up by force and delivered with the full support of the federal government.