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The Arpaio Pardon Encapsulates Trump’s Identity Politics

The trio of major announcements made by President Trump’s administration on Friday night — the departure of national security aide Sebastian Gorka, the pardon of former Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and the release of a formal memo from the president ordering the Pentagon not to accept transgender people as new recruits in the armed forces — illustrate two important things about the president’s governing style.

First, one of the defining features of the Trump administration is that he embraces a kind of conservative identity politics, in which he promotes policies supported by groups that he favors and that may have felt marginalized during Barack Obama’s presidency. The second is that Trump’s support for those policies is not contingent on the presence of ousted aides like Gorka and Steve Bannon, who agree with him on these positions.

The memo banning transgender recruits and barring the Pentagon from paying for future sex reassignment surgeries delighted conservative Christian activists, a core part of Trump’s base. Similarly, during his campaign, Trump had strong support from unions that represent police officers, border security agents and other law-enforcement personnel, a group that until recently included Arpaio.

And Arpaio has long been a hero to groups strongly opposed to illegal immigration, which were vital to Trump winning the GOP nomination. Arpaio was convicted last month of criminal contempt of court for ignoring a 2011 federal court order that barred him and his department from considering race when making law-enforcement decisions. Arpaio argues that his tactics, which a court ruled illegally targeted Latinos, were simply an effort to enforce existing immigration law.

“So proud of you, Mr President!” author and conservative activist Ann Coulter said on Friday.

Obama, in contrast, ended the ban on openly transgender people serving in the military, strongly defended the Black Lives Matter movement as it questioned police tactics across the country, and pushed for citizenship rights for undocumented immigrants.

It’s still not clear what other actions Trump will be able to take to please his base on immigration — whether he will be able, for example, to build a wall on the United States-Mexico border or get rid of the DACA program, which effectively protects roughly 1 million young immigrants from deportation — as the courts and Congress also have a say.

But the two moves Trump made Friday illustrate that the president himself is likely to continue to govern using this brand of conservative identity politics. It is perhaps his most consistent governing philosophy, a kind of unifying theory for understanding a president who frequently seesaws back and forth in other policy areas.

On economic issues, for instance, he has abandoned many of his campaign promises that angled in a more populist direction. Trump has not yet dramatically overhauled NAFTA, declared China a currency manipulator or defended Medicaid against budget cuts proposed by congressional Republicans. On foreign policy, he has also bowed to more establishment-friendly stances; this week, he reversed himself on a major campaign position when he called for extending the war in Afghanistan.

But on identity issues, it seems, the president is determined to push forward with his campaign promises. He is threatening a government shutdown if Congress does not fund the border wall and refusing to abandon the travel ban on people from some majority-Muslim countries, even after it was repeatedly struck down in the courts. In a recent speech, he staunchly defended law-enforcement officials, noting that he supported giving them military equipment.

A week before Trump pardoned Arpaio and enacted the transgender military ban, Bannon, one of the leading White House voices advocating for a confrontational, identity-politics-style approach, left the administration. On Friday night, Gorka, a Bannon ally and a major administration advocate for blunt rhetoric on identity issues, such as using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” also departed abruptly. If Trump really wanted either of these men to remain in the administration, it is likely they would have.

So what we dubbed the “Bannon Wing” of the administration earlier this year has lost its namesake and, in Gorka, one of its most prominent voices. Gorka, in a letter to Trump that was quoted in The Federalist, wrote, “it is clear to me that forces that do not support the MAGA promise are — for now — ascendant within the White House.” (“MAGA” refers to Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.”)

In his letter, Gorka says he will serve the president from outside the White House because, “Regrettably, outside of yourself, the individuals who most embodied and represented the policies that will ‘Make America Great Again,’ have been internally countered, systematically removed, or undermined in recent months.”

Gorka is right, in that the staffers associated with Bannon are decreasing in number. New chief of staff John Kelly does appear to have the power, with either Trump’s approval or his acquiescence, to make the White House staff more establishment-friendly and less Bannon-like.

In the long run, dumping Bannon, Gorka and the like could move the administration’s policy away from more controversial moves, like the Arpaio pardon.

But right now, the recent staff changes appear to be mostly about easing tensions between various White House staffers and formalizing the processes governing the flow of information to the president. Kelly, according to published reports, is truly in charge of the White House structure in a way previous chief of staff Reince Priebus was not.


But the way the Trump administration governs has not fundamentally changed. And it’s easy to see why. Look at one part of what Gorka wrote — the phrase “outside of yourself.” Trump appears to believe in the MAGA mission. In the eight days since Bannon left, in addition to pardoning Arpaio and moving to block transgender people from joining the military, the president has attacked those calling for the removal of Confederate monuments and suggested that the news media is intentionally trying to increase division in the country.

In a YouGov survey conducted before the pardon was formally announced, opinions on pardoning Arpaio were split along partisan lines: Most but not all Republicans backed it while most Democrats and a plurality of independents opposed it.

Donald Trump plays to the base, example No. 1,345 or so. In other words, Donald Trump doesn’t need Steve Bannon or Sebastian Gorka because he already has Donald Trump.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.