Commentary Magazine

Revenge of the Unduly Reprieved

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Americans are about to have another “entertaining” election cycle at a time when the country desperately needs a return to boredom and predictability. In Arizona, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s decision to challenge conspiracy-theory enthusiast and former state Senator Kelli Ward ensures that the race to replace retiring Senator Jeff Flake will become a competition to see who can do their best Roy Moore impression. Democrats should hold the schadenfreude. They have their own embarrassment to contain in Maryland, where Chelsea Manning—the former U.S. Army soldier court-martialed in 2013 for violating the Espionage Act—will challenge Senator Ben Cardin. Both candidacies represent a humiliating stain on their respective parties, not just because they are reflective of their increasingly legitimized fringes, but because they are the result of the worst ideological excesses of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Joe Arpaio should have never received a presidential pardon. The former sheriff was found to have flagrantly racially profiled Latinos and was convicted of ignoring a court order to cease that practice. Arpaio had not even been formally sentenced before Trump’s Justice Department ordered the conviction to be wiped from the books. Some have argued that Arpaio’s behavior violates the spirit of the pardon because he never repented for his conduct. Indeed, he remains defiant to this day. During a recent appearance on cable news, for example, Arpaio insisted that he remained innocent of the charges on which he was convicted until he was informed that accepting a pardon is a de facto admission of guilt.

The pardoning of Joe Arpaio for engaging in racial discrimination and displaying contempt for the law tainted the Republican Party even before the sheriff decided to resume his political career. The oppressive police practices he oversaw, the “concentration camp” (as he called it) he ran, his cruel treatment of the victims of sex crimes, journalists, and even household pets are well documented. Donald Trump’s decision to forgive this serial abuser of Americans’ constitutional rights confirmed in a single stroke the pervasive liberal claim that Republicans aren’t just blind to but supportive of institutional racism.

That will be how Democrats leverage the cacophony of migraine-inducing soundbites that are sure to bubble up into the national news cycle during the primary race in Arizona. Arpaio, they will say, is not an aberration but the apotheosis of conservatism, indicative of the racial anxiety that was always a feature of the movement. That’s not entirely unfair, but political movements are a reflection of their leadership. Donald Trump’s paranoia and racial hostility have provided his supporters with a template. This White House is well aware of the base sentiments their principal channels and, as such, they don’t dare tamp those sentiments down when they are summoned by aspiring Trump imitators. To do so would invite accusations of hypocrisy.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Republican Party’s kooks were considered anti-establishment insurgents. They had to fight against the party’s gatekeepers to get a hearing from voters. Donald Trump’s comportment helped legitimize people like Joe Arpaio. This candidacy and the damage it may yet do to the Republican Party’s brand (already a wounded animal) is a creation of this president.

Similarly, the baggage Chelsea Manning brings to the table in Maryland was packed by Barack Obama. Her candidacy is only likely to confirm voters’ worst suspicions about the Democratic Party’s activist base, but it was Obama who demonstrated that those fears are not unsupported.

Obama’s decision to offer Manning clemency was one of the final acts of his presidency, a period usually typified by actions the outgoing executive doesn’t want to have to defend publicly. Manning betrayed the United States while serving in uniform by providing the Russian-linked information clearinghouse WikiLeaks with a variety of sensitive documents about the American mission in Iraq and Afghanistan. Manning was stripped of his rank and imprisoned—rightly so—for putting the lives of U.S. servicemen and women and those who worked with them at risk. And then, Manning transitioned from a man into a woman, thus imposing a paralyzing moral conundrum on the Democratic Party. In the age of identity, Manning’s transgenderism transformed this convicted criminal into a victim overnight.

Obama’s defenders justified the commutation of Manning’s sentence by noting that she struggled with frequent attacks on her identity as a transgender woman in a male prison and twice tried to commit suicide. The demands she made regarding the treatment of gender dysphoria, including sexual-reassignment surgery, complicated her incarceration. What’s more, having served seven years of a 35-year sentence—the longest punishment imposed on someone convicted of leaking sensitive documents—it’s not a stretch to suggest that Manning served the debt owed to society.

As a private citizen, Manning has been treated to glowing profiles in outlets ranging from Yahoo Beauty to Vogue and has been embraced by the American Civil Liberties Union. As James Kirchick demonstrated, these labored displays of sycophancy aren’t about Manning, per se. She’s merely a totem in service to the idea that the stigmas associated with transgenderism must be abjured. In the process of abjuring them, though, the American left has rehabilitated a person who calls the United States a “police state,” who thinks Law Enforcement Appreciation Day is a good opportunity to write “f*** the police” on her Twitter account, and who is barred from entering Canada for committing a crime outside the country that “would equate to an indictable offence, namely treason.”

People and institutions welcoming Manning’s Senate candidacy with a notorious hostility toward American force projection abroad and its law enforcement techniques at home. Perhaps worst of all, Manning is seemingly incapable of communicating like an adult—appealing to the most insipid displays of mediocrity overburdened with puerile sentimentality and emojis. And anyone who dares make mention of any of this is bludgeoned into silence by liberal activists who cynically equate criticisms of Manning’s behavior with displays of bigotry toward the transgender community.

Neither Joe Arpaio nor Chelsea Manning deserved their reprieves. The legitimacy these two blights on the American political ethos enjoy today is a product of the most reckless, self-indulgent impulses of the presidents who gave them clemancy. They are funhouse mirror reflections of their respective party’s base voters. These candidacies are not aberrations; they are the wages of a partisan political culture that values provoking adversaries over substantive engagement. It’s up to responsible voices within both parties’ political establishments to ensure that these candidacies aren’t harbingers of things to come.

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