Vice President-elect Mike Pence speaks to reporters at Trump Tower, Nov. 29, 2016 in New York, N.Y.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty

Mike Pence has a curious definition of ‘rule of law’

As holidays go, Law Day isn’t widely recognized, but since the Eisenhower era, every year on May 1, the United States honors the rule of law with its own special day. Despite the fact that the president is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation, Donald Trump issued a proclamation to mark the occasion yesterday, making multiple references to the American “commitment to the rule of law.”

It made the vice president’s comments last night that much more offensive.

Mike Pence was in Arizona yesterday, headlining an event hosted by a pro-Trump group called America First Policies, when he acknowledged someone else in the room.

“I just found out as I was walking through the door that we’re also going to be joined today by another favorite: a great friend of this president, a tireless champion of strong borders and the rule of law who spent a lifetime in law enforcement, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, I’m honored to have you here.”

In case anyone’s forgotten – indeed, in case the vice president has forgotten – Joe Arpaio was accused of flagrant civil rights violations, and when a court ordered him to stop, the Arizonan ignored the instructions. Arpaio was ultimately found guilty of criminal contempt – before Donald Trump abused his pardon power and shielded Arpaio from being held accountable.

The former sheriff is now a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Pence may like Arpaio, and may even agree with his right-wing vision and racist conspiracy theories, but to praise Arpaio for being a “tireless champion” of “the rule of law” suggests the vice president defines the phrase in disheartening ways.

I’m reminded of a recent op-ed MSNBC’s Chris Hayes wrote for the New York Times, in which he explained the White House view that crime “is not defined by a specific offense,” but rather, by “who commits it.”

If all that matters when it comes to “law and order” is who is a friend and who is an enemy, and if friends are white and enemies are black or Latino or in the wrong party, then the rhetoric around crime and punishment stops being about justice and is merely about power and corruption.

And this is what “law and order” means: the preservation of a certain social order, not the rule of law. It shouldn’t have taken this long to see what has always been staring us in the face. After all, the last president to focus so intensely on law and order, Richard Nixon, the man who helped usher in mass incarceration, was also the most infamous criminal to occupy the Oval Office. The history of the United States is the story of a struggle between the desire to establish certain universal rights and the countervailing desire to preserve a particular social order.

We are now witnessing a president who wholly embraces the latter. America can have that kind of social order, or it can have justice for all. But it can’t have both.

Arpaio’s criminal misdeeds were a national embarrassment. That our Republican vice president is celebrating the former sheriff for his commitment to law enforcement says quite a bit about this administration’s perspective on law and order, and none of it is encouraging.

Joe Arpaio and Mike Pence

Mike Pence has a curious definition of 'rule of law'