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The crowd got so stirred up when this gentleman urged them to stand up and get angry that I could scarcely hear him proclaim above the uproar:

I don’t want Obama in my house telling me what I can and cannot do, what I can and cannot drink, what I can and cannot eat, what kind of car I can drive, what I can put in my car.

And don’t forget, he’ll want your guns! Probably shoot you with one of them.

Seriously, though, the gentleman pulled these fears out of a magician’s hat, because Obama has no interest in what this citizen drinks or which kind of car he drives. But the fervor of the crowd–one man yelled “Heil Obama!”–told me they believed, in fact gloried in, facing these baseless charges.

I wondered why.

Perhaps their paranoia about Obama derives from an assumption that he is as willing to break the law as they are. They approve of leaders overextending their authority–IF those leaders are Republicans. So they assume that those on the left think the same way as themselves and will break the law when it suits them.

Setting aside all the Bush/Cheney offenses I could cite as examples, let me offer something current: the Republican sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona. Polls show that Joe Arpaio is the most popular politician in the state. The July 20, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, pp. 44-45, has this account:

The biggest part of the sheriff’s job is running the jails, and Arpaio saw that there was political gold to be spun there. The voters had declined to finance new jail construction, and so, in 1993, Arpaio, vowing no troublemakers would be released on his watch because of overcrowding, procured a consignment of Army-surplus tents and had them set up, surrounded by barbed wire, in an industrial area in southwest Phoenix. “I put them up next to the dump, the dog pound, the waste-disposal plant,” he told me. Phoenix is an open-air blast furnace for much of the year. Temperatures inside the tents hit a hundred and thirty-five degrees. Still, the tents were a hit with the public, or at least with the conservative majority that voted. Arpaio put up more tents, until Tent City jail held twenty-five hundred inmates, and he stuck a neon “VACANCY” sign on a tall guard tower. It was visible for miles.


“I know just how far I can go,” Arpaio told me. “That’s the thing.”

His deputies, particularly his jail guards, seem to have less sense of how far they can go. Thousands of lawsuits and legal claims alleging abuse have been filed against Arpaio’s department by inmates–or, in the case of deaths in detention, by their families. A federal investigation found that deputies had used stun guns on prisoners already strapped into a “restraint chair.” The family of one man who died after being forced into the restraint chair was awarded more than six million dollars as the result of a suit in federal court. The family of another man killed in the restraint chair got $8.25 million in a pre-trial settlement. (This deal was reached after the discovery of a surveillance video that showed fourteen guards beating, choking, and suffocating the prisoner, and after the sheriff’s office was accused of discarding evidence, including the crushed larynx of the deceased.) To date, lawsuits brought against Arpaio’s office have cost Maricopa County taxpayers forty-three million dollars, according to some estimates. But the Sheriff has never acknowledged any wrongdoing in his jails, never apologized to the victims or their families. In fact, many of the officers involved have been promoted.

Other jails get sued, of course. The Phoenix New Times found that, between 2004 and 2008, the county jails of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston, which together house more than six times as many inmates as Maricopa, were sued a total of forty-three times. During the same period, Arpaio’s department was sued over jail conditions almost twenty-two hundred times in federal district court.

All those dangerous jails and wasted money slide right off the teflon sheriff, and anyone who criticizes him will face retaliation. The Phoenix New Times ran an investigative series on his corrupt real estate deals and found itself on the receiving end of “impossibly broad” subpoenas.

Outspoken citizens also take their chances. Last December, remarks critical of Arpaio were offered during the public-comment period at a board of supervisors meeting, and four members of the audience were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct–for clapping.

I’ll give you any odds you want that last Monday night’s crowd would love Arpaio. They would despise anyone who fretted about 2200 lawsuits, about housing convicts in tents with temperatures of 135 degrees, or about crushing a restrained prisoner’s larynx. The Cruel and Unusual provision of the Constitution be damned. They’d be fine with impossibly broad subpoenas and arresting people for clapping. Understand, of course, that they want to be able to clap and yell at Claire’s staffer, but they wouldn’t judge Arpaio for clamping down on his opposition.

So Americans for Prosperity and its adherents rant as if Obama is bound to behave like Arpaio or Cheney. And yet, the man in the video and those who raised the roof in approval of his defiance, probably know–paradoxically–that no consequences will have to be paid for their rebellion. As WillyK put it, they have a “certain mock-heroic and very self-righteous militancy.” Conservatives have a history going back many decades of glorying in faux victimhood. You can only comfortably relish your bravado if you know in the back of your mind that no real reckoning will follow.

And none will. Because they’re dealing with a party that doesn’t have the same history of waving citizens’ rights aside. However much they rant, they know that in some corner of their mind.

Ain’t rebellion fun in a democracy?