On Tuesday, President Trump will visit a state he loves to make waves in for exactly the kind of events he loves to make waves at: a border tour and campaign-style rally in Arizona. For Trump, it’s a precarious moment. He’s fresh off equating white supremacists in Charlottesville with counterprotesters, which polls show a majority of Americans disapprove of, and announcing a revving up in Afghanistan, which polls show a majority of Americans also disapprove of.
Trump is also known for speaking his mind (read: saying controversial things) at rallies. Among the possibilities: endorsing a primary challenger to Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), trashing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has brain cancer and voted against the Senate’s health-care bill, and/or pardoning convicted and controversial former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Aside from all this, Arizona has its own troubles — it’s bubbling with economic and racial anxiety and political polarization.
The Fix called up Lawrence Robinson, a former adviser to Phoenix’s mayor, Greg Stanton (D), to talk about what to expect when Trump goes to Arizona. Our conversation has been edited for length.
THE FIX: In general, how do Arizonans feel about Trump? The state is giving us mixed results. Trump won it by 3.5 points, but since then Flake has inserted himself as the face of GOP opposition to Trump.
ROBINSON: I like that you phrase it that way, because in some ways, it’s impossible to tell. Jeff Flake represents a sizable Mormon population here, but he won election in 2012 by only three points. Into the Obama era, Democrats had the congressional majority, even with gerrymandering. And we may take Flake’s seat, and so that would put us back in the majority. This state is very much in flux, as is every other state. It’s not as conservative as people think.
THE FIX: So then why do you think Trump’s message resonates in Arizona?
Arizona has been a petri dish for this type of politics before The Washington Post was ever covering it. I worked in the state legislature when we were talking about building our own wall, and politicians were talking about headless bodies in the desert. So the fears are easy to perpetuate as excuses for economic stagnation. … It’s just easy to make those arguments in a vacuum when no one is countering you. When it’s your governor and your congressman and your sheriff making that argument, what else are you going to think?
THE FIX: Arizona seems to be a microcosm for a lot of Trump’s struggles right now: racial tensions, his struggle so far to deliver on his hard-line immigration promises, growing tensions between the establishment wing of his party and his wing.
As a Sun Belt state, we represent that weird amalgamation of the browning of America, the white worker not having any mobility (Arizona does not have a lot of employment opportunities besides distribution centers and call houses) and the younger generation with all of our colleges and the debt that brings. It really is a microcosm in ways that, I think, people here don’t even understand.
Politics are becoming polarized on both sides. For a lot of years, the Democrats kept quiet to keep a seat. And there was certainly a fringe in Republican politics, but a lot of our governors and elected leaders were not right-wingers. But that started to change in the ’90s with the Sheriff Arpaio tea-party type. And that was always here, but it started to be the only game in town, and, conversely, the Democrats were ignited.
Arizona’s the ’70s and ’80s, and now you have a whole new generation graduating from DACA who have nothing to lose. Same with a lot of our white residents who might be inclined to vote for Trump. So it is a bit of a powder keg right now, because, for a generation, we haven’t had that kind of opportunity.
THE FIX: Against that backdrop, what would happen if Trump pardoned Arpaio, who was convicted of not obeying a judge’s orders to stop detaining people he suspected were illegal immigrants.
I think it will inflame the left as much as the right has already been inflamed. I taught a political science class last year when Trump got elected. Half the class was undocumented, and the day after the election, it was like they got punched in the stomach. And they fought for years to get Arpaio out of there, and to watch someone like Trump pardon him would be a powder keg.
THE FIX: Phoenix’s mayor took an unusual step of asking Trump not to come to town in the midst of all this. What was that all about?
I’ve known the mayor for 17 years. He has been so cautious and kept all of his powder dry, so I think it’s telling that at this point, he is willing to take a stand publicly against the president. That’s the full evolution of the Arizona Democrat. It’s such a black-and-white, polarized situation that you have to stand with the base here who uses Trump as the enemy. He has no other choice. But I also think it’s a courageous decision. He has for so long been the mayor everybody loves, and he’s making a decision that’s very charged.
THE FIX: And, finally, talk to me about Flake’s reelection. Trump could come to town and endorse his primary opponent, and if Flake makes it through that, will he survive a general election?
You’ve got a lot of Democrats who like him now. And, ironically, [potential Democratic challenger Rep. Krysten] Sinema has earned a contentious view from so many base Democrats because she’s taking such a careful stance. So it’s Arizona again: Up is down and down is up. You got Flake being a conscience of the left and Sinema being the sellout to much of the left. It’s going to be fascinating.
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