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Donald Trump

Elites wrote off Trump, but Arizona never did. Heck, Sheriff Joe Arpaio invented Trump.

Arpaio was among the first nationally known Republican figure to endorse Trump's campaign, traveling to Iowa in 2016 to do so in a big, public way. Trump took his playbook and ran with it.

EJ Montini
Arizona Republic

READER: I was telling a friend who’s only lived here for about five years that you wrote once that Arizona invented Donald Trump, which I totally believe to be true. But I can’t find that article on the internet and now I feel like I was lying. Was I?

ME: I’m gonna say … not exactly.

I said Arizona invented former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. And he invented Trump.

It went like this.

Back in 2015, when Trump glided down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce that he was running for president, and famously kicked off his campaign by saying, in part, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” he was roundly condemned by the news media and, in many ways, written off as a candidate.

Joe Arpaio and Donald Trump appear at an Iowa campaign event in 2016.

They wrote off Trump. Arizona didn't.

CNN reported that a company using “an interactive data collection platform” said Trump had only a 1% chance of winning the Republican nomination for president.

James Fallows in The Atlantic said the odds were even worse, writing, “Trump will not be the 45th president of the United States. Nor the 46th, nor any other number you might name. The chance of his winning nomination and election is exactly zero.”

But out here in the desert, thousands of miles from the media bastions of the East Coast, we knew better.

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I wrote at the time: “People who don't know any better are saying Donald Trump can't win the presidential election. In Arizona, we know that he can get elected, because Arizonans already have elected Donald Trump – many times.”

I was talking about Arpaio and his imitators.

Republicans once kissed Arpaio's ring

Arpaio was elected sheriff the same year Bill Clinton was elected president.

Then in 1993, he created the infamous “Tent City” at the county jail. Within a relatively short time, he introduced policies and procedures that thrilled hard-liners but resulted in a number of jail deaths, which led to lawsuits.

There were even more lawsuits over Arpaio’s treatment of migrants. The payouts have cost county taxpayers more than a quarter of a billion dollars.

But voters loved Arpaio’s tough-guy act, electing him again and again and making him a Republican icon with national and international appeal.

For 20 years, Republican politicians made pilgrimages to Phoenix to kiss Arpaio’s ring, beg for his endorsement and have their photo taken with the sheriff.

This included pretty much every Republican presidential candidate since George W. Bush, as well as candidates for governor, for Congress, for just about every political office.

And it wasn’t only Republicans from Arizona. Arpaio traveled all over the country at the request of candidates running for state and federal offices.

Trump courted Arpaio, used his playbook

He drew enthusiastic crowds and helped to finance dozens of political campaigns.

Donald Trump noticed.

He had all the money he needed, of course, and a bigger public profile than Arpaio, and more TV skills. But he, too, came calling on the sheriff.

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Arpaio became among the first nationally known Republican figure to endorse Trump’s campaign, traveling to Iowa in 2016 to do so in a big, public way.

In 2017, when Arpaio was facing possible jail time for criminal contempt of court, then-President Donald Trump pardoned him. It was the first pardon Trump issued.

Gratitude. And why not?

Trump had taken Arpaio’s playbook and run with it.

Kari Lake mimicks Trump (and Arpaio)

He still is running with it.

So, too, are the Republicans who mimic Trump.

Like last year, when Arizona Republican governor candidate Kari Lake told a gathering, “The media might have a field day with this one, but I’m gonna just repeat something President Trump said a long time ago and it got him in a lot of trouble.”

She continued, “They are bringing drugs. They are bringing crime, and they are rapists, and that’s who’s coming across our border. That’s a fact.”

EJ Montini

So, to be specific, Arizona did not invent Donald Trump.

But Arizona invented Joe Arpaio. And he invented Donald Trump.

EJ Montini is a columnist at the Arizona Republic, where this column first ran. Reach Montini at

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