You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Clay Higgins and the Rise of Trumpism in the GOP

The congressman's controversial video from Auschwitz is a reminder that Trump is merely the figurehead of an increasingly extreme Republican Party.

If there’s any American politician who needs to get off social media more than President Donald Trump, it’s Congressman Clay Higgins. On the Fourth of July, the first-term representative from Louisiana posted a five-minute selfie video, taken at Auschwitz, invoking the Holocaust to argue that U.S. national security must be “squared away” and the military has to be “invincible.” After the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum denounced Higgins in a tweet—“Everyone has the right to personal reflections. However, inside a former gas chamber, there should be mournful silence. It’s not a stage”— Higgins retracted his video and apologized. “The atrocities that happened at Auschwitz were truly despicable, and we must never let history repeat itself in such a way,” he wrote. “We live in a dangerous world, and massive forces of evil do indeed yet exist. We must all stand united against those evils.”

This hardly the first time the “Cajun John Wayne,” who has over 200,000 Facebook followers, has crossed the line—both on the internet and off. He has a history of failing upward, all the way to the U.S. Congress. He’s also an important reminder that Trump is not an anomaly, but merely the figurehead of a Republican Party that is increasingly xenophobic, authoritarian, and incompetent.

Higgins’s excesses date back to early in his policing career, when he was a SWAT team member for the Opelousas Police Department in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. In a little-noticed investigation last year, amid Higgins’s congressional campaign, the Lafayette-based IND Monthly revealed that he had resigned from the job in 2007 as he was about to be disciplined— including a demotion and suspension without pay—for assaulting a man and then lying about it. “I really thought that Clay had turned the page,” Higgins’s former boss told IND. “He preaches a lot about redemption, but his claims are, for the most part, inaccurate.” (In May, Higgins posted a campaign video of himself shooting a gun—while wearing a SWAT vest.)

After a three-year stint at the Port Barre Police Department, he joined the St. Landry’s Parish Sheriff’s Office in 2011. He became a law-enforcement celebrity when his “Crime Stoppers” videos for ABC affiliate KATC went viral on YouTube, gaining notice from Jimmy Fallon to The Washington Post. But he resigned in February 2016 after one of his weekly segments became national news, for all the wrong reasons. In the video, he calls several local gang members “animals” and “thugs,” saying, “You will be hunted. You will be trapped. And if you raise your weapon to a man like me, we’ll return fire with superior fire.”

Months later, Higgins rode his local popularity and tough-guy image to victory, winning a December runoff election in the heavily Republican Third Congressional District. But he has kept making videos, and last month couldn’t help but respond to the London Bridge attack on Facebook with his trademark nuance:

The free world... all of Christendom... is at war with Islamic horror. Not one penny of American treasure should be granted to any nation who harbors these heathen animals. Not a single radicalized Islamic suspect should be granted any measure of quarter. Their intended entry to the American homeland should be summarily denied. Every conceivable measure should be engaged to hunt them down. Hunt them, identify them, and kill them. Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all.

In a Facebook video in late June, he claimed that terrorists were making Americans afraid to take a walk. “You know, I’m just not gonna stop, man,” he says while walking down the street, in apparent defiance of terrorists. “I’m not gonna stop being me. Not gonna stop my behavior, not gonna alter my behavior. And I encourage my fellow Americans to do the same.”

As a first-term congressman, Higgins hasn’t made his mark legislatively yet. But he’s not alone in his view that the fight against terrorism is a holy war between Christianity and Islam. Congressman Steve King of Iowa has made similar comments for years, and recently his politics have taken an even more openly white ethnonationalist turn. Unlike Higgins, who Republicans might be inclined to write off as a neophyte and backbencher, King holds significant power due to his close ties with House right-wingers and Trump.

Likewise, Higgins’s tough-cop message aligns neatly with the Trump administration’s law and order rhetoric, from the president’s portrayal of “American carnage” to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s anachronistic war on drugs. While both Democrats and Republicans have both implemented regressive prison policies, the GOP under Trump is unapologetically opposed to any reform measure to make police more accountable. (That Higgins was forced out of a police job for “unnecessary force” and giving false statements during an internal investigation was not, apparently, a deal-breaker for Louisiana voters.)

Higgins also has a history of abusing his power and notoriety as a police officer for his own financial gain. As a Salon investigation last year showed, Higgins parlayed his position in the St. Landry’s Parish Sheriff’s Office “to sell t-shirts and mugs, negotiate paid talk show appearances, paid speeches, paid advertisements, and even a reality television show.” Higgins also owed at least $44,000 in back taxes as of last year, and coincidentally requested cash up front for his merchandise and public appearances.

Trump’s election threw wide the Overton window; political rhetoric and behavior that was previously unthinkable is now electorally viable, as we see with the ascendance of regressive, fame-seeking dilettantes like Clay Higgins. The fact that he could get elected to Congress, despite such manifest incompetence and intolerance, is a problem rooted in our government’s crisis of accountability. Higgins should not be viewed as just an inconsequential clown, but further evidence that Trumpism is now the dominant ideology of the GOP—and it isn’t going away anytime soon.