Auschwitz video latest flap for ‘Cajun John Wayne’
LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — As a pugnacious sheriff’s deputy, Clay Higgins developed a loyal social media following with thumbs-hooked-in-gun-belt anti-crime videos in which he leaned menacingly toward the camera in his Mountie-style hat and warned the criminals of Louisiana’s Acadiana region that they’d best just turn themselves in.
His trash-talking style — in one video he donned body armor and wielded a long gun while calling suspects “thugs” and “animals” — wasn’t appreciated by all and it led to his resignation by the time he had risen to the rank of captain in the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office.
That was followed by his election to Congress.
“He comes across to people as straightforward,” Joel Stelly, owner of a Cajun country restaurant and grocery, said Thursday. “I guess that’s kind of what got him in trouble this time.”
“This time” is a reference to Higgins’ now-retracted video of a trip he made in May to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camps in Poland, where more than a million Jews were killed in the Nazi genocide.
Higgins struck his characteristic stern and earnest tone in the production, recounting the horrors of Auschwitz while making a pitch for a strong U.S. military. The result was resounding disapproval as far away as Jerusalem and as close to home as a town house condominium in the heart of his district, where 85-year-old Manfred Klepper couldn’t believe his eyes and ears.
“That’s a sacred place,” said Klepper, a Jew who lost relatives to the Holocaust and remembers being terrorized as a child of 6 when Nazis ransacked his home during the “Kristallnacht.” His family fled Nazi Germany in 1940.
“It should never be forgotten,” Klepper said. “But it shouldn’t be made a spectacle of. To me, Rep. Higgins made a spectacle of it.”
Higgins withdrew the video from his Facebook page and issued a statement apologizing for the “unintended pain” he caused. Whether the latest controversy will harm the freshman congressman’s re-election chances next year remains in question.
“My sense is it’s not going to resonate with the people in the 3rd District very much. It just seems very far from their concerns,” said Pearson Cross, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.
Indeed, despite denunciations of the video from around the globe, at least a half-dozen people in the district, including Stelly, hadn’t heard about the flap when interviewed at random Thursday.
Still, there were critics.
“It was disgusting,” Adam Welcome, an 81-year-old retiree, said as he hurried out of Poupart Bakery on a busy Lafayette street. “He should give some thought before talking.”
Higgins appeared to be a longshot amid a field of seven when he entered the 2016 race for an open congressional seat in the heavily Republican district. He wound up in a runoff with fellow Republican Scott Angelle, then a public service commissioner. Both aimed for a traditionally conservative Republican electorate.
Angelle was the favorite — and not just because he was a seasoned political veteran up against a novice.
Higgins, 55, had baggage, including three divorces before his current marriage. A 1991 divorce record included an unproven abuse accusation by his first wife, now deceased. He didn’t just deny the accusation; he said he never knew it had been lodged until it surfaced as the campaign revved up.
Politics was not the only late-in-life career change for Higgins.
Born and raised in the New Orleans area, he worked in the automobile business and served in the National Guard before turning to law enforcement and winding up in Cajun country. Although his tough talk led local news media to dub him “the Cajun John Wayne,” he has said he is of Irish, not Acadian French, descent.
In a 2016 interview, he said he began turning around an admittedly raucous lifestyle — “I worked too much, I drank too much, I didn’t honor my wedding vows” — after a divorce from his second wife and the resulting separation from their children.
For all the furor it caused, the Auschwitz video arguably isn’t the most incendiary of Higgins’ social media posts. He drew widespread censure last month for a Facebook post that followed a deadly terror attack in London.
“The free world ... all of Christendom ... is at war with Islamic horror,” Higgins wrote, going on to say of terrorists: “Hunt them, identify them, and kill them. Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all.”
Higgins was unapologetic for that one. “The meaning of candid speech is frequently mischaracterized or misunderstood,” he said then.
Cross likens Higgins’ social media forays to President Donald Trump’s Twitter posts. “They’re perhaps regrettable, perhaps they should be toned down. But, the essential message of Trump and Higgins is still supported.”
The question, Cross says, is whether a more conventional Republican will enter the race when Higgins stands for re-election next year. And whether the provocative videos and posts come back to haunt Higgins.
“I’m not a campaign media consultant,” Cross said. “But if I were, I think I could find ways to use all that stuff against Clay Higgins pretty effectively.”