Clay Higgins had only been on the job a few weeks when it became clear that he wasn’t meant for scripts.
He initially tried following the script his predecessors had used, but using someone else’s language felt constricting and unnatural to the veteran lawman who was still adjusting to life outside of a patrol car.
“It was not me. It was not my words. I’m not an actor,” Higgins told The Washington Post in 2015. “I said, ‘I’m going to speak my mind,’ and so that’s what I did.”
Higgins started talking to the camera the way he’d learned to talk to criminals during the 17 years he’d worked as a street cop — sternly, candidly and, almost always, in a way that didn’t conceal his raw emotion or his lofty use of biblical language.
The impact in and around Opelousas, Louisiana, was almost immediate: Fugitives — moved by Higgins’s fair-minded appeals to their sense of duty — began turning themselves in. Viewers — moved by his stern demeanor, backcountry drawl and made-for-TV one-liners — began sharing his videos, turning Higgins into a viral phenomenon known as “the Cajun John Wayne.”
Two years later, Higgins has a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he is still relying on the primary tools that got him there: unfiltered emotion and unscripted speech.
It’s a quality Louisianians said they respected in a passionate law enforcement officer. Under the national media spotlight, however, the question is whether one of Higgins’s most potent tools could also become one of his biggest vulnerabilities.
Last weekend, after watching news coverage of the terrorist attack in London, Higgins jumped on Facebook and fired off an emotional statement that many interpreted as a call for a holy war between Christianity and Islam.
“The free world … all of Christendom … is at war with Islamic horror,” the Louisiana Republican wrote on Facebook on Sunday. “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.”
Posted hours after three men using knives and a vehicle killed seven people during a bloody rampage in central London, Higgins’s Facebook diatribe also went viral.
Reached by phone, as controversy swirled over what he’d written, Higgins declined to walk back any of his statements but attempted to clarify his language.
He told The Post that he believes Americans have been unwilling to speak candidly about the threat posed by Islamic terror. He blamed political correctness and said terrorists are taking advantage of the U.S. legal system, which requires probable cause and often a warrant to arrest a suspect. He blamed Barack Obama for allowing ISIS to take root during his presidency.
Higgins said that if he were in charge of London’s police, he’d round up people associated with terrorism and vet them before letting anyone go — even if that meant arresting thousands of individuals who hadn’t committed crimes. Those let go, he said, would be thanked for their cooperation and allowed to return to their lives.
“They’re religious zealots,” Higgins said, referring to terrorists. “They’re twisted, mad religious fanatics. They’re not going to stop because we’re holding up signs or being nice to them. We have to identify them and kill them.”
He added: “That’s what happens in war.”
Higgins came under heavy criticism for his statement, including on Facebook, where numerous commenters responded with dismay.
“This is extremely hateful,” Tyler F. Thigpen wrote. “I didn’t vote for you, but you represent me and I’d like to hear a lot less hateful speech from the politicians that serve me.”
In the New Orleans Advocate, columnist Stephanie Grace wrote that the former deputy’s days of “playing Cajun John Wayne and posting tough-on-crime YouTube videos should be over.”
“When you claim to speak for what’s ‘good’ and ‘righteous’ from your lofty perch in Washington, even as you advocate the opposite, all you do is diminish our country’s standing and make it less safe, not more,” Grace wrote.
Marie Proctor, a voter from Higgins’s district, told The Post that she liked the congressman’s tough-talking persona when he was fighting crime. Now that he’s on the national stage, she said, that same qualities make her uneasy when they’re used to call for violence.
“People around here admired him because no matter what, he was for getting the bad guy and it wasn’t about race or class,” Proctor said. “He was great for the community and for fighting crime, but that doesn’t mean he should be the same guy in office.”
“I guess he just sees the president going too far with his statements and he feels he can get away with it, too,” Proctor added.
Where some saw hate speech, others saw an unvarnished version of the truth.
Bo Staples, the Louisiana GOP’s political director, said Higgins’s willingness to speak from his heart was inseparable from his political rise.
“Both President Trump and Congressman Higgins have a unique ability to relate to ordinary citizens,” Staples told The Post. “Last fall, you saw the tremendous response that these unelected candidates garnered from everyday people on the campaign trail.”
“Now elected,” he added, “we are very excited about the dynamic leadership that they are providing to conservatives in Louisiana and across the nation.”
Higgins said that he was surprised that his Facebook message was interpreted as hateful or as an indictment against Islam; in fact, he said, he didn’t view the post as controversial at all.
He said he was calling for the death of Islamic terrorists, not peaceful Muslims. When he used the word “Christendom,” he said, he was referencing the Western world, not calling for a war between Christianity and Islam.
Working in law enforcement, Higgins interacted with people from different faiths and backgrounds and said he always respected people based on “what was in their heart.”
“I can tell you that there weren’t many Muslims in that part of Louisiana, but those that I have met have been very cool and very loving,” Higgins said. “Many Muslims are American citizens and I’d give my last life’s blood for any one of them, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to speak out boldly and from my heart about the threat we face as a nation and as a world.”
“I think I’m well-documented as being a compassionate, loving human being,” he said. “But I got no love for people who blow up children at a concert. What kind of a man would strap a bomb to his chest and blow up children?”
Ibrahim Hooper, the national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said the congressman’s comments follow a familiar pattern of public officials walking back broad generalizations about Islam in the wake of tragic incidents.
“Unfortunately, we see this each time after one of these tragic incidents,” Hooper said, referring to the deadly attack in London. “When there’s no pushback against Islamophobic rhetoric, people see that as tacit endorsement of anti-Islamic rhetoric.
“In particular, an elected official at the national level should not be making emotional statements, but should respond to tragedy with well-thought out statements that don’t make the situation worse.”
Higgins — who is known to carry a Bible and wear a gun to town hall meetings with constituents — was also criticized by the Louisiana Democratic Party, which called his judgment into question by citing a Bible verse about love and discipline.
“The congressman points to Christianity to justify his backward position,” the party said in a statement. “As a party that strives to put in place representatives who serve progressive, inclusive Louisiana values, we urge him to look to 2 Timothy 1:7, ‘for God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.’ Rep. Higgins’ language is exactly the sort of response that terrorists aim to provoke.”
In his last role, Higgins’s unscripted speech propelled him to fame before it forced him out of his job.
He resigned after he appeared in a viral video calling a group of predominantly black gang members “thugs,” “heathens” and “animals.”
His tough talk led to criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union and his own boss — St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby J. Guidroz — who called on his spokesman to “tone down” his unprofessional comments.
Higgins said he couldn’t follow the sheriff’s orders and resigned instead.
Months later, he was elected to Congress.
Last month, the congressman posted a video on Facebook that showed him wearing a SWAT vest, firing a rifle and calling for constituents to vote Republican to send a strong message to socialists.
“Tell the world, we’re Americans,” he bellowed. “We’d rather die on our feet than live on our knees.”