There’s an old cliché about the television star who becomes so deluded in his role he begins to believe he possesses the talents of his character in real life, and so the TV doctor attempts to stop a heart attack, the TV cop intervenes to stop a robbery, the TV lawyer advises friends on their divorce, etc. There is a corollary to this syndrome, in which those of us who watch these men and women begin to believe it too. Whether Alan Alda ever really attempted to perform chest compressions I do not know, but as to the viewers the disease remains alive and well.
Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin claims he will be appointed to a position in the Department of Homeland Security. The administration refuses to confirm or deny this, and so perhaps Clarke is simply the latest television personality to trade on an ostensible relationship with the administration that it is not clear exists. But whether or not Clarke is simply trolling for headlines, his role as “Law and Order” totem is not in doubt – see, for instance, his speaking slot at last year’s Republican National Convention. Clarke also now faces charges of plagiarism, but the possibility he cribbed a bit from the ACLU should be the least of our concerns.
For those curious as to Clarke’s character, I commend to you Radley Balko’s summation. Clarke believes the tweeting of “pro-terrorist” sentiments should be grounds for a trip to Guantanamo, and that BlackLivesMatter protesters are equivalent to either ISIS or the Ku Klux Klan (or perhaps they’re all equal in his eyes). He believes that any protest that questions the wisdom of electing Donald Trump should be put down, since the “will of the people” shall not be questioned. Clarke’s jail in Milwaukee boasts a death rate three times the national average, and lest you think this is due to the particular brutality of the criminals in the upper Midwest, there often is no shiv to blame. The allegations include a woman left to give birth alone on the floor of a prison cell for hours, her screams for help ignored. The baby did not survive. Some forty other women were forced to wear “belly chains” while in labor. For a proclaimed pro-life advocate, Clarke makes for an effective abortionist. Multiple detainees committed suicide after being denied their psychiatric medication. Clarke cannot even be bothered to provide his charges with sufficient drinking water to preclude them from dropping dead. This is not a county jail, it is a gulag, and men like David Clarke are peace officers in roughly the same way the Red Guard was a student protest movement.
Despite Clarke’s disinterest in the most basic responsibilities of his job, he became something of a celebrity in conservative circles for his tough-talking hijinks, a sort of modern Judge Roy Bean, but on Twitter. The predominant effect is of self-parody – a caricature of law and order complete with a cartoonish getup including enough pieces of flair to make a manager at Chotchkie’s blush. All this plays well to a conservative media culture that, as National Review’s David French points out, long ago ensconced pugilism as its most cherished virtue. This is true, such that French’s own outlet once placed Clarke on its cover astride a horse, like a latter day John Wayne. Lawman as fetish.
Thus, in the era of the performative presidency – where it matters less what the president does than what the president behaves as and where politics is atomized into pure mood affiliation – we get the performative law enforcement officer, who straps decals to his chest the way a drag queen applies eyeshadow. Sheriff Clarke is not really an enforcer of laws, he is a purveyor of fantasies, fulfiller of the fever dreams of those for whom concepts like due process and the Bill of Rights are so much hippie ninnying. Conservatives thus construct a reality for themselves in which government power is dangerous except when applied to other people, and where dressing like Sgt. Pepper’s understudy serves as the primary qualification to be an agent of justice. We are all post modernists now.
Hugh Laurie possessed no talent for diagnosis. Jack Webb never solved a crime. Raymond Burr didn’t save a single boy from the gas chamber. Donald Trump is not really a successful businessman, he just played one on TV. And David Clarke is not really a peace officer – he is a television personality who eventually started to take his Halloween costume too seriously.