Higgins through the looking glass

by Christiaan Mader

Higgins faced up to his rhetoric in a meeting with the left, but how can he abandon the tough talk that made him?

James Proctor, left, talks unity and political violence with Higgins. Photo by Walter Pierce

It all began with a look in the mirror, said Rep. Clay Higgins of his joint statement with local progressives on violence. That naturally begs the question: What did he see? Higgins has rarely been without controversy, particularly among folks on the left, for his penchant for rhetorical grandstanding with biblical overtones. When he plays the captain, a character we’ve known since his St. Landry Parish Crime Stoppers days, Higgins knows only black and white. He speaks in polarities, the necessary condition of waging a righteous war.

Appearing chastened, his thinning hair mussed and his glassy blue eyes sullen, Higgins had arrived with his hat in hand to greet his photo-op interlocutor, local Indivisible chapter head James Proctor, a fellow veteran. Higgins' entrance to a cramped conference room in Chase Tower was presaged by the looming but friendly presence of two meaty security guards. While the gathered progressives and media waited, the pair of body men helped sort out the lack of air circulation in the room.

Once in the meeting, Higgins intoned with humbled contrition. “All of us need to look into our own heart and ask ourselves, do we grasp the fact that our words have meaning?” said Higgins.

Higgins is a complicated man. Whether he’s sincere about this rapprochement with the left is between him and his God. You can’t know what a man has in his heart. But despite his rather vague mea culpa — that come-to-the-mirror moment — Higgins fell short of any tangible indication of a change in tone. Proctor seems to believe his intentions well-founded, which should count for a lot given Proctor's role.

“I think Congressman Higgins recognizes, like we do, that heated rhetoric is like an unguided missile,” he said in an interview. “You don’t know who it’s going to hit, or what the result is going to be, but you can be pretty sure it’s not going to be good. When tough talk turns into trigger pulling, our democracy is in danger. I think Clay Higgins reached out with that in mind.”

What predicated all of this was the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise, shot through the pelvis with a high-powered rifle by a deranged Bernie Sanders supporter with a list of GOP congressman on his person. Maybe that explains the added security. But miles away from Virginia, the peace-making between Proctor and Higgins had a change in rhetoric on the accord, and there Higgins fell short of full penitence.

Pressed with what he called a “pointed” question about his infamous “kill them all” statement a few weeks ago, following a terror attack in London, Higgins didn’t so much dig in as he maintained his pre-Virginia-shooting party line. Directed at Islamic terrorists, he argued, his statements must be construed in the context of war against people who want to do us harm.

“Well, that is a very pointed question that I think is deserving of a great deal of conversation, maybe over a cold beer. But, the bottom line is that words have impact, and that is what came into my heart,” Higgins answered.

Call it the cold beer dodge: the plea that, faced with a tough, soul-searching question, we ought to defer such quarrel to the peace of a shared drink. That would make sense except that the meeting with Indivisible was predicated on precisely that kind of soul-searching.

In any case, that pointed question, by my colleague Walter Pierce, doesn’t actually touch the more problematic rhetoric that Higgins has produced, and which he has yet to address directly. It’s one thing to get hot-headed about Islamic terror — worth noting that even some conservative commentators, like Kevin Boyd at The Hayride, felt like he went too far — but Higgins has blown up on constituents in Facebook rants, challenging critics to back up their barbs in the schoolyard.

Last month, he told one constituent that he “aspired to her eventual absence,” an oratorical twist that’s as vaguely threatening as it is meaningless. Whether he actually hoped her dead is swept under by his next sentiment: “Cowardly lot ye are, ye and your ilk. In my face then...don’t sing it, bring it.”

Sometimes it's hard to tell what's sentiment and what's satire. His persona is crafted around straight-talk.

That Facebook thread is appended to a video of a shirtless, SWAT-vested Congressman Clay blasting an assault rifle and rallying viewers to vote Republican. It’s one thing to call politics a fight, it’s another to say it holding a deadly weapon.

It’s doubtful that those flare-ups really hurt him with his base, many of whom have very much bought into the us-versus-them rhetoric that Higgins’ face-to-face with local progressives ostensibly decried.

After the “kill them all” controversy took flight onto national media, Higgins used the episode to ask for campaign contributions. “Do you have my six?” the campaign lit says. In that light, you’ve got to wonder if his peace-making with Indivisible is a play to the political middle. If he wants another term in office, he’s already in a new campaign. And Higgins has shown himself adept at presenting the right face to the right crowd.

It’s difficult to imagine that Higgins will step all the way back from his straight-talk swagger, and in fairness, combat metaphors fall well short of provoking violence. But considering the conversation with Proctor revolved around the heated rhetoric that divides Americans, Higgins put little on the record to suggest that he intended to abandon his stock and trade. Sure, he took a look in the mirror. But he fell short of promising to change what he saw.

His office has not yet replied to requests for comment regarding his social media flare ups.

After he left the room, his guards held up the crowd while the congressman went to the bathroom, securing the hallway until the congressman relieved himself and loaded onto the elevator.

Maybe they were protecting him from others wanting to harm him, or protecting him from further harming himself by saying something else off the cuff. Either way, as he ambled off to his next engagement, he left the rest of us to wonder.