Last November, the Claremont Institute hosted its inaugural class of “Sheriff Fellows.” Over the course of a week, eight sheriffs—all white men—chosen from the more than 3,000 in the country stayed at the Waterfront Beach Resort in Huntington Beach, California, attending a series of discussions, lectures, and fireside chats steeped in the far-right-wing think tank’s heady intellectualism and radical ideology. While the Claremont Institute restricted public access to the fellowship, a review of the fellowship’s previously unreported curriculum reveals a program that presented for the sheriffs two sets of people in America: those communities sheriffs should police as freely and brutally as they see fit, and those “real” Americans who should be considered virtually above the law.
Public information requests and other reporting have provided insight into the stated and unstated reasons behind the Claremont Institute’s recruitment of county sheriffs, and revealed the curriculum of the fellowship. (You can read the full curriculum at the bottom of this article.) What emerges in reviewing this information is a portrait of the far right’s deep investment in sheriffs. They seem to be a key target of the movement because the office is already vulnerable to extremism and because sheriffs can enable other extremist actors like vigilantes and militias to wreak havoc on society. Claremont provides a historical and intellectual cover for selected sheriffs to continue a march into white Christian nationalism; for Claremont, the sheriffs are elected influencers who can push their message into the mainstream, far from the coterie of intellectual elites. They also have the authority to use violence under the color of law to enforce these principles in their communities.
Claremont is currently recruiting a second class, with a plan to announce the lucky few this fall. The five-decade-old Southern California institution announced in an email sent during the fall of 2021 that the goal of the fellowship was to connect with sheriffs as “uncorrupted law enforcement officials … not beholden to bureaucratic masters,” whose “jurisdictional latitude … places them on the front lines of the defense of civilization.”
While the Claremont Institute hosts a variety of other fellowships, the Sheriffs Fellowship is the first program to focus on elected officials who are currently serving. For that reason, information about the fellowship and the program is important for voters who live in counties where these sheriffs run jails, serve warrants, detain individuals at traffic stops, and help federal officials enforce immigration laws. Sheriffs also have a great deal of discretion in important contested legal areas like the enforcement of gun laws, where they are often in charge of issuing permits and confiscating weapons under red flag laws, and in how to handle health orders, including enforcement of anti-COVID-19 measures like mask mandates, business closures, and vaccination policies. At least some of the Claremont sheriffs were recruited because of their resistance to COVID orders from state and federal governments. Sheriff Chad Bianco of Riverside County, California, was specifically praised by the institute for “the courageous stand taken over the past year,” clearly a reference to Bianco having allied himself early in the pandemic with anti-vaxxers and with right-wing anti-abortion advocates in Southern California. Most recently, Bianco accused a Latina Riverside city councilmember, Clarissa Cervantes, of defacing the county courthouse because of her presence at in a pro-choice protest, spurring calls for his resignation. “You are lucky we couldn’t arrest you!” he threatened Cervantes through social media.
Sheriff Kim Cole of Mason County, Michigan, was recruited through Hillsdale College, whose chairman, Pat Sajak, took controversial positions against stay-at-home orders early in the pandemic and was recently photographed with anti-vaxxer Marjorie Taylor Greene. A Claremont program director explained the reason for the invitation in an email to Cole: “In our research on who to extend invitations to we took recommendations from friend [sic] of the institute and organizations but one thing that I know stood out to us about your leadership in these times has been how you courageously stood up to unconstitutional covid mandates.” During the peak of COVID deaths, Cole appeared regularly on Fox News to critique Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders and signed a letter promising not to enforce COVID protections that said, in part, “We believe that we are the last line of defense in protecting your civil liberties.”
Some of the sheriffs brought their wives along; they also were awarded a $1,500 honorarium. (According to emails from his office, Bianco turned down the honorarium.) Upon accepting program invitations, sheriffs received a box of books as well as a nearly 300-page packet of readings, largely by Claremont scholars. “Do not be alarmed by the amount of reading,” an email from the organizer warned.
The first day was focused on policing and heavily featured the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald, a lawyer who has written dozens of articles arguing that law enforcement in America does not have an implicit or explicit racism problem. The supplemental readings for this section included articles and books by Mac Donald with titles like War on Cops, The Diversity Delusion, “The Myth of Systemic Police Racism,” and “Black Lies Matter.” One assigned reading included Mac Donald’s argument that Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd may not have been “a product of racial animus at all,” but rather was possibly due to “poor training and an unfit temperament.” In a different article on Chauvin’s murder conviction—one that didn’t make it into the Claremont materials—Mac Donald argued that Chauvin may have been railroaded, and that his conviction meant that “it is an open question whether any police officer can receive a trial free from mob pressure, should he be prosecuted for use of lethal force.” This is the type of learning the sheriffs would have been likely to experience on Day One, and likely fits with many of their preexisting views. Attendee Sheriff Mike Lewis of Wicomico County, Maryland, has been a longtime outspoken critic of the Black Lives Matter movement and his biography is titled Sheriff Mike Lewis: Constitutional. Uncanceled. (“Sheriff Lewis is at the forefront of important initiatives protecting conservatism and the American way of life against defund the police, identity politics, and cancel culture,” reads the book description.)
Sheriff Brian Hieatt of Tazewell County, Virginia, later echoed Mac Donald when he wrote in a reflection on his time with Claremont scholars, “We are facing movements across our Nation to take away punishments and any disciplinary actions from people committing crimes.” (Hieatt’s department has imprinted the words “In God We Trust” on its official vehicles—Christian natural law, which dismantles the line between church and state, is a big part of both the “constitutional sheriff” movement and Claremont.)
Day Two involved a series of history lessons, including New York Times Magazine’s editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein’s essay about the 1619 Project, of which Claremont Institute scholars have been deeply critical. (Nikole Hannah-Jones’ essay “America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black Americans Made It One” was assigned as a supplemental reading.)
The day ended with a fireside chat with Kyle Shideler, a Claremont analyst who has focused his work on “terrorist groups.” It’s worth considering Shideler’s views on what does—and what does not—constitute a terrorist threat to understand what this lecture might have entailed. For years, Shideler has written that antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters are direct threats to the nation. By contrast, Shideler has written extensively and ferociously against laws to combat domestic terrorism. He has complained of the “FBI and Justice Department’s overzealous behavior in regards to January 6” prosecutions, calling the rioters and insurrectionists that day “trespassers,” and accused the DOJ of “persecuting J6 participants.” He’s called the Jan. 6 committee the “Russian Collusion Hoax 2.0,” criticized the “fanatics at DOJ prosecuting non-violent J6 protestors,” and claimed it was a “lie” to say Capitol police officers lost their lives as a result of the Jan. 6 attack. These are claims that were echoed by Sheriff Mark Lamb of Pinal County, Arizona, another attendee of the fellowship program, after Jan. 6, when he called the rioters “very loving, Christian people,” and demurred after being asked about the law enforcement officers killed and injured that day.
Recently, Shideler seemed to make an odd pivot to siding with the “defund the police” crowd he had spent years criticizing, calling for the FBI to be “abolished” and saying that “To save the rule of law, the bureau must be destroyed.” The reason for this call for radical abolition? The enforcement of a court-authorized search warrant at Mar-a-Lago over allegedly stolen classified documents, or as Shideler described it, a raid “over some boxes that another part of the government shipped to [former President Donald Trump].” (Opposition to the FBI is a core tenet of the constitutional sheriff movement, whose adherents believe that ultimate authority rests with the sheriffs, not federal law enforcement agencies.) The subject of Shideler’s chat to the fellows last year was “Antifa’s Threat to the Constitution.”
Day Three was focused on heady philosophical pursuits, while Day Four broadened the discussion to include various progressive movements and projects, largely, it seems, from the angle of learning about one’s enemy—or “countering the perversion of the justice system by which the revolutionary Left seeks to advance its totalitarian agenda,” in Claremont-speak. This included sessions called “The Federalist vs. The Progressives” (Parts I and II), “Black Power & Identity Politics,” and “The Sexual Revolution & Feminism.” The last two sessions are notable in what they do include—strangely chopped-up readings from Stokely Carmichael on Black Power and Ibram X. Kendi on the idea of an anti-racist amendment—as well as what they do not: any feminist writers other than Betty Friedan. The only reading about LGBTQ issues was a 1971 manifesto from the Trans Liberation Newsletter, which raises the question of why sheriffs need some special knowledge of “transgender liberation” in order to do their police work in a way that treats everyone similarly. (Research has shown that trans people who interact with the police are much more likely to encounter violence than cisgender people, but it seems doubtful that this information was on the syllabus.) The day ended with a classic John Wayne Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Ultimately, the Claremont Sheriffs Fellowship is, at first blush, an unlikely union of the intellectual right and the populist right. But Claremont and its affiliates have long looked to figures like Barry Goldwater and Donald Trump to unite right-wing populism with their somewhat obsessive desire to defeat the perceived harms of liberals. Considering Claremont’s embrace of Trump and the Big Lie, the union feels like the appropriate sign of the times.
The intellectual far right also clearly sees the utility of an army of sheriffs who are able to put these ideals into practice. Prior to the last presidential election, the Claremont Institute’s 79 Days Report outlined how Donald Trump could take over the federal government by force, specifically naming county sheriffs as important to recruiting militia members and civilian posses to prevent “hostile crowds of outsiders” from protesting a MAGA takeover. Sheriffs appear willing to accept this mantle. In a reflection on the fellowship, Sheriff Cole wrote: “I never saw this day coming to America. A time when Sheriffs are placed in a position to stand in the gap between citizens’ rights and a government that seems to reach further and further over that line. Sheriffs must have a knowledge of where that line is and how to address the overreach with confidence.” He then credited Claremont with giving him the “Constitutional based knowledge” he needed to make these decisions.
This leads to another important point: Sheriffs are the perfect messenger for Claremont. They have a great deal of authority thanks to the overfunding of police in this country. They can use tanks, helicopters, SWAT teams, battering rams, surveillance technology, and, of course, guns to subdue and terrify community members. Because they are elected, they are in a better position to defy state and federal authorities, who have little oversight and cannot remove a sheriff from office even if they are a member of a militia group like the Oath Keepers. Perhaps most insidiously of all, because the left has paid so little attention to sheriffs and the largely rural areas where they have the most power, sheriffs have been allowed to spread their extremist beliefs with the imprimatur of gun and badge.
In the wake of Trump’s election lies, sheriffs are demanding more leeway to surveil ballot boxes and have encouraged vote vigilantes to snitch on their neighbors regarding alleged-but-never-proven “voter fraud.” Unlike the brains behind Claremont, sheriffs who are currently serving can act independently from other elected officials to fight this nonexistent fraud with the force of an army and relative impunity. Now, thanks to the Claremont Institute, they can justify such violent and anti-democratic schemes with the patina of intellectual firepower.