Not to betray what White House advisers might call my cosmopolitan bias, but our president doesn’t seem like the book-reading type. He doesn’t seem curious about many things, or interested in much that doesn’t directly have to do with his personal brand. He has declared himself, like, a smart person, but he doesn’t demonstrate the intellectual curiosity of any of his recent predecessors. His intelligence briefings are chart, map, and his-own-name-based, in a similar way a packet designed to raise the self-esteem of a damaged 8-year-old might be.
It’s fair to suspect that President Trump hasn’t read a book in quite some time, but it’s not fair to ignore the people whose books he promotes. The book President Trump tweeted in support of Sunday was written by Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke. “A great book by a great guy, highly recommended,” tweeted the president.
The book is called Cop Under Fire: Moving Beyond Hashtags of Race, Crime & Politics for a Better America. If you think the title is incoherent argle bargle, wait until you get to the text.
Normally, Clarke’s book would be a small tragedy because of the trees it destroyed to exist. But it’s bigger now, because his ally is the president, and because the president recommended it as a good book. It makes sense that the citizenry should familiarize itself with it. But it’s also important to note that Clarke and his ideas are high-octane garbage. That’s why I read it. I did it so you don’t have to.
To put it bluntly, Clarke’s book is bad, because he is a bad person with bad ideas and bad intentions. But why, exactly, his book is bad merits further exploration. Any person who puts out a book purporting to lay out their political philosophy, especially one as close to the president of the United States, deserves scrutiny and attention. What if he gets an appointment, like he almost did to the Department of Homeland Security before he was withdrawn from consideration for the position back in June, on account of the fact that he’s too crazy? What if he runs for an even higher office in his home state of Wisconsin? What then?
In case anybody was unfamiliar, Sheriff David Clarke is a notorious political charlatan, unflatteringly power-hungry, humorless and rigid to a degree that almost seems un-American. I grew up in Wisconsin, and I don’t know a single cool or smart person from that state who believes him to be anything less than dangerously insane.
Nevertheless, he has won his office of sheriff of Milwaukee County, a heavily Democratic county, several times over. This is because he has run as a Democrat, despite the fact that his views would be unwelcome in liberal or progressive spaces. As a reporter, I’ve seen him speak at CPAC twice, something atypical for Democrats. He hates Black Lives Matter and loves guns. He calls abortion “genocide” and once his jail let an inmate die of thirst.
In his book, the one the president endorsed, Clarke refers to Black Lives Matter as “Black LIES Matter,” all-caps LIES [sic], as is his habit. It’s not original, but Clarke has proven himself the sort to think that sort of boring hackery is interesting.
Clarke’s book opens with an assertion of his own blackness, but spends the rest of the pages blaming other black people for being on the losing end of hundreds of years of inequality. When liberals assume anything about him, it’s because he is black. But when liberals do anything that upsets him, it’s because they are either black or capitulating to the desired agenda of Black Lives Matter, which he calls a hate group whose goal is anarchy.
Despite preaching personal responsibility, nothing bad that has befallen Sheriff Clarke is his fault. He blames the media for “fabricating” rumors of domestic-violence accusations made against him by his wife (and chastises a reporter for failing to resign after she asked him a question about it in a press conference). He blames Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown for their own deaths at the hands of police, suggesting that if those three human beings had not wanted to die, perhaps they should have thought about that before they chose to disobey law enforcement.
Obeying and disobeying is a sticky theme throughout Clarke’s book. He takes great pains to explain why the most prominent victims of police violence deserved it. Michael Brown robbed a convenience store and was walking toward a police officer, hence, death. Trayvon Martin was strong, and mad, hence, death. Eric Garland was fat and shouldn’t have been selling cigarettes, hence, death. None of the legal consequences for any of these behaviors should be death. But Clarke (or, let’s be honest, his ghostwriter) does his best to tell the reader that it should be.
Clarke’s bizarrely brutal philosophy extends into his expanded justification for why he ran the Milwaukee county prisons with such cruelty, why he subjected his charges to inhumane conditions and inedible food. Prison shouldn’t be fun, he writes. People shouldn’t want to come back to prison. It should be OK for a prison warden to take mattresses away from inmates at 8 a.m. so they can’t sleep in; otherwise, how are they going to get jobs when they’re out (he also notes that warehouse jobs are ideal for former inmates, which means that the schedule to which he was trying to force his charges to adhere didn’t really make sense). He writes that it should be OK for wardens to deprive inmates of food that gives any pleasure, to cut job-training programs and GED programs. Prison should be unenjoyable. Nobody should want to come back.
In the same chapter, Clarke brags about a program that he engineered (or that he “adapted” from an existing program in Michigan), one that taught inmates life skills that they could use outside of prison. Why his idea was better than the programs that already existed but that he uprooted he never convincingly says. What he does say is how proud he was of one particular inmate who went through his life-skills training program who wrote him a letter about how much he wished he could stay in jail and further benefit from the program. But aren’t jails not supposed to be pleasant? Clarke never explains how he can be proud of his jails being both pleasant and unpleasant.
Later in his book, Clarke sanctimoniously chastises the 2012 Democratic Party platform for omitting God. Clarke’s public life, characterized by cruelty and condemnation, has nothing to do with the God most intellectually honest Christians engage with. But Clarke wears identity in a way that feels like an accessory, donning his blackness or his Christianity or his conservatism only when it’s a convenient device for establishing his authority to demean. Clarke is black when it licenses him to judge the lifestyles and choices and motivations of all other blacks, but assumptions people make about black people do not apply to him. He is Christian when it gives him the right to condemn other people for not identifying themselves as such, but not when it governs his actions. He is conservative when it gets him on CNN or the CPAC stage, but not when it could endanger his tenuous grasp on the spotlight.
He is for small government, except when it comes to law enforcement or the courts. The government can’t be trusted to do anything except condemn a person to death in a split-second decision. In those cases, an almost-divine level of infallibility is bestowed on all the fallible individuals contained therein.
Clarke’s inconsistency and irrationality would be comical if it were written into a book. I’d watch a movie about it. But now that reality and reality-based entertainment have bled into each other, what normally would have been seen as clownish—a tightly wound cowboy hat-wearing narc from Wisconsin—becomes dangerous.
Nobody should read Sheriff Clarke’s book. But everybody should be disturbed that the President of the United States is pretending he did.