The MAGA think tank at the vanguard of pro-Trump public intellectuals is recruiting sheriffs with ties to the far right and a dubious devotion to the “rule of law” to be academic “fellows” as part of a new program launched by the conservative institute this week.
The Claremont Institute, a far-right research group that’s home to a number of former Trump administration officials, announced a new crop of eight “sheriffs fellows” selected from across the country on the basis of their “character, aptitude, accomplishments, zeal, and community reputation” to visit Claremont’s California campus and study a syllabus of standard conservative political catechism.
The coursework, Claremont says, is fairly anodyne—lectures on Locke, the Federalist Papers, and English legal history—but the Institute’s choice of students is far more radical. Of the eight fellows announced this week, six have some affiliation with the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), an organization labeled as an anti-government extremist group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center for its endorsement of the idea that sheriffs can pick and choose which laws to enforce based on their own personal beliefs about what the Constitution allows.
In that spirit, members of Claremont’s first crop of sheriff fellows have vowed not to enforce pandemic restrictions, vaccine mandates, gun laws, and basically any laws they disagree with. For far-right groups like the Claremont Institute, those efforts to sidestep the rule of law and the will of democratically elected governments are a feature, not a bug.
“There are a growing number of groups who are clinging to the idea of the constitutional sheriff as the way to undermine everything from school board elections to attempts to curtail the pandemic restrictions to Biden administration regulations,” says Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights in Washington state. “Claremont is just the most recent example of many of these organizations that are pushing the constitutional sheriff idea as a way to gain power at the local level.”
In response to questions from The Daily Beast, a Claremont spokesperson said the institute did not consider affiliation with the CPSOA or the constitutional sheriffs movement in selecting applicants. “We rarely take institutional positions, and don’t do so here, but Sheriffs who revere the Constitution are a good thing,” the spokesperson wrote.
The constitutional sheriffs movement arose in the 1970s and ’80s in the wake of the farm crisis, when plunging land and agricultural commodity prices forced parts of rural America into poverty and swelled the ranks of extremist vigilante movements, says Burghart. In the years since, the idea of a “constitutional sheriff” who could nullify federal laws and create “posses” of like-minded civilians to stiffen that resistance has grown in times of anti-government sentiment, including the militia movement of the 1990s and the Tea Party of the 2010s.
While the constitutional sheriffs movement drew its strength from the backlash to gun-control measures in the 1990s, the current incarnation of the movement is focused on undermining COVID-19 public health restrictions—an issue Claremont’s chosen fellows seized on.
Sheriff Mark Lamb, for example, is a newly minted sheriff fellow from Arizona’s Pinal County and a favorite of both Fox News bookers and former President Trump himself. Lamb, an avowed constitutional sheriff, became a right-wing celebrity when he publicly vowed not to enforce Republican Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay at home order in early 2020. Lamb subsequently tested positive for COVID-19 after he was invited to the Trump White House for a press event with law enforcement but the infection hasn’t changed his attitude. He’s since taken to Fox News to state that he will refuse to enforce any state or federal vaccine mandate.
As then-President Trump pressured Democratic governors to open their states, many of Lamb’s colleagues in Claremont’s freshman class of sheriff fellows followed suit with acts of public defiance. When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a stay-at-home order in April 2020, she earned then-President Trump’s wrath and a tweet demanding that residents “Liberate Michigan.”
Neither Lamb nor any of the sheriffs fellows responded to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.
Kim Cole, a Claremont fellow and sheriff from Mason County, Michigan, who had previously signed a CSPOA letter vowing not to enforce any Obama administration gun control measures, answered the call. He joined with a handful of Michigan sheriffs to vow that they would not enforce the measure.
Culpeper County, Virginia Sheriff and Claremont fellow Scott Jenkins announced a similar response following Trump’s call to “liberate” Virginia under then Gov. Ralph Northam. Jenkins, a speaker at CSPOA’s 2020 conference, said in a Facebook post that he would “not trample the constitutional freedoms of our citizens to enforce an edict” of Northam’s executive order to close some businesses.
In the case of Riverside’s Sheriff and Claremont fellow Chad Bianco, that casual attitude towards the risks associated with COVID-19 has had dangerous consequences. Like a number of his colleagues, Bianco made a name for himself through Fox News appearances and membership not just in the CSPOA, but in the far-right Oath Keepers militia. In Bianco’s case, his public refusal to enforce COVID-19 precautions has spilled over into Riverside’s jails, which have experienced “one of the largest outbreaks of COVID-19 of jails,” according to the ACLU.
While the constitutional sheriffs movement may seem like a handy cudgel against the growth of vaccine and quarantine rules, its most troubling appeal to the MAGA right may lie in an imagined ability to nullify not just laws, but elections.
In the weeks before the 2020 election, a Claremont working group sketched out a scenario in a report, “79 Days to Inauguration,” that reads like a mixture of conservative war game and fan fiction. The report, first reported by The Bulwark, posits a contested presidential election that sparks a violent insurrection in which sheriffs promise to “deputize regular citizens into posses”—augmented with volunteers from the far-right Oath Keepers and Proud Boys—and band together to restore order and suppress “lawlessness.”