In November 2010, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, created an armed “immigration posse” to interdict suspects. Its members included Hollywood action-movie figures such as Steven Segal and Lou Ferrigno and a Phoenix man, Wyatt Earp, who was widely reported to be not only the namesake but also the nephew of the iconic Old West gunfighter. This reporting required considerable imagination, since Earp had two nephews, both born in the 1870s, and both long dead. The 21st-century Earp is a retired insurance agent whose strongest connection to the original Earp is that he has portrayed him in a one-man play.
Arpaio’s attempt to link himself to Earp may seem desperate, but it’s not surprising. Arpaio is a master of symbolic politics, manipulating Western iconography to present himself as a lawman who, like Wyatt Earp, would impose his version of justice at all costs. The power of sheriffs, particularly in the parts of the Western United States where they are elected officials, is inextricably tied up in the concept of a popular justice that is not bound by anything so mundane as the law.