Is Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton the next Trump?
President in waiting, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton. | AP

Amidst a public health catastrophe that’s already taken 150,000 lives in this country and a national anti-racist uprising which has mobilized millions, the extreme right is methodically planning its next steps, ensuring its political survival no matter the outcome of the November 3rd elections. Whether or not Trump prevails and wins a second term, the Republican Party is preparing for a future after him. And in Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, it’s possible they might have found their next frontman.

Cotton has earned widespread condemnation from the liberal media, Black leaders, and left commentators in recent weeks thanks to his back-to-back provocative attacks on Black Lives Matter demonstrators and the reporters and scholars behind the New York Times1619 Project. Unless you’re a Washington watcher, Cotton might be someone who’s passed under your radar. But now that he’s put himself front and center in the so-called “culture wars,” he deserves some fresh scrutiny.

When protesters demanded an end to systemic racism and police violence in June, Cotton urged Trump to show BLM no mercy; he said to “Send in the Troops” in a controversial NYT op-ed. After that, Cotton picked a fight with Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Times journalist who jumpstarted a national conversation around the central role that slavery and its legacy played in the founding of the United States and its subsequent history.

Almost as if his only goal was to poke at his ideological opponents and rile up the GOP’s racist base, Cotton filed a bill that would ban federal funding for any educational curriculum that drew on the Pulitzer Prize-winning materials of the 1619 Project. Talking to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about his bill earlier this week, Cotton said doing more to integrate slavery and the oppression of Black Americans into school history classes is “left-wing propaganda” and “revisionist history at its worst.”

The comment that critics believe really showed Cotton’s true colors, however, was when he called slavery “the necessary evil upon which the union was built.” Generations of untold human suffering was apparently the price to pay to build “the greatest and noblest country in the history of mankind.” It’s the same nationalist and racist ideology constantly pushed by Trump, but from a politer and more articulate spokesman.

(Although, to give Cotton his due for speaking some truth, slavery was indeed the “necessary evil” that enabled U.S. capitalism to take over the world—hundreds of years of unpaid slave labor helped American imperialism dominate competitors in global markets and amass the resources needed to build and fuel the world’s most powerful war machine by the early 20th century.)

If the far right is looking for a fresh poster boy for their authoritarian agenda, they probably couldn’t ask for better than Cotton. He’s a darling of the MAGA crowd, a hawk when it comes to foreign policy, one of the most anti-China voices in Congress, a law-and-order guy who says we have an “under-incarceration problem,” and a firm opponent of immigration. And, at just 43 years old, he’s the youngest member of the Senate. That means he’ll potentially be around to lead the Trumpist brigades long after Trump himself is gone.

He’s got the strongman populist instincts that appeal to the base as well as the connections to the party establishment and big money that it takes to get things done in Washington. He’s a pal to both “alt-right” bomb-thrower Steve Bannon as well as former GOP chairman Reince Priebus, the very example of insider politics. He’s equally at ease at either a Tea Party rally or a Senate caucus meeting.

Cotton comes from a working-class family in the town of Dardanelle, in west-central Arkansas, where he grew up on the Cotton cattle farm. His parents were both public employees; dad worked for the state Health Department, and mom taught at the local school. After finishing high school, Cotton studied government at Harvard University. He became known for the conservative positions he took in articles for the college newspaper, attacking reforms such as affirmative action. He went on to earn his law degree from Harvard and practiced law for a short time following his 2002 graduation. In 2005, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, opting to serve in the infantry.

It was during his time in the Army that Cotton catapulted onto the political scene. Writing to the NYT from Baghdad in 2006, he condemned journalists who’d exposed a secret Bush administration program to monitor international financial transactions for the purpose of tracking supposed terrorist activity. Cotton charged the whistleblowing reporters with helping terrorists and said they belonged “behind bars.” The Times never published the letter, but a conservative blog did.

From the time of that letter onward, Cotton became known as a militarist without equal. His Army credentials and service medals from both the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns were deployed as validators for his opinions on foreign policy. As a legislator, he’s always been ready to shovel public funds into the military-industrial complex and flex American muscle around the world. In his blustery maiden speech upon joining the Senate in 2015, he announced, “Our enemies and allies alike must know that aggressors will pay an unspeakable price for challenging the United States…. The best way to impose that price is global military dominance.”

Since January 2017, Cotton has been a reliable Trump loyalist in the Senate, hewing more closely to the president’s line than even Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He’s a Trumpist, but without the total bootlicking and lack of dignity typical of so many Trump coattail politicians. The president highly values his counsel, reportedly keeping Cotton on speed dial and regularly consulting with him about whom to nominate to the Supreme Court or appoint to Cabinet.

Cotton knows well enough to keep himself close to Trump, given the ferocious fealty the GOP electorate shows the president, but the Arkansas Senator also ensures that he appeals to a wider swath of the GOP than Trump himself manages to do.

Capt. Tom Cotton, a militarist with no equal. | Cotton campaign

From the start of his political career, Cotton has been a part of the dark money world of seedy establishment Republican politics that initially shunned Trump. When he first ran for Congress in 2012, Cotton had the backing of the libertarian Club for Growth super PAC. Jumping to the Senate two years later in 2014, the same group helped him portray centrist Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor as an Obama hack. Cotton’s strong anti-Iran line garnered him hundreds of thousands of dollars that year from Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel.

And his biggest backer of all? The billionaire Koch brothers’ network, which funded his electoral effort to the tune of some $8.1 million. The same big money operation refused to back Trump in 2016, even though it was their mega-spending on behalf of the far-right agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, and crooked elections which actually paved the way for Trump’s rise to power. Tom Cotton, however, has always been their man.

Cotton has the potential to bridge the factional divides in the Republican Party opened up by the growth of Trump’s extreme right populism. He could also, possibly, even appeal to moderates and independents who are open to a conservative agenda but turned off by Trump’s crass style and divisiveness. Cotton knows when to push the left’s buttons and also when to not go too far. The Democratic Party of Arkansas didn’t even come up with someone to challenge Cotton this fall; he’s running unopposed for re-election in November.

In just a short time, Cotton has risen from being the junior senator from a small rural state to one of the most talked-about candidates for 2024. He’s a Harvard Law graduate, a decorated veteran, and he doesn’t display any of the wacky conspiracy thinking or unpredictability and recklessness so often associated with Trump. The pro-fascist elements in the GOP, which extend well beyond Trump and his cabal, would certainly rally around a military man like Cotton. And the billionaire class has proven it will enthusiastically back him to the hilt.

Add up all of these facts and you end up with a far-right political leader who, in the long term, may end up proving even more dangerous than Donald Trump.

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C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.