This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Tom Cotton is a serious man. Pretty much everyone you talk to about the 43-year-old junior senator from Arkansas agrees on that. It’s not hard to see why. Cotton’s style of politics is cool and analytical, his approach deliberate and decisive, his areas of interest weighty — China, law and order, immigration — and his ambitions lofty (the other thing everyone agrees on is that he plans to run for president in 2024).
After that, opinions quickly diverge. To liberals, he represents the sinister side of Trumpian authoritarianism. To advocates of a more restrained foreign policy, he is an irredeemable hawk committed to a heavy US involvement in the Middle East and seemingly determined to accelerate the deterioration of relations with China. To libertarians, he is a civil-liberties and criminal-justice nightmare who complains about America’s “under-incarceration” problem and permeable borders.
To many on the right, he is one of the few politicians capable of expressing a coherent, credible vision of post-Trump Republicanism. To your correspondent, he is a powerful counter-example to the idea that the GOP is a smouldering wreck of a party after the Trump revolution.
In his short but busy political career, Cotton has demonstrated a helpful knack for being ahead of the curve
According to the official version of recent political history, Republicans like Cotton aren’t supposed to exist. The GOP has been at war with itself for at least the last half a decade, hopelessly split across various divides: the establishment versus the insurgents; elite neoconservatism versus blue-collar Republicanism; economic populists versus libertarians; protectionists versus free-traders; foreign policy isolationists versus interventionists; immigration hawks versus doves.
But Cotton — who stands at a gangly 6ft 5ins tall, wears close-cropped dark hair, carries himself with a stiff, military comportment and lacks the magnetism common among American politician of his significance — blurs many of these dividing lines and somehow manages to embody the establishment Republicanism of the past and the Trumpian populism of the present.
Cotton’s unusual position, comfortable in Trumpworld and elite conservative circles, is as much a product of biography as political beliefs. He was born in a small town in a small state: Dardanelle, Arkansas, where his parents reared cattle and where his family has lived and farmed for seven generations. In 1995, he won a spot at Harvard and made the unlikely journey from his out-of-the-way part of the country to Cambridge.
“We don’t get many from that state,” says Harvey Mansfield, professor, political philosopher, leading Straussian and teacher and mentor to several generations of conservative thinkers and politicians. A famously tough instructor of the classic works of political philosophy, Mansfield remembers Cotton as “an intelligent student. Not a future professor, but very good.
“He was always political and rather serious,” he says. “And very patriotic.”
In his undergraduate thesis, Cotton displayed an unfashionably elitist outlook, defending the view of the Founders that, as the earnest young student put it, “inflammatory passion and selfish interest characterises most men, whereas ambition characterises men who pursue and hold national office. Such men rise from the people through a process of self-selection since politics is a dirty business that discourages all but the most ambitious.” National officeholders, he argued, have a “superior intelligence compared to the unambitious”. That may not mean wisdom, he wrote, but “it does imply some amount of sheer, raw brainpower”.
In Republican circles Cotton became The Guy Who Wrote That Letter To The Times
As a right-winger with an elite education, Cotton’s politics took shape behind enemy lines. In a contrarian column for the Harvard Crimson he railed against the verities of elite liberal colleges. “In my years at Harvard, I have been called many things, few of them pleasant,” he admitted in his final column, a price worth paying for “writing against sacred cows” such as “the cult of diversity, affirmative action, conspicuous compassion and radical participatory democracy.
“I could not have sought or expected popularity and its absence concerns me not at all,” he wrote.
Mansfield suspects Harvard hardened the conservative instincts the young Arkansan arrived with. At elite US colleges, he says, “you come and the overwhelming pressure is to be a liberal. But if you have some doubts about liberalism the opposite tendency takes over. And you develop your own sense of opposition to what most students and professors are saying.”
Like many politicians of his generation, Cotton cites 9/11 as a turning point. He was enrolled in Harvard Law School at the time and, on seeing the planes hit the towers, decided he wanted to join the army. Three years later, after a prestigious judicial clerkship and a year of practice to pay his student debt, Cotton enlisted. Writing in 2015, he described joining the army as “a natural decision for me. We had a very patriotic home that honored service.” Rather than offering his legal services, Cotton was eager to fight. He joined as an infantryman and led patrols in Iraq, an experience which he now says taught him physical and moral courage as well as how to lead.
Cotton was in Iraq when he made his first foray into public life. In 2006 the New York Times published details of a US programme to track terrorist groups’ finance networks, ignoring the Bush administration’s insistence that doing so would compromise national security. Cotton wrote a furious letter to the Times. “Congratulations on disclosing our government’s highly classified anti-terrorist-financing program,” it read. “I apologize for not writing sooner. But I am a lieutenant in the United States Army and I spent the last four days patrolling one of the more dangerous areas in Iraq.”
Cotton calls American encouragement of China’s rise a 25-year-long mistake
Accusing the paper of endangering the lives of American troops and Iraqi civilians, he wrote: “Next time I hear that familiar explosion — or next time I feel it — I will wonder whether we could have stopped that bomb had you not instructed terrorists how to evade our financial surveillance.” Finally, he accused the Times of violating espionage laws: “By the time we return home, maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars.”
The Times never ran the letter. But, in a savvy move, Cotton had also sent it to Power Line, a conservative blog. After they ran it, in Republican circles Cotton became The Guy Who Wrote That Letter To The Times — a kind of base camp from which he would begin his speedy political ascent.
“His going to into the army and a demanding military occupation reminded me of Churchill in the way he used an army career to make a name for himself,” says Mansfield. (Aware of the risks of drawing that parallel, he adds a caveat: “I’m not comparing him that way but I think that this might have been in his mind.”)
After Iraq, Cotton served in the Old Guard, the prestigious infantry regiment that carries out soldiers’ funerals at Arlington National Cemetery (an experience he wrote about in Sacred Duty, a book published in 2019). That was followed by a brief stint as a consultant before he was elected to Congress in 2012 and, after just two years in the House of Representatives, he arrived in the Senate in 2015.
At 40, he was the chamber’s youngest member. Armed with a CV and set of strongly-held views that made true believers drool, Cotton found himself in the powerful position of being as feted by neoconservative intellectuals as he was by Tea Party insurgents.
In his short but busy political career, Cotton has demonstrated a helpful knack for being ahead of the curve. That was the case in January 2020 when he was one of the first American politicians to take the coronavirus seriously. While most of Washington was pre-occupied by Trump’s impeachment trial and the Democratic primary, Cotton was busy telling anyone who would listen that the Wuhan outbreak was “the biggest and most important story in the world”.
As early as 22 January, he sent a letter to the Secretary of Health and Human Services imploring the government to impose a ban on travel between China and the US. And once the pandemic had taken hold in America, Cotton, already established as a prominent China hawk, became the loudest voice to pin the blame squarely on Beijing, whose dishonesty and criminal negligence, he argued, would lead to needless death and economic devastation.
While the senator may not have predicted Trump’s ascent, his own political preoccupations have a kind of canary-in-the-coal-mine character in relation to the rise of Trump — and none more so than immigration.
When I spoke to Cotton last month, he described immigration as “probably the number one issue that the Republican Party had got wrong for years and years”. And for Cotton, that was central to Trump’s rise. He draws a British comparison: “From what I’ve studied and from my conversations with British leaders, without a failed immigration policy in the UK, you wouldn’t have had Brexit, and I think you probably also would not have had Donald Trump as president in America.”
In 2013, Cotton, then a congressman, helped to kill off a grand bargain on immigration negotiated in the Senate by the bipartisan Gang of Eight, which included John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio. Today, Cotton describes the proposal as a “terrible immigration bill that would have granted mass amnesty and substantially increased the number of illegal immigrants who come to our country”.
He outlined his position to me in a characteristically clear-cut few sentences: “Our immigration policy should serve the interests of Americans. Too often, political leaders in both parties believe immigration is more about the interests and aspirations of foreigners. We’re a country of immigrants. But we’re also a country of laws. We’ve always been welcoming of immigrants but we have to be welcoming on our terms and in ways that benefit our people.”
China is as key as immigration to understanding the ease with which Cotton adjusted to the Trump era. Cotton says it was these issues that the two men bonded over in 2015 and 2016.
“I’ve always been sceptical of China as I’m sceptical of any communist country,” he says, remembering his outrage at the visit of Chinese Communist Party chairman Jiang Zemin to Boston when he was at Harvard: “It was one of the few times I agreed with the liberals in class.” More recently, he says, he “has seen the impact in Arkansas of China’s trade depredation, whether it is factories being closed or research into advanced rice genomes being stolen and copied in China”. Once he was in Congress, the classified information he was privy to helped “crystallise” the seriousness of the threat, he says.
Cotton calls American encouragement of China’s rise a 25-year-long mistake and welcomes the bipartisan recognition of the need for a new approach. But he remains an outlier in the severity of the action he believes is necessary. In February, he published Beat China, a policy paper outlining how to win the long economic war against America’s main geopolitical rival. In it he states that the goal of US policy should be to consign the CCP to the dustbin of history.
Comparing China’s rise to Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and the Soviet Union, Cotton argues that “once again America confronts a powerful totalitarian adversary that seeks to dominate Eurasia and remake the world order” and does not mince his words in arguing that “total victory” should be the goal. It is characteristic of the senator’s unswerving approach to politics. Whereas many Republicans seem more interested in jibes about “Beijing Biden” and Democratic hypocrisy on China, Cotton is focused on advancing his uncompromising agenda.
Those close to Cotton see this as his greatest strength. “He is a man for stormy times,” says one. Another argues that his appeal isn’t as “someone you want dating your daughter, but as someone who you’d trust to lead her into combat”.
The question is whether seriousness is what the American people are interested in when the country’s political culture feels as if it is getting shallower and more trivial by the minute. An appearance at CPAC last month was illustrative of the problem. The raucous annual conservative get-together is a carnival of culture war point-scoring. Cotton’s speech hit all the right notes — slamming the “little social justice warriors” at the New York Times and peddling an uncomplicated, feel-good patriotism — but the mood was flat.
A half-empty hall gave the Arkansan senator polite applause but not much else. It was a reminder that, for all his Trumpian policy credentials, he could hardly be more out of his comfort zone in the exuberant, troll-ish and, at times, fun-loving political culture fostered by the former president.
“There’s no shtick with Cotton,” one Republican strategist tells me. “The other guys all have a shtick, but not Tom.”
When I asked Cotton about last year’s election, there are two words he’s willing to use that Trump is not: “We lost.”
In a move that will loom large in debates about the future direction and leadership of the GOP, Cotton did not follow the then president all the way to the edge of the cliff over the stolen election lie that culminated in the violent disorder at the Capitol on 6 January. Whereas other possible heirs to Trump in the Senate, most infamously Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, voted to object to the certification of election results, Cotton was early to say he would not do so.
His political fortunes still depend on the question of what the lasting legacy of the former president proves to be
“I didn’t object to the certification of those electors on 6 January for the same reason I didn’t vote to convict Donald Trump in the second impeachment trial. It was about my view of Congress’s constitutional powers,” he tells me. “Just like it wasn’t appropriately in our power to reject electors that state legislators had sent to us without competing slates, it also wasn’t in our power to try a president for removal from office when he left office.”
In a sharp rebuke of his colleagues after 6 January, he criticised those senators who “for political gain, misled supporters about their ability to challenge the election results — some even sent out fundraising emails while the insurrectionists stormed the Capitol. That stops now — Republicans ought to focus on countering the Democrats’ radical agenda.”
Cotton’s bet, then, is that voters both in a Republican primary and a general election, are more interested in bread-and-butter issues than in relitigating the last election.
If that gamble pays off, he is one of a small group of politicians well-placed to lean into the Republicans’ burgeoning status as a working-class party.
“Our coalition has broadened in the last five years to include increasing numbers of working-class voters and moderate and conservative voters of all races,” says Cotton. “We had the best performance among minority voters, in particular among latino voters, that our party’s had in 16 years. And that’s a direct result of speaking to the kind of common, everyday kitchen-table concerns of voters across the country, irrespective of race, who want decent jobs at high wages, good healthcare, safe communities, borders under control and an America that is strong and respected in the world.”
He recently distinguished his working-class policy orientation from the Democratic Party equivalent in compelling terms in an interview with the New Republic. “People like Bernie Sanders tend to view working-class jobs as Dickensian hellholes from which all anyone would want to do is escape,” he said before summarising a Democratic attitude that asks, “Why would anyone want to work on a construction site or be a plumber or a welder or an HVAC repairman? Why would anyone want to drive a truck? Obviously, the solution is to give everyone free college tuition and get them out of these Dickensian nightmares so they can become an HR diversity consultant or some other white-collar desk job.”
One adviser close to Cotton tells me the senator likes to say he’s on the side of the Americans who take their shower at the end of the day, not the beginning.
It is that instinct, informed by his deep roots in a rural state, that has helped Cotton navigate the Trump era with an ease that other establishment-approved Republicans have lacked. Witness former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s tortured clarifications and triangulation when asked about the former president, or behold Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s undignified subordination to the former primary rival who insulted his wife and father. By comparison, when Cotton talks about the man who still looms larger than anyone else on the American right he does so without embarrassment or giving the impression of any kind of inner turmoil.
However easily Cotton adapted after the Trump revolution, his political fortunes still depend on the question of what the lasting legacy of the former president proves to be. Will it be a GOP that has undergone a lasting, substantive policy revolution, or will it be the further coarsening and dumbing-down of American politics? If it’s the former, Tom Cotton may yet be the man for the moment. If it’s the latter, then he will be a serious man trapped in an unserious time.
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