Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton has carved out a unique niche in the landscape of Trump-era conservatism: the intellectual bomb-thrower. A Harvard graduate and former fellow at the esteemed Claremont Institute, he has developed a split persona as right-wing policy thinker and hell-raising red-state warrior. In what is likely to be a crowded field, he has the complete package of attributes to succeed Trump in 2024.
Cotton exploded onto the political scene as a cause-celebre among elite conservatives. His sterling resume and fluency in the language of public policy made him a favorite of such figures as Bill Kristol. But he chose not to leave his political identity in the realm of Washington panjandrums. Instead, he established himself as an authoritarian populist.
His hard-line temperament has been on consistent display in the Senate. Even as both parties congealed around a consensus for criminal justice reform, he insisted that a country that imprisons more people than China and North Korea really suffers from an “underincarceration” problem. Recently, he called for deploying active-duty soldiers to police American streets. And he’s not just an authoritarian. The primary theme of his rhetoric is populist in tone. He aligns himself with the white working-class men and women of Red America who now form the bulwark of Republican voting strength.
Few issues animate conservative populists more than immigration. It was the most important reason Donald Trump got traction in a large and talented 2016 field, and it has helped seal his alliance with populist Republican voters. Senator Cotton has established himself as perhaps the leading anti-immigration advocate in Congress. Along with Georgia Senator David Perdue, he authored the restrictionist RAISE Act, which would end numerous categories of immigration and reduce legal immigration by 43%. Cotton is so committed to clamping down on immigration that in an interview with the Center for Immigration Studies, he voiced his opposition to allowing Chinese graduate students to study science in the United States. Clearly, he is one of the leading lights in the cause that created Trumpism.
Unlike, for example, Senator Josh Hawley–another right-wing populist–Cotton pairs his political populism with hard-line conservative policy positions. As a House member, he voted against Arkansas’ cherished farm bill because it would have expanded access to food stamps. Defending this unpopular vote, he explained that SNAP recipients supposedly dine on steak and drive luxury cars. It was straight out of decades of anti-welfare rhetoric.
Cotton’s unyielding anti-government stance would keep economic conservatives on board. But that is the case for most would-be successors to Trump. Where Cotton has a further advantage is in the area of foreign policy. Cotton has long been considered a leading defense hawk, a fierce critic of the Iran deal and a champion of a more aggressive military posture. This could bring neoconservatives back into the Republican fold–and thus reunite the three “legs of the stool” of Republican conservatism.
Finally, Cotton has a mean streak. He interrupts fellow Senators. He disparages the poor. He sneers that disaster relief funding is unneeded because Arkansas doesn’t “need to bail out the Northeast.” As we have seen through five years of Donald Trump’s nastiness, many Republicans like to live vicariously through the bullying of their politicians. Cotton, who welcomed a debt default and proposed slashing immigration by nearly half, is the perfect man to take up where Donald Trump’s failed populist administration left off.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.