Now that the dust has settled on Senator Tom Cotton’s adventure into the New York Times Opinion section, we can take stock of the situation. A few things are clear. First, (understatement incoming) the New York Times messed up. In the name of “balanced journalism,” they sought out Mr. Cotton’s opinion to contrast the public’s overwhelming support of protests against police violence and systemic racism. Not only was that lazy “bothsideism”, but it treats the Black Lives Matter movement like it’s just another trivial political debate.
The second takeaway from the whole fiasco is that Tom Cotton is terrifying. Sentences into the Op-Ed, it becomes quite clear that the Arkansas Senator sees America as a social hierarchy based on race, wealth, and class. And whether it takes police batons or military-issued M4s, Tom Cotton is eager to use the government’s monopoly on violence to preserve this hierarchy.
If there’s one silver lining of the Trump presidency, it’s you no longer have to connect the dots to find out who’s a fascist: just sit tight, and sooner or later they’ll identify themselves on the front page of the New York Times.
Cotton’s Op-Ed is an authoritarian case study. He uses gross exaggeration and anecdotal evidence to portray what are overwhelmingly peaceful protests as an “orgy of violence” (his words). Citing a tweet, he claims looters were “driving exotic sports cars” through downtown Manhattan, as if New York City was now a Mad Max sequel. (I highly doubt people who can afford Lamborghinis are using them to steal knock off AirPods.)
Next, he's on to the scaremongering, listing anecdotal accounts of injured police officers. Cotton makes it sound like America's cops are frantically boarding up police station windows to make their last stand against mobs of Antifa members wearing Colin Kapernick jerseys. In reality, the cops are protecting themselves with "the best defense is a good offense" mantra. He conveniently forgets to note that far more protesters have been killed and injured than cops, or acknowledge the fact that while protestor violence against cops is rare, police across the country have teargassed, pepper-sprayed, and beaten peaceful protestors with impunity.
After inflating the problem, Cotton turns to the default solution of fascists everywhere: “Send in the Troops.” Specifically, the sitting senator calls for “an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.” But this isn’t an offer to help local officials who ask for it. While Cotton says the military will “back up to the police” in some cities, he also wants troops deployed to cities where “delusional politicians refuse to do what’s necessary to uphold the rule of law.” (psst… that’s called an invasion.)
And the Op-Ed is just half of it. Cotton’s Twitter feed reads like Turner Diaries fan fiction, calling for the military to execute rioters in the street. Just to clarify, that’s a “small government, states’ rights” conservative senator saying the U.S. military should invade cities against the wishes of the elected officials and execute citizens in the street. Neat.
Tom Cotton is hardly America’s sole fascist. Trump’s cabinet, advisors, and enablers have made it clear they want to use force to preserve America’s racial and wealth hierarchy. However, what separates Cotton from the rest of the clowns is that Cotton is cunning enough to sneak these ideas into the mainstream.
It’s easy to laugh off the fascist rhetoric we hear from the White House. When Brad Parscale compares himself to Space-Nazis or Sean Spicer is voted off Dancing with the Stars, we’re relieved to see them exposed as morons. But Tom Cotton shouldn’t be laughed off. He should be feared.
There's a good chance Tom Cotton is going to be President one day (or at least a serious contender). What's even more frightening than his beliefs are his ability to package them as if they are worthy of toleration. Steve King and Seb Gorka would be laughed out of any respectable newsroom; Trump's tweets aren't taken seriously by anyone, himself included; but the Harvard-educated war hero Tom Cotton? He got an Op-Ed arguing for domestic invasion published on the front page of the New York Times, right next to the god damned crossword puzzle.
This shows Cotton knows how to play the game — editors and voters alike are turned away by naked authoritarianism, such as Trump telling cops to rough up suspects. So Cotton waits, knowing he can sneak the same message through the public’s “authoritarian firewall” at the right time.
Unfortunately, he was right. The Op-Ed was published, the drama ensued, and Cotton’s conservative stock (and his fundraising) skyrocketed. This time, he was able to get some words into a newspaper. Next time, he might use this nefarious skillset to run for a third Presidential term, or send the Airborne Division to send a message to some protestors in Ferguson.