Can Tom Cotton Troll His Way to the White House?

Tom Cotton doesn’t own the libs for fun. In a Republican Party where a broad swathe of elected officials, including the president himself, lob bombs with abandon, the Arkansas senator has found a way to strategically rile the left for political gain while potentially giving himself a leg up in the post 2020 scramble to succeed Trump.

This was most notoriously demonstrated earlier this year in an op-ed he wrote for the New York Times in which he advocated for the use of the U.S. military to supplement local law enforcement in situations where looters run amok, taking advantage of peaceful protests. The op-ed sparked a staff revolt from Times employees who claimed it put them in danger and forced the ouster of James Bennet, the editorial page editor.

Cotton rejoiced in the Times’s internal chaos in television hit after television hit and tweet after tweet. On Fox News, he compared a staff meeting at the New York Times to “a struggle session from the cultural revolution in Mao’s China, where the adults had to prostrate themselves and apologize in front of the woke children that apparently now run the New York Times newsroom.” On Twitter, he recalibrated his language to the medium, simply using a GIF of Elmo standing in front of flames. 

Cotton combines his ability to fan the flames with a clear world view and political philosophy—what one ally familiar with Cotton’s thinking called “American Churchillianism”—and a seriousness, even in trolling. When Cotton delivers lines, like suggesting the left might rename the Washington Monument “the obelisk of wokeness,” the bait for blue checkmark outrage is given deadpan. While Trump plays to the crowds as he goes on unscripted tangents that often use offensive humor to rile up his perpetually rowdy base, for Cotton, it’s all serious.  

The first-term senator has carved out a unique niche for himself in the GOP as a rare figure who appeals to almost every faction within the conservative movement. Looking back at the 2016 presidential field, one ally familiar with Cotton’s thinking noted, “Ted Cruz had a very clear lane. Trump, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush did as well, and Tom is one of the guys who is pretty much acceptable to all of those people.”

Yet the Arkansan arrives in that place with a very clear worldview that, as the Cotton ally put it, “He believes that America is and should be the preeminent and dominant power in the world because our values of freedom, liberalism, open society and tolerance are superior to all [other] things.” 

It is a fundamental belief in an old fashioned American exceptionalism.

“If Trump was running against him he’d say [Cotton]’s a stiff”

Tom Cotton ally/operative

Personally though, Cotton isn’t Churchillian. He is not a compelling orator or a charismatic figure. As a retail politician, he doesn’t exactly stand out among his Senate colleagues, let alone those from his home state, which has produced such high-wattage politicians as Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee. 

As Matt Schlapp, a prominent Republican lobbyist close to the Trump White House, told The News Station, “I don’t think he’s a natural glad hander, I don’t think he’s a backslapper. He’s a serious thoughtful policy guy.” This was echoed by the Republican operative: “He is a very serious guy. If Trump was running against him he’d say [Cotton]’s a stiff.” 

The operative then contrasted Cotton with a fellow Arkansan: “There are moments in this country where you want Bill Clinton playing the saxophone and moments where you want a guy being really serious and not acting like he’s cool. If the country is in the mood for someone who is serious, then Tom Cotton is their man.” 

But in our increasingly online world, retail skills are less important than they would have been a generation ago when Cotton admired  Bill Clinton’s political skills on the stump.

While Cotton and Clinton have markedly different personalities, they have similar origin stories. Both left Arkansas for elite East Coast universities where they networked relentlessly before returning home to run for office. In contrast to Clinton, who went to Georgetown and then Yale Law, Cotton attended Harvard and Harvard Law. He then served in the U.S. military as an infantry officer in Iraq and had a stint with the global consulting firm McKinsey before mounting a congressional bid in his mid 30s.

Cotton didn’t just lay the groundwork for a political career by building an impeccable resume. He built relationships with figures across the conservative movement ranging from neoconservative stalwart Bill Kristol to Larry Arn, the president of the social conservative bastion Hillsdale College. Cotton also managed to burnish his credentials on the right by writing a letter to the editor of the New York Times. It wasn’t published, but it didn’t need to be.

After the Times published an article detailing a secret government program that monitored bank transactions tied to Al Qaeda, Cotton wrote a blistering email from his post in Iraq accusing the newspaper of “gravely endanger[ing] the lives of my soldiers and all other soldiers and innocent Iraqis.” 

He then expressed his hope that the journalists who wrote the article be tried for violating the Espionage Act. The email was sent to the Times but he also astutely cc-ed Powerline, a conservative blog that published it instead. It established him as a rising star on the right. 

When his home congressional district became open in 2012, Cotton easily won the primary and the general elections boosted by a constant stream of hagiographical profiles in national conservative publications. From there, Cotton almost immediately mounted a run for Senate against incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor, the son of a former governor and senator who had not even faced an opponent in 2008.

Vincent Insalaco, the chair of the Arkansas Democratic Party at the time, told The News Station, “I had never come across a candidate like him. I remember during the debates against Mark, because all he [said] was ‘Mark Pryor and Barack Obama’ and ‘Barack Obama and Mark Pryor’.” In Insalaco’s memory, Cotton managed to reference Obama’s name “like 75 times in the course of 30 minutes” in a state where less than a third of voters had a positive opinion of the incumbent president.

National Democrats compiled a 563-page book of opposition research on Cotton that included key themes such as the Republican hopeful was a “serial hypocrite,” “focused on himself and not Arkansas,” “too extreme,” and “bad for women.” None of them resonated in a year in which the growing strength of the Republican Party in the South finally swamped the last remaining shreds of the Natural State’s yellow dog Democratic heritage.

In the Senate, Cotton first earned national attention for organizing a letter signed by 46 other Republican senators emphasizing that the Iran Deal reached by the Obama administration was simply an executive agreement that could be overturned by any succeeding president or freely modified by Congress. It was an effort both to pressure the Obama administration to allow for buy-in by the legislative branch and to undermine the negotiations with the Iranians.

One hawkish Republican foreign policy operative who has known Cotton since before he launched his political career noted this moment as a key turning point for the Arkansas senator.  The operative argued that Cotton has shown “much more willingness to engage in cultural wars and own the libs.” In the operative’s view this carried over to the New York Times imbroglio where Cotton “shows an astute [understanding] with how  the game is played these days where a lot of politics is going on Twitter and goofing on your political opponents and made them look stupid.” 

“The term ‘neoconservative’ is often overused, but Tom Cotton is a classic neoconservative”

Republican foreign policy operative

Yet Cotton shouldn’t be confused with a politician engaging in social media spats for its own sake—owning the libs is not a policy end in and of itself. 

Cotton is also not new to the concept of “owning the libs,” having spent his college years writing a conservative column for the Harvard Crimson. In his final column, the self-described “contrarian” wrote of his past contributions to the student newspaper: “My first end was not to persuade but rather to offend your sensibilities. For with offended sensibilities comes indignation and with indignation a desire to refute. But to refute an argument successfully, even or perhaps especially a contrarian argument, requires understanding. And if one attempts to understand a contrarian argument, one might even come to appreciate or agree with it. In a word, one might lose a prejudice or two.”

That impulse to “offend sensibilities” does not seem to have left him when it comes to those with similar views to his classmates at what he referred to as “Kremlin on the Charles.” Cotton’s statement to his fellow students, “I could not have sought or expected popularity and its absence concerns me not at all” could just as well apply to the media class in contemporary Washington, D.C.

Cotton has found an ideological niche within the Republican Party, representing a fusion between Trumpism and foreign policy hawks. The Arkansasan has long been an immigration hardliner with populist impulses. However, he also has a decidedly un-Trumpean view of America’s place in the world. Cotton has long advocated for the United States to advocate an official policy of regime change in Iran and vocally criticized China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.As one Republican consultant with deep ties to Trumpworld put it, “The term ‘neoconservative’ is often overused, but Tom Cotton is a classic neoconservative.”

The question is whether his flavor of post-Trumpist conservatism will find favor in a crowded marketplace over the coming years. There will be a score of competitors to succeed Trump– ranging from Sen. Josh Hawley to former Gov. Nikki Haley to Rep. Matt Gaetz—each of whom will lay out their stall with a subtly different message. It will be a Baskin Robbins primary. Voters will be given 31 flavors of Trumpism to choose from. 

Every potential White House hopeful will at least have to pay lip service to Trump’s populist brand. Candidates will not just have to oppose abortion and support gun rights, but be able to articulate a sense of cultural grievance against elites. From there, it will be a question of  emphasis and personalities in a field likely to resemble the 2020 Democratic primary in which a multitude of candidates waged bitter warfare over comparatively minor ideological differences.

Cotton will start off with one key advantage: Trumpism has always been more clearly defined by its enemies than by its friends. As Matt Beynon, a top aide to Rick Santorum on his two presidential campaigns, told The News Station, “If the New York Times is against you, Republican voters will be for you.” 

Cotton may not perfectly align with Trump’s preferred policy goals, but he does not alienate any key segment of the current Republican coalition and he makes the right people upset. And in 2024, that may be more than enough to become Trump’s successor as the Republican standard bearer. 

Ben Jacobs is a political reporter in Washington.

Ben Jacobs is a political reporter in Washington.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!