Sen. Tom Cotton is making significant strides in positioning himself as the racists’ and authoritarians’ candidate of choice when Donald Trump moves on.

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His op-ed triumph over the evil New York Times has propelled him into a bright national spotlight. He made fools of the hated Fake News outlet. It got better. They fired the man who gave him a platform for a call to use the military to stomp (or worse, given the military meaning of “no quarter”) demonstrators for racial justice.

In Politico this week, Cotton was featured in an article about the return of “law and order Republicans.” Who knew Richard Nixon could look so good?

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“No, I do not think you can paint with a broad brush and say there’s systemic racism in the criminal justice system in America,” Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton told me last Tuesday, right around the time Bush’s statement came out. “Can there be inequality? Can there be injustices in particular cases? Yes, there can be. But I do not think you can, nor should you, paint with such a broad brush.”

This is the politically safe answer for a Republican. Just as it’s the politically safe answer to emphasize violent riots over nonviolent demonstrations. Just as it’s the politically safe answer to applaud Trump’s march to St. John’s Church and ignore (or justify) the forceful removal of peaceful protesters with chemical irritants that made the photo op possible. These were the politically safe answers provided by the vast majority of Republicans last week, on Capitol Hill and around the country.

But safe and sustainable are two different things. As with so many issues, the ground beneath the GOP has been gradually shifting on questions of racial justice.

Cotton’s statement may have been “politically safe” in the salons of wealthy, white, right-wing Republicans. It just happens to be inaccurate — dishonest is more like it. There is systemic racism in America, not just in the criminal justice system. The statistical evidence is empirical.

(A digression for a marvelous piece of Pro Publica reporting on the wages of police injustice in a small town in Southwest Louisiana. It’s two years old and I just happened to see it but it’s an illustration of something ongoing —  the Trump administration’s abandonment of efforts by the Obama Justice Department to bring equitable practices to local police departments.)

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So Cotton has the racists covered. Authoritarians?

Check Max Boot’s column in the Washington Post, in which a photo of Cotton is the poster illustration for the growing support for authoritarianism by Donald Trump and other Republicans.

In 2014, Tom Cotton ran for the U.S. Senate proclaiming: “I believe in less government and more freedom.” Seven days ago, amid massive anti-racism protests accompanied by scattered looting, the Republican senator from Arkansas demanded the deployment of at least five Army divisions to the streets. “No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters,” he wrote, employing a military term for “take no prisoners.”

There was no conceivable justification for such a draconian move. But Cotton’s panicky, premature demand is symbolic of the Republican Party’s transition from tea party libertarianism to Trumpian authoritarianism.

 

…Cotton — who as an Army lieutenant in 2006 advocated locking up New York Times journalists for reporting on how the government was tracking terror financing — is returning to his authoritarian instincts as he bids to become Trump’s successor. But he will face stiff competition from the likes of Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who wants to regulate social media and rejects “a philosophy of . . . unrestricted, unfettered free choice.”

 

U.S. conservatism has been drifting in an authoritarian direction for a while. Last week’s demonstrations merely made the danger more manifest.

Trump has been terrible. Tom Cotton? Even scarier because he’s smarter and more disciplined. I still think a charisma deficit is a stumbling block, but that’s me.

UPDATE: Heather Cox Richardson, a professor of history at Harvard, has written a thoughtful Facebook post arising from the Cotton op-ed fiasco and other events.

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In short, Republicans have lost control of the narrative and are trying to create a new one.

Even more indicative that the national narrative is changing was the announcement yesterday that James Bennet had resigned as the editorial page editor of the New York Times. Bennet ran an op-ed last Wednesday by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton titled (by the Times, not by Cotton) “Send in the Troops.” The inflammatory piece blamed “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa” for an “orgy of violence” during the recent protests and claimed that “outnumbered police officers… bore the brunt of the violence.” Neither of these statements is true, and they clothe a false Republican narrative in what appears to be fact. Cotton’s solution to the protests was to send in the military to restore “law and order,” and he misquoted the Constitution to defend that conclusion.

In the episode, see changes in journalism.

It appears that the both-sides principle of the past generation is falling to what younger progressive journalists call moral clarity. But also at stake is the Enlightenment principle of fact-based argument. The Cotton piece was not rooted in reality; it was a narrative based in falsehoods and thus was fatally flawed. It could not contribute to public debate.

For his part, Cotton used the fight to advance the old Republican narrative. He told the Fox News Channel: “Within a day it turned into something like 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.” Republicans have applauded Cotton for exciting the Republican base by angering their opponents. He has raised $200,000 from the issue.

But it feels like Bennet’s resignation marks a shift in the media that has been building for months as newspapers and television chyrons increasingly check political falsehoods in favor of fact-based argument.