Into the doldrums of Obama’s second term, freshman Senator Tom Cotton has trotted forward as the GOP’s new mascot of ostentatious warmongering. He’s the author of the letter signed by 46 Republican senators and sent to Iran’s leaders warning them that any nuclear deal they negotiate with Obama will be overturned when he leaves office. Cotton’s letter was characteristically pedantic (‘the president may serve only two four-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of six-year terms’) and condescending (‘we hope this letter enriches your knowledge of our constitutional system’). The response of Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was openly mocking: ‘I wish to enlighten the authors that if the next administration revokes any agreement with the stroke of a pen, as they boast, it will have simply committed a blatant violation of international law.’ The Cotton letter undermined another Republican’s attempt to pass a bill requiring the Senate’s consent to any nuclear deal with Iran. Headlines called the signatories ‘traitors’, and 300,000 people signed a petition to have them prosecuted under the Logan Act, a 1799 law that bars unauthorised citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. ‘I’m embarrassed for them,’ Obama said, not wrongly. But by the time Cotton delivered his first speech on the Senate floor – a crude mix of Cold War nostalgia and paranoia that cast its author and his buddy Netanyahu as a lonely pair of Churchills in a world beset by Iranian, North Korean, Russian and even Chinese Hitlers – the letter had already made him famous, even, in the eyes of the New Republic, a ‘dark horse’ contender for the presidency in 2016.
Cotton comes from the town of Dardanelle, Arkansas, where his parents were civil servants, cattle ranchers and Democrats. He says his political conversion came at the age of 16 in 1993, when he watched Bill Clinton, the former governor he’d met many times as a boy, raise federal taxes and withdraw US troops from Somalia. Two years later he went to Harvard, where he studied under the neoconservative political philosopher Harvey Mansfield, author of Manliness, who has testified to his protégé’s non-effeteness: ‘He was very smart, but not a future professor – a man of action.’ Cotton struck a pose as a brave ‘contrarian’, writing a column in the campus paper and subjecting himself to consistent abuse from his liberal peers in the letters column as he opposed tax increases, affirmative action, diversity rhetoric and ‘intellectuals’ in general. (His manliness was such that it didn’t exclude confessing a taste for Jane Austen’s novels, perhaps because of their affirmation of traditional gender roles.)
But it’s as a philosopher-king-in-waiting that Cotton has set himself apart from other recent celebrities of the right: Paul Ryan, the Ayn Rand-reading gym rat; Chris Christie, hulking hero of the parking lot outside the Springsteen concert; Sarah Palin, snowmobile queen avenger. Though Cotton left graduate school because it was ‘too sedentary’, and after Harvard Law School entered the army as an infantryman rather than a lawyer, he still fancies himself a writer. His first taste of national attention came when as a soldier he wrote an open letter to a pair of New York Times reporters, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, as well as the editor, Bill Keller, after they made public a Bush administration surveillance programme directed at terror networks’ sources of finance. He said the journalists should be jailed for espionage. ‘These terrorists do not spring from the soil like Plato’s guardians,’ he told them. ‘No, they require financing.’ Writing from Baghdad, he seemed to be showing off for Professor Mansfield.
I was at Harvard with Cotton, I read my Plato too, and I can tell a Socrates from a Thrasymachus. The top donors to Cotton’s Senate campaign included the Club for Growth, Goldman Sachs, Koch Industries, and a few hedge funds. The week before he called for the defence budget to be increased by $113 billion, he had spoken to a breakfast of the National Defense Industrial Association. He’s a happy servant of Wall Street and weapons manufacturers, which isn’t strange at all for a Republican (or even a Democrat); it’s his purity that distinguishes him and seems at times his greatest liability. Last fall his opponent in Arkansas pointed to Cotton’s votes as a one-term congressman against the Farm Bill and money for disaster relief, both of which stood to benefit the state’s residents. He’s not shy about his contempt for the poor, referring to recipients of food stamps as ‘addicts’. Perhaps untried terror suspects (‘savages’) are the only people he hates more: ‘As far as I’m concerned, every last one of them can rot in Hell. But as long as they don’t do that, they can rot in Guantánamo Bay.’ He opposes Obamacare and voted against pay rises for federal workers, equal pay for women and a federal student loan programme. And like many who constantly invoke the Constitution, he’s often come close to violating it, most amusingly in the case of an amendment he wrote to a bill that would punish the ‘parents, children, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, grandparents, great grandparents, grandkids, great grandkids’ of those convicted of violating sanctions against Iran; he had to withdraw the amendment because Article III prohibits punishment for treason on the basis of ‘corruption of blood’.
The most clownish Republicans tend to be the most transparent about the way their party sees the world. Cotton wrote his undergraduate thesis about the Federalist Papers and the belief of some of the Founders that the new country’s elected officials would be supermen of sorts. The senator is a superman prone to the occasional gaffe; on 15 March he went on television and said: ‘We have to stand up to Iran’s attempts to drive for regional dominance. They already control Tehran, increasingly they control Damascus and Beirut and Baghdad and now Sana’a as well.’ The nerve of foreign countries, controlling their own capitals. Or as Cotton said on the Senate floor, ‘We must have such hegemonic strength that no sane adversary would ever imagine challenging the United States. “Good enough” is not and will never be good enough.’ It’s a new style in US politics: part deranged graduate school dropout, part beer commercial.