If you believed the national media, the week of the annual Republican Party fund-raising dinner, in Fort Smith, Arkansas, in late August, was one of the worst of Donald Trump’s Presidency. The President had just responded to the unrest in Charlottesville with statements that appeared sympathetic to neo-Nazi demonstrators, and even some members of his own party were denouncing him. The White House staff was in turmoil, following the departure of Reince Priebus as chief of staff, and the Senate had failed to pass a replacement for the Affordable Care Act. The featured speaker for the evening was the state’s junior senator, Tom Cotton, who seized the chance to address the disquiet in the nation’s capital.
At forty years old, Cotton is the youngest member of the Senate, and he retains the erect posture and solemn bearing that he displayed as a member of the Army’s Old Guard, which presides at military ceremonies, including funerals, in Washington. He’s let his hair grow, a little, since his Army days. When he first ran for office, in 2012—he served a single term in the House of Representatives before winning his Senate seat, in 2014—Cotton was often described as robotic on the stump, but he’s improved somewhat as a speaker, even if he still projects more intelligence than warmth. In this manner, he gave an assignment to the two hundred or so guests in the hotel ballroom.
“Go home tonight and turn on one of the nighttime comedy shows. Tomorrow morning, turn on one of the cable morning-news shows. This Saturday, watch ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” he said. “All the high wardens of popular culture in this country, they love to make fun of Donald Trump, to mock him, to ridicule him. They make fun of his hair, they make fun of the color of his skin, they make fun of the way he talks—he’s from Queens, not from Manhattan. They make fun of that long tie he wears, they make fun of his taste for McDonald’s.” He went on, “What I don’t think they realize is that out here in Arkansas and the heartland and the places that made a difference in that election, like Michigan and Wisconsin, when we hear that kind of ridicule, we hear them making fun of the way we look, and the way we talk, and the way we think.”
It was, on one level, a breathtaking leap—to equate mockery of a louche New York billionaire with attacks on the citizens of this small, conservative city, which lies across the Arkansas River from Oklahoma. But Cotton’s appeal to his audience for solidarity with Trump, which was greeted with strong applause, represented just one part of his enthusiastic embrace of the President. Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former top strategist and the chairman of the right-wing Web site Breitbart News, told me, “Next to Trump, he’s the elected official who gets it the most—the economic nationalism. Cotton was the one most supportive of us, up front and behind the scenes, from the beginning. He understands that the Washington élite—this permanent political class of both parties, between the K Street consultants and politicians—needs to be shattered.” At the same time, Cotton has maintained strong ties with the establishment wing of the G.O.P. Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s chief political adviser, told me, “Cotton is not like a Steve Bannon, who wants to blow up the existing structure, uproot the ideology of the Republican Party and replace it with something new. He’s a rising star. He’s capable of building bridges within the Party. He wants to get things done.”
In recent weeks, several Republican Senators have denounced Trump for his intemperance and his dishonesty. Jeff Flake, of Arizona, and Bob Corker, of Tennessee, condemned Trump and announced that they would not seek reëlection in 2018. Ben Sasse, of Nebraska, whose term is not up until 2020, said that, by threatening journalists, Trump was violating his oath to defend the Constitution. Cotton has made a different bet, offering only the gentlest of criticisms of the President. When, in the course of several weeks of conversations, I asked Cotton about one or another of Trump’s controversial statements or tweets, he always responded in the same manner. “The President puts things sometimes in a way that I would not,” he said in early October. “But he was still nominated by our voters and elected by the American people to be our President, and if we want him to accomplish our agenda we need to set him up for success.”
Even Trump’s latest political traumas have not shaken Cotton’s faith in him. Following the indictment of Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and former campaign adviser Rick Gates, last week, Cotton urged a prompt resolution of the investigation into the Trump campaign, but he did not call for the removal of Robert Mueller, the special counsel. “What’s in the best interest of everyone is for these inquiries to move forward, and to follow them to their proper conclusion as quickly as possible,” Cotton said.
Roby Brock, who hosts the leading public-affairs television program in Arkansas, told me, “From the beginning, Tom could play to both the establishment and the Tea Party. Everyone recognizes he’s got a firm set of conservative principles, but that makes him a polarizing figure. There are a lot of people here, too, who hate him and think he’s the Antichrist. The only thing everyone agrees on is that he wants to be President someday.” To make that next leap, Cotton expresses the militarism, bellicosity, intolerance, and xenophobia of Donald Trump, but without the childish tweets. For those who see Trump’s Presidency as an aberration, or as a singular phenomenon, Cotton offers a useful corrective. He and his supporters see Trump and Trumpism as the future of the Republican Party.
In the early days of the Trump Administration, Cotton exercised influence from behind the scenes. Bannon told me, “He spent a lot of time in my little war room, and he gave us a lot of good advice. He was the one who told us about John Kelly,” the former Marine Corps general who is now Trump’s chief of staff. (The Senator and Kelly had met at a security conference when Cotton was in the House.) In recent months, however, Cotton’s influence has become more apparent, as Trump has embraced some of his most high-profile positions.
In September, President Trump repealed the Obama-era executive order known as DACA, which protected the so-called Dreamers from deportation, but he said that he also wanted Congress to pass a law that would allow them to remain in the United States, even making a preliminary deal with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic congressional leaders. But, after Cotton spoke out against a quick deal to protect the Dreamers, Trump made a formal proposal to Congress that attached many strings Cotton had demanded. “I had dinner with the President and General Kelly on October 2nd, and we talked about DACA,” Cotton told me. “They said that Chuck and Nancy had done some post-dinner spin, to go along with the post-dinner dessert, about what the President actually agreed to on DACA. I think the fix that the President announced is a better step in the right direction.”
The following month, Trump gave Cotton a victory on the touchstone issue of his Senate career by decertifying Iran’s compliance with the nuclear-arms deal that the Obama Administration had negotiated. “I told the President in July that he shouldn’t certify that Iran was complying with the agreement,” Cotton told me. “Putting aside the issue of technical compliance or noncompliance, it’s clear that the agreement is not in our national interest.” Following Trump’s action, Cotton joined forces with Senator Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, on a proposal that, if passed, would likely lead to the termination of the Iran nuclear deal and the reimposition of American sanctions.
“Let there be no doubt about this point,” Cotton said, in a recent speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. “If we are forced to take action, the United States has the ability to totally destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. And, if they choose to rebuild it, we could destroy it again, until they get the picture. Nor should we hesitate if compelled to take military action.” In describing his preferred approach to negotiations with Iran, Cotton said, “One thing I learned in the Army is that when your opponent is on his knees you drive him to the ground and choke him out.” In response, a questioner pointed out that killing a prisoner of war is not “American practice.” (It is, in fact, a war crime.)
Similarly, in North Korea, Cotton supports Trump’s brinkmanship with Kim Jong Un, and excoriates China for its failure to rein in its ally. “Time and time again, Beijing shows that it is not up to being the great power it aspires to be,” Cotton said. (His hostility toward China endears him to the Bannon wing of the Republican Party, which views the U.S.-China relationship as the defining conflict of the modern world.)
Cotton has emerged as such a close ally of the Trump White House that one recent report suggested that the President would name him director of the C.I.A. if Mike Pompeo, the current director, were to replace Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. (Trump is widely believed to be dissatisfied with Tillerson.) In a conversation in mid-October, Cotton did not dismiss the possibility of taking the C.I.A. job. “I am pleased to be a senator,” he told me. “But, of course, I will always take a call from the President, and he has called me many times.” As a member of Trump’s Administration, Cotton would ratify the President’s instincts. He offers Trump a certainty that matches his own, especially about the threats the nation faces and the best ways to address them.
In August, I visited Cotton in the house where he grew up, in Yell County, Arkansas. When I arrived, Cotton’s father was also walking in the door. Len Cotton did not offer to shake hands right away, because he had just welcomed two newborn calves to the family farm, and he thought it prudent to wash up first.
The Cottons have been in Arkansas for six generations, and Tom’s parents make their living running what’s known as a cow-calf operation, on several plots of land in the Arkansas River Valley. In the specialized world of beef-and-dairy production, the Cottons’ business is the first stage—the production of the cows, which are sold to ranchers. The Cottons have always done some farming, but when Tom was a boy his mother was a public-school teacher and a middle-school principal, and his father worked for state government, doing inspections for the Department of Health. Like most people in Arkansas at the time, Tom’s parents were Democrats. But the leitmotif of Tom Cotton’s political career has been the decline of the Democratic Party among white voters in Arkansas. “The Democratic Party has drifted away from them,” Tom told me, as his parents sat nearby. “Bill Clinton would be repudiated by his own party today. Hillary Clinton repudiated a lot of her husband’s chief accomplishments when he was in office. So that’s a real fundamental story about politics in Arkansas and politics across the heartland.”
Tom had an idyllic boyhood in the town of Dardanelle, centered on sports and school, where he excelled, and he won admission to Harvard. When he arrived in Cambridge, in the fall of 1995, he still had braces on his teeth, though he had grown to a full six feet five; friends remember him as a bit of a loner, at least at first. He was also already a conservative, if not a Republican, as he was not afraid to let his new neighbors know. One late night during his freshman year, he and his roommates were joined by Kristin Gore, the daughter of the Vice-President, who had a room nearby. Gore began discussing the environmental ills of cattle farming. As one roommate recalled, Cotton listened for a time, and then fumed, “Kristin, you don’t know shit about cows!” (Neither Gore nor Cotton remembered this exchange, though Cotton, who said he had a friendly relationship with the Vice-President’s daughter, remarked, “That sounds like something I might say.”)
Cotton began writing an opinion column for the Crimson, the campus daily, where he made a name for himself as an outspoken dissenter on a liberal campus. Shortly before he graduated, in 1998, Thomas B. Cotton wrote a farewell to his readers. “I never sought to be loved or to be treated justly,” he said. “How could I? I wrote against sacred cows, such as the cult of diversity, affirmative action, conspicuous compassion and radical participatory democracy. I wrote in favor of taboo notions, such as Promise Keepers, student apathy, honor and (most unforgivably) conservativism.” After college, Cotton went to Harvard Law School. He worked in law firms during the summers and landed a clerkship with a federal appeals-court judge.
He appeared headed for a life of prosperous anonymity in law, but the attacks of September 11, 2001, upended his plans. “I was going to play intramural basketball, enjoy my last year in school, and then, in the second week of school, the attacks happened, and that changed my orientation,” he told me. “I spent a lot more time from that point forward thinking about the threat we faced, reading about history, reading military history, started thinking about joining the Army.”
Cotton approached the matter with the careful deliberation that has characterized his career. He decided to take the clerkship he had already accepted, with Judge Jerry Smith, on the Fifth Circuit, then work at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, in Washington, to start paying off his student loans. “I thought he had a great future at the firm,” Bill Kilberg, the partner who supervised Cotton’s work, told me. “Then, one day in 2004, Tom came and said he was thinking about leaving the firm to join the Army. I said, ‘Tom, the Army has plenty of lawyers, they really don’t need you, and it’s not necessary for you to join the Army to serve.’ He said, ‘Oh, no, I’m not going to be a lawyer. I’m going to be an Airborne Ranger.’ And I looked at him and said, ‘Tom, have you talked to your mother about this?’ ”
When I asked Cotton about the decision, he said, “The Army needs lawyers, but that’s not the heart of the Army’s mission. The Army’s mission is the infantry’s mission.” He went on, “So I wanted to do that mission, wanted to do the heart of it. I wanted to lead troops in combat.”
Cotton served with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. He led ninety-six-hour patrols in the field, followed by thirty-six-hour stretches at a base near Baghdad. The base had Internet access, and one day in the summer of 2006 Cotton saw that the Times had disclosed, over objections from the Bush Administration, the existence of certain terrorist-surveillance programs. Cotton fired off a letter to the editor, copying several conservative Web sites, and then left on a patrol, where he was cut off from all electronic contact with the United States. “Congratulations on disclosing our government’s highly classified anti-terrorist-financing program,” the letter begins. “I apologize for not writing sooner. But I am a lieutenant in the United States Army and I spent the last four days patrolling one of the more dangerous areas in Iraq.”
The letter combined outrage, overstatement, and savvy politics in a manner that Trump would perfect a decade later. “You may think you have done a public service, but you have gravely endangered the lives of my soldiers and all other soldiers and innocent Iraqis here,” Cotton wrote. “Next time I hear that familiar explosion—or next time I feel it—I will wonder whether we could have stopped that bomb had you not instructed terrorists how to evade our financial surveillance.” He continued, “And, by the way, having graduated from Harvard Law and practiced with a federal appellate judge and two Washington law firms before becoming an infantry officer, I am well-versed in the espionage laws relevant to this story and others—laws you have plainly violated. I hope that my colleagues at the Department of Justice match the courage of my soldiers here and prosecute you and your newspaper to the fullest extent of the law. By the time we return home, maybe you will be in your rightful place: not at the Pulitzer announcements, but behind bars.” When Cotton returned to the base, he learned that the Times hadn’t run the letter but the Web sites had, and the chief of staff of the Army had distributed it to his subordinates.
“I started hearing about Tom when he was still in the military, when I was state chair of our party,” Dennis Milligan, who is now the Arkansas state treasurer, told me. “As chair, you’re always looking for new talent, and people were talking about him even then. They knew he had given up all that money in the law to serve his country.” From Iraq, Cotton was summoned to serve in the Old Guard. (Cotton hoped he had won appointment to the prestigious unit on merit, but the Army had simply summoned the six tallest lieutenants in Iraq.) Later, he volunteered for a tour in Afghanistan, where he won a Bronze Star, before leaving the service, in 2009. After a brief stint working at McKinsey, Cotton returned to Arkansas to run for Congress in his home district. Mike Ross, a Democrat, had retired, and Cotton, campaigning with a heavy emphasis on his military service, won the open seat with about sixty per cent of the vote.
Arkansas, though generally regarded as a Southern state, exists at a crossroads of regions that have been slipping away from Democrats for decades. The booming north, along the Missouri border, has a Midwestern feel, especially because Walmart’s headquarters, in Bentonville, has attracted so many newcomers. The mountainous west owes much to its neighbors in Texas and Oklahoma; the plains of the east and the south, with their cotton fields and rice farms, are conspicuously Southern. “You can tell from the music,” Mark Pryor, a former Democratic senator from Arkansas, told me. “In the mountains, it’s bluegrass and folk music, but in the east and south it’s blues. Memphis is just across the Mississippi. Half of those people at Sun Records were originally from Arkansas.”
Pryor, more than anyone, has lived the recent political evolution of his state. His father, David (governor from 1975 to 1979, and senator from 1979 to 1997), along with Dale Bumpers (governor from 1971 to 1975, and senator from 1975 to 1999), and Bill Clinton (governor from 1979 to 1981 and 1983 to 1992), constitute the gifted political triumvirate that kept the Democratic Party alive in Arkansas after it had faded in nearby states. Clinton, of course, parlayed his moderate liberalism into two terms as President. Mark Pryor was elected state attorney general in 1998, and then won his Senate seat in 2002. Six years later, Republicans didn’t even field an opponent against him. But just six years after that, in 2014, Pryor lost in a landslide to the thirty-seven-year-old Tom Cotton.
“For a long time, Arkansas Democratic politics was kept separate from national Democratic politics,” John Brummett, a political columnist at the Democrat-Gazette, the leading newspaper in the state, told me. “That continued in Arkansas through the nineties and into the two-thousands, because of Clinton. White rural conservatives here could look on the national Democratic Party and see the same guy as President that they were happy enough with in Arkansas.” But the trends that were altering the politics of neighboring states were percolating in Arkansas as well. “ ‘God, guns, and gays’—social issues—were driving white conservatives to the Republicans all along,” Brummett said. “It just exploded when Obama became President.” Before the Obama years, Republicans had won the occasional race in Arkansas; Mike Huckabee was first elected governor in the nineties. But in the past decade the state’s six-person congressional delegation and seven statewide elected officials have gone from nearly all Democrats to all Republicans.
Toxic racial politics contributed to this shift. Max Brantley, a longtime local journalist, now with the Arkansas Times, said, “It is impossible not to see race as a central element in the fall of the Democratic Party here.” After the crisis over the integration of Little Rock Central High School, in 1957, racial politics in the state calmed for a time. This was in part because of the relatively small number of African-Americans; they make up roughly fifteen per cent of the population, as opposed to thirty per cent in the Deep South. “Discrimination was not as evident in Arkansas as it was in other Southern states,” Joyce Elliott, a veteran state senator, said. “It took a black President to bring out the threat.” She added, “I would always say to my liberal white friends, ‘Oh, come on, surely it’s gotten better.’ And they’d say to me, ‘Oh, no, it hasn’t. You can’t believe what white people say about Obama in private—he’s Kenyan, he’s Muslim, they’d call him unprintable racial epithets.’ ” Brantley told me, “You needed to be here to see how quickly the politics changed after Obama came in. He is so deeply disliked here. I think a lot of people in Arkansas thought he was ‘uppity,’ to use the old smear.”
Obama’s Presidency certainly coincided with, if it didn’t directly cause, the decimation of the Democratic Party in Arkansas. Republicans thrived by targeting Obama even in contests that had nothing to do with him. Republican candidates for justice of the peace inveighed against Obamacare, which they never referred to as the Affordable Care Act. When Cotton challenged Pryor, in 2014, he put Obama at the center of his campaign. In one television advertisement, featuring a grainy black-and-white video of Obama, Cotton vowed, “We need a senator who will hold the President accountable.” Another showed Obama saying that he wasn’t on the ballot but his policies were. “President Obama is finally right about something,” Cotton said, in response. A third ad ended with the tagline “Mark Pryor—voting with Obama, voting against Arkansans like you.” Cotton also benefitted from enormous outside spending by conservative groups, including some affiliated with the Koch brothers, who have substantial holdings in Arkansas. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, outside groups spent twenty-three million dollars for Cotton, compared with fourteen million for Pryor.
Cotton rejects the notion that race had anything to do with his victory, or with the rise of the Republican Party in Arkansas. “I don’t think that’s all that different from the intense unpopularity of George Bush in 2006 and 2008,” he told me, in a conversation in his Senate office. “The President’s the head of the Party, he takes up most of the attention in American politics, and when he’s very unpopular opponents in the other party tend to run against him, whether they’re running for the United States Senate or whether they’re running for justice of the peace.” Besides, he said, Democrats in Arkansas had a special reason to disdain Obama: “It wasn’t because Barack Obama was black, it was because Barack Obama stopped the Clinton restoration.”
As reviled as President Obama was in Arkansas, the Affordable Care Act has proved successful and popular in the state. About three hundred thousand people, which amounts to more than ten per cent of the state’s population, have taken advantage of the law to obtain health insurance. The state’s governor, Asa Hutchinson, is a conservative Republican, but he’s urged Congress to protect the money that the state receives under the program. He has, however, made a change. The program is not called Obamacare but, rather, Arkansas Works. It apparently took the removal of the President’s name to make the law palatable to Arkansans.
On the day after I visited Cotton’s family’s home, I told him that I had driven the scenic route back to Little Rock. “That’s because you drove along the Ouachita Mountains, which is the only range in Arkansas that goes west to east,” he said. “It provides more attractive views of the sunset than the north-south ranges.” This was an accurate, if rather bloodless, assessment of the aesthetics of the countryside, one that might be made by “Star Trek” ’s Mr. Spock, whom Cotton, with his air of icy certainty, somewhat resembles.
“I remember the first time I met Tommy,” Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina congressman, told me. “We were debating a medical-malpractice bill on the floor of the House, and he comes up and starts talking about the details of the bill. And I said, ‘First of all, who are you?’ He said he was the new congressman from Arkansas. And I said, ‘You can’t be from Arkansas, because you’re wearing shoes.’ And then he starts telling me to read some law-review article about malpractice by Robert Bork or someone. And I said, ‘Dude, the chess club meets around the corner.’ ” (Gowdy later became a close friend of Cotton and his wife, Anna, a lawyer and former prosecutor.)
Shortly after Cotton was elected to the House, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration-reform bill, which offered a path to citizenship for some undocumented aliens. Cotton was among the leaders of the successful effort to persuade John Boehner, then the Speaker, to block the bill from even coming up for a vote in the House. When we chatted at the kitchen table of his boyhood home, Cotton explained his opposition. “It was the élite, bipartisan consensus—‘It’s the only possible solution’—another idea which the great and the good in Washington love, but wrongheaded in almost every particular,” he said. “If you live in a big city and you work in an office building, immigration is almost an unalloyed good for you. . . . It makes the price of services that you pay for a little bit more affordable—whether it’s your nanny to take care of your kids for you, or landscaping your yard, or pedicures, manicures, that sort of thing. And you get a lot of exciting new fusion restaurants as well.
“But if you live and work in a community where they have a large illegal-immigrant population that’s straining the public school, that’s clogging up the emergency room when you’re trying to get care, that makes it more dangerous to drive in the roads because people don’t have driver’s licenses or they don’t have insurance, or if they are bidding down the wages or even taking jobs away from you, then it doesn’t look nearly so good,” Cotton said. He endorses Trump’s plan to build a wall on the Mexican border—“Walls work,” he often says—and is a lead sponsor of a bill, strongly supported by the White House, that would cut legal immigration roughly in half. (Cotton’s views on immigration are debatable in every particular. It’s far from clear that a border wall with Mexico would “work” to stop illegal immigration in any meaningful way. Most economists believe that immigrants, legal and otherwise, add more to the economy than they take from it, and that their presence in the labor force does not lead to lower wages over all.)
As a legislator, Cotton has shown little deference to his elders. John Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas, told me that new senators used to sit back for a while. “But Tom proved right away that he was very engaged and knowledgeable,” Cornyn said. “He probably knows more about geopolitics than most senators.” In March of his first year in the Senate, Cotton wrote an open letter to the “Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” which was co-signed by forty-six other Republican senators, warning the mullahs that Congress might undo any agreement they reached with Obama. The letter was denounced by Executive Branch officials as an attempt to interfere in a diplomatic initiative, but Cotton regards it as a triumph. In his recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, he boasted about the letter: “Didn’t I warn the ayatollahs that this deal might not survive if it wasn’t a treaty? I think I did.”
When I asked Cotton what he learned during the Iraq War, he replied, “Security comes first.” He continued, “In 2003, there were a lot of grand ambitions of what a postwar Iraq would look like, and all the different things that needed to happen. And we neglected the most basic thing, which is physical security for the people there and for our troops. You see that now in Afghanistan as well. You see it in so many places around the world. You simply cannot neglect security, and without security there cannot be political compromise and reconciliation, there cannot be good governance, there cannot be economic development, there can’t be anything.”
If Rand Paul is the leading Republican isolationist in the Senate, Cotton, in short order, has become heir to the opposing wing of the Party, the one associated with Senator John McCain, whose efforts to increase the defense budget Cotton has championed. “Tom is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s got mud on his boots,” McCain told me. “That means he has special credibility on those issues, just like the World War Two generation did around here for a long time. We need Tom and people like him.” But Cotton has gone well past McCain in his swaggering belligerence. In a February, 2015, hearing of the Armed Services Committee, Cotton announced that he favored keeping open the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. “In my opinion, the only problem with Guantánamo Bay is there are too many empty beds and cells there right now,” Cotton said. “We should be sending more terrorists there for further interrogation to keep this country safe. 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.” (Even McCain favors closing Guantánamo, which he believes stains the reputation of the United States and serves as a recruitment tool for terrorists.)
During the last days of the Obama Administration, Cotton also helped to sabotage a criminal-justice-reform bill, which had a meaningful chance of passage. Senator Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican, was pushing the bill, which would have ended mandatory minimum sentences for some narcotics offenders. Cotton took the public lead in making statements about the proposal which, as with his comments on Guantánamo, skirted the edge of demagoguery. “I don’t think any Republicans want legislation that is going to let out violent felons, which this bill would do,” Cotton said. His rhetoric helped turn a difficult political challenge into an impossible one, and the Republican leadership in the Senate never even brought the bill up for a vote. Cotton told me, “I think most Arkansans believe they elected me to help keep dangerous people in prison.” Jeff Sessions, Trump’s Attorney General, shares Cotton’s disdain for criminal-justice reform, and the move toward shorter sentences at the federal level has halted.
For some Democrats, however, Cotton made his name in the Senate in a more personally poisonous way. In his first year, Cotton placed a hold on Obama’s nominations for the Ambassadors to Sweden, Norway, and the Bahamas, because of an unrelated dispute regarding the Secret Service. As months passed, Cotton released the holds on the Sweden and Norway envoys—because, he said, those countries were NATO allies—but he prevented a vote on Cassandra Butts, an old friend of the President’s, as the Ambassador to the Bahamas. Butts had been waiting for a Senate vote for eight hundred and thirty-five days when, in May, 2016, she died suddenly, of an undiagnosed cancer. Cotton said, “I feel very badly about her death and the timing of it. I wish the White House had just addressed this much earlier.” Still, Cotton’s actions left a bitter aftertaste for some of his colleagues. “I thought what he did was outrageous,” Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and the assistant minority leader, said. “There is a point where winning a political battle isn’t worth it.”
For the moment, at least, Cotton appears to be a hybrid of insurgent and old guard, who can play successfully to the warring constituencies of the Republican Party. As Bannon put it, “How many guys in town can give a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations and also get kudos in the pages of Breitbart? The answer is, one guy.”
Cotton has carved out a clear Trumpism-without-Trump agenda: limits on immigration through legislation, deportations, and a wall; longer prison sentences for American convicts and suspected terrorists abroad; a bigger budget for the Department of Defense. The question is whether he has the charisma to sell that agenda to a broader public. Recently, at his Little Rock office, Cotton presented several medals to the family of George Anderson, a Second World War veteran who had died in 2006. Cotton began with a solemn introduction, but then, unexpectedly, Anderson’s family members, most of whom were elderly, took over the proceedings and began telling stories about George, who had made his living running car washes and coin-operated laundries. Cotton’s staff members and the assembled local reporters began chuckling at the rambling accounts of how George stacked his coins. A more deft politician might have joined in the fun, but Cotton just stood there, seemingly paralyzed by the deviations from good order. The ceremony came to a close when George Anderson’s surviving sister turned to Cotton and said, “As for you—you keep standing up for our President.” ♦