President Donald Trump has lost the election, but even if he goes away, plenty of people are vying to become the new leader of his grievance movement.
Possible pretenders to the Trump throne include his adult sons, TV talking heads, Cabinet officials, governors and members of Congress. Two of the most prominent are Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Ivy League graduates who have used their short tenures as U.S. senators to make themselves into Trump-style demagogues.
Cotton glided to reelection on Tuesday ― so smoothly, in fact, that he spent the last few weeks campaigning in the key presidential primary states of New Hampshire and Iowa. Thanks to a 2015 change to Arkansas state law enacted specifically for Cotton’s benefit, he can keep his Senate seat and simultaneously run in the 2024 presidential primary.
Cotton is a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and his big thing is “law and order.” He’s even more hysterical about crime than Trump is. He tried to torpedo the 2018 First Step Act, which modestly reduced prison time for some federal inmates, by claiming that people newly released from prison would commit crimes and wind up in Willie Horton-style TV ads that cost lawmakers their seats.
For two years, he’s been promising that the crime will happen, but it still hasn’t. He nevertheless told The Washington Post in late October that “there’s going to be serious crimes committed by people who are out of prison that would otherwise be in prison.”
Hawley, by contrast, is a veteran of the War on Christmas. He is constantly on alert for any offense to America’s Christian majority from the “managerial front row of American society, the class of the faculty lounge and the C-suite,” as he described it in a July speech on the Senate floor, possibly forgetting that he is the product of Stanford and Yale and fancy law firms, and that he was an actual professor at the University of Missouri Law School.
Many Republican senators reacted negatively to the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, but Hawley and Cotton went above and beyond, fully embracing the white identity politics at the core of Trumpism.
They spent last fall and winter praising pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and sharply criticizing the heavy-handed police response. Hawley even traveled there last October to literally stand in solidarity with the protesters fighting to save the island’s democracy from the Chinese Communist Party.
“They have used violent tactics to put down the protests ― tear gas and beatings and dye blasted at protesters,” Hawley said in a Senate floor speech after the trip. “I just have to say, having been there myself, having been to the streets, having seen the protesters, having met with them and talked with them, their courage and their bravery under pressure is really something to behold.”
Cotton also spoke out: “It would be a grave mistake of historic proportion ― surpassing the massacre of Tiananmen Square ― if Beijing were to impose martial law, occupy, or otherwise crack down on Hong Kong.”
But in May, after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd and sparked a wave of Black Lives Matter marches, Hawley dismissed the overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations as “increasingly violent riots and attacks and looting.” Black Lives Matter, perhaps the largest protest movement in U.S. history, decried not just police misconduct but also the systemic racism that pervades every aspect of Black life in America.
In many cities, police responded brutally, tear-gassing protesters and firing rubber bullets into crowds, creating a seemingly endless montage of government violence. Not only did Republican senators not care, when some jurisdictions decided to allow the protests instead of using escalatory suppression tactics, Hawley complained they oppressed Christians because of continued pandemic restrictions on large gatherings.
“State officials have violated the free speech and free exercise rights of religious Americans by treating religious gatherings and speech differently than the speech and mass gatherings of protests,” Hawley said in a June letter asking the Justice Department for a civil rights investigation.
He also spoke out against the military renaming bases that currently honor Confederate generals ― an initiative that gained steam because of the protests but that Hawley derided as “woke cancel culture … steamrolling our history.”
Cotton called for the federal government to suppress the protests as violently as possible.
“One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers,” he wrote in an infamous New York Times op-ed in June.
Trump, for his part, used federal law enforcement to gas and beat protesters near the White House so he could stage a photo shoot holding a Bible in front of a church: an overwhelming show of force and a tribute to oppressed Christians, all at once.
Of course, nobody in politics is as corrupt, shameless and ignorant as Trump, and nobody in Congress has his weird celebrity charisma, which was vital to his victory in the 2016 Republican primary. Cotton is far more disciplined, often declining to speak to reporters and choosing his words with robotic precision when he does talk. Hawley exudes right-wing smarm.
In 2016, Trump campaigned as a different kind of Republican, one who wasn’t out to get Social Security or Medicare, who generally supported government intervention as long as it wasn’t “welfare.” It’s effective politics: People like when the government helps them, a fact that is strangely elusive to both Republicans and Democrats.
But Trump governed more like a typical Republican. In recent months he nominally supported extra unemployment benefits and direct payments to households as part of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, for example, but he didn’t support them enough to strike a deal with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), even though the economy is in horrible shape and a boost would have helped him win reelection.
Hawley has sprinkled his public persona with economic populism, taking positions on trade and antitrust that are unusual for a Republican (except that they aligned with various Trump beefs of the past two years). In response to the pandemic, he proposed huge additional amounts of federal spending to subsidize literally every endangered job and to pay monthly benefits to families struggling during the pandemic. But his proposals weren’t much more than press releases; it was another Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who actually worked with Democrats to create a payroll support program that temporarily saved millions of jobs over the summer.
By crushing jobs and businesses, the pandemic has crushed state budgets, since the missing business activity results in missing tax revenue. Budget gaps resulted in layoffs and furloughs, and as of September, state and local governments employed fewer workers than at any time during the Great Recession.
Despite his willingness to throw enormous amounts of money at private payrolls, Hawley repeated Trump’s line, writing off about half the country, when asked about a Democratic coronavirus relief bill that would plug state budget holes.
“If it includes blue-state bailout money, then I’d say that’s probably a hard no,” he said. The dismissal is a reminder that like almost every other Republican senator, he’s fond of tax cuts for the rich and in March voted against giving workers an extra $600 unemployment benefit if it amounted to more than their previous wage. The extra benefit was probably most populist thing Congress has done in years.
On Election Day, as the results trickled in and exit polls suggested Trump had made progress with minority voters and that he might even win the election, Hawley celebrated.
“We are a working class party now,” he said on Twitter. “That’s the future.”