Unlike some on the left, I never feared that Trump would be the American Mussolini. As a self-absorbed reality-show star with minimal understanding of how government works, Trump lacks sufficient organizational ability. Nor does he have the work habits you need to run an authoritarian government. My fear, going back to Trump’s candidacy in 2016, was that he would be the Yankee Gabriele D’Annunzio, a prefiguration of things to come, an inchoate and incoherent forerunner of the true American Duce who would one day destroy the republic.
D’Annunzio, a novelist and adventurer, ran the separatist government that ruled the city of Fiume in 1919–20. Although short-lived, the Fiume escapade showed the vulnerability of the Italian government, and provided a road map that the more ruthless Mussolini would follow.
Trump has performed a similar function for the United States, giving an X-ray scan that makes all the weaknesses of the system evident. It’s not hard to imagine that in the future a smarter and more policy-savvy demagogue could pick up Trump’s political agenda but pursue it with all the discipline and determination that Trump lacks.
There are several plausible candidates for the role of Trump 2.0. One obvious name is Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who is telegenic and presents authoritarian nationalism with a nimble fluidity Trump lacks. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley has been working hard to at least sound like an economic populist, although he rarely backs it up with policy. Still, his attacks on big tech do smartly link the traditional cultural resentment of the American right with the left-wing fear of corporate monopoly.
Another senator strikes me as an even more likely Trump 2.0: Tom Cotton of Arkansas. A graduate of Harvard Law and veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cotton has an instinctive understanding of the wounded national pride that is at the heart of Trumpism. Just as Ronald Reagan’s appeal partly came from the promise he offered of recovering from the defeat of Vietnam, Trumpism is haunted by the frustrating quagmires in the Middle East.
Cotton is perhaps the most hawkish senator in America, but of a distinctly Trumpian cast. He resorts to none of the lofty rhetoric of democracy that pervaded the Bush administration. Instead, he knows the United States has been humiliated in the Middle East and he wants revenge. Like some in the career military, he blames Iran for thwarting America’s agenda in the region. This grudge fuels his constant efforts to wreak havoc on the Islamic republic.
Some Republicans defend Trump with a heavy heart. They may not like his actions or what he stands for, but they know it is in their political interest to defend their party’s leader. Not so with Cotton. He has become one of Trump’s heartiest and most enthusiastic advocates in Washington, eagerly taking up the main causes of Trumpism, like protectionism, immigration restriction, and a more nationalist foreign policy. As Steve Bannon told The New Yorker in 2017, “Next to Trump, [Cotton is] 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 elite—this permanent political class of both parties, between the K Street consultants and politicians—needs to be shattered.”
Cotton, Bannon shrewdly noted, knows how to be both an insider and an outsider. He has cultivated a strong network of support among conservative institutions in Washington, notably think tanks and neoconservative journalists. He’s done that while cultivating ties with the more aggressively Trumpian right. Bannon asks, “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.”
As Robert Wright noted on his website Nonzero, Cotton is especially well connected with the network around William Kristol and the now-defunct magazine The Weekly Standard. Wright observes, “Cotton got elected to the Senate with the help of a million dollars from Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel, subsequently hired Kristol’s son Joseph as his legislative director, and has in various other ways settled into a cozy symbiosis with Kristol’s network. The Washington Free Beacon—whose founding editor is Matthew Continetti, Kristol’s son-in-law—highlights Cotton’s exploits so regularly that any given page of its Tom Cotton archives (say, this year’s July-September page) will feature an array of headlines that speak to the vast range of the senator’s expertise.”
If Cotton ran in 2024 or 2028, he could heal many of the wounds within the Republican Party by bringing back into the fold Never Trump neoconservatives. This faction despises Trump for his vulgarity and disregard for policy, but would be much more attracted to a figure like Cotton, a decorated veteran who could unify the GOP with a nationalist message directed against China and Iran.
The neoconservatives are, of course, small in number. But, as an elite faction, they play a crucial role in staffing Republican administrations. A President Cotton would have a much easier time filling the government with loyal henchmen than Trump has had. That alone could make Cotton immensely more effective at achieving his policy goals than Trump has been.
The Weekly Standard connection helped Cotton with the latest caper: publishing an op-ed in The New York Times on Wednesday calling for the use of the American military to quell rioters against police violence. The column was shepherded into print by Adam Rubenstein, a 25-year-old editor who previously worked at The Weekly Standard.
The column caused extreme consternation among Times readers and staffers. A letter signed by nearly 500 New York Times employees explained,
If Cotton’s call to arms is to be conveyed to our readers at all, it should be subject to rigorous questioning and rebuttal of its shaky facts and gross assumptions. For instance, Cotton writes that Antifa has “infiltrated protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.” In fact, we have reported that this is misinformation. Though Cotton claims protesters have been primarily responsible for violence, our own reporting shows that in many cities police have escalated violence. Other claims, like that the “riots were carnivals for the thrill-seeking rich,” are not backed up by fact. At one point, Cotton misquotes the U.S. Constitution.
The New York Times eventually apologized for publishing the column. But that in itself is a victory for Cotton: He now gets to play the free-speech martyr censored by the liberal media.
There’s reason to suspect that embarrassing the Times was, if not Cotton’s plan, certainly something he was pleased about. In 2006 while serving in Iraq, Cotton wrote a letter to the Times calling for the prosecution of two Times reporters and an editor for publishing leaked information about Al Qaeda. As Jeffrey Toobin noted in The New Yorker in 2017, “The letter combined outrage, overstatement, and savvy politics in a manner that Trump would perfect a decade later.”
Cotton is certainly as demagogic as Trump, but he combines rabble-rousing with a unique intelligence, one that is able to troll the liberal media at a high level. If he’s the next Trump, America will be in trouble.
On Thursday night, Cotton tweeted, “I’m enjoying the @nytimes meltdown.”