Riots Expose Important Divide Among Potential Trump Successors

Who will be the next Donald Trump?

Many names are thrown around, but two senators regularly emerge at the top of the heap: Senators Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).

Both Hawley and Cotton are young and Ivy League-educated.

Both drape themselves in America First rhetoric, both want to reduce immigration, both support trade protectionism, and both offer a critique of libertarianism and the ravages of “woke capital.”

But only one of them stands up for law and order—and it’s not the Missourian beloved by “post-liberal” intellectuals.

Cotton is the leading exponent of using strong force against the George Floyd riots; Hawley, on the other hand, focused more on police racism. Cotton spoke up for the Silent Majority; Hawley conceded ground to radical left-wing activists. The riots show that Cotton is willing to stand up for popular issues despite being called a “racist” or a “fascist.” The riots also reveal that Hawley is more concerned with appealing to pundits than to Middle America.

Most Middle Americans probably think that there is some need for police reform—but they understand the riots are a far bigger problem than a few bad cops.

Cotton spoke to that point of view. In his now-infamous New York Times op-ed, Cotton stressed law and order over appeasement to Black Lives Matter. He called the rioters “nihilist criminals” and “left-wing radicals.” He condemned the elites who “have excused this orgy of violence in the spirit of radical chic, calling it an understandable response to the wrongful death of George Floyd. Those excuses are built on a revolting moral equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters.” He never mentions police racism or praises the protesters.

The former Army infantry officer said the only thing that can stop the anarchy is “an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.” He argued only federal troops can accomplish this mission due to the terrifying scale of the chaos.

This opinion, as Cotton noted in his op-ed, is shared by 58 percent of Americans—including 37 percent of African-Americans. Only 30 percent of Americans oppose this idea. Unfortunately for Cotton, that 30 percent includes nearly all journalists. The New York Times staff revolted over the op-ed and bizarrely claimed the piece threatened the lives of black staffers. The Times management was forced to apologize for the column and promised greater racial justice in the newsroom.

All because a sitting senator articulated the position of nearly 60 percent of the country.

Cotton himself didn’t seem to mind the backlash. He didn’t apologize and didn’t backtrack. He stuck to his opinion and didn’t bother with the hysteria. It’s very Trumpian to unapologetically stand by a view the respectable crowd denounces as racist.

Hawley’s Senate floor speech on the unrest was rather un-Trumpian. He did criticize the riots and said we should have no tolerance for looting and violence. But those were only asides in Hawley’s speech; his chief focus was police racism.

Hawley said George Floyd’s death was an injustice “to millions of Americans who feel caught up, who feel judged by, endangered by, imperiled by these actions and too many others like them, over too many years, for too long in this country.” He expressed his sympathies for the “peaceful” protesters, many of whom want to abolish the police. “[The protesters] are right to demand this pattern of violence exercised against African-Americans be acknowledged and it be confronted and it be stopped,” he said. “This is urgent work for this nation and for this Congress.”

He also tried to tie in his pet issues by connecting the unrest with deindustrialization. While the disappearance of America’s industrial base has been catastrophic, it’s unclear how it inspired Antifa radicals and racial agitators to loot and burn cities. Hawley did not offer support for using federal troops or any other measure to stop the riots.

This isn’t a message to win over the Silent Majority.

This failure doesn’t invalidate Hawley’s many other fine qualities. The junior senator from Missouri is the lead champion against Big Tech and its many abuses. He supports many great pieces of legislation, such as the RAISE Act, which reduces immigration and puts American interests first. He signed the Senate letter that called on Trump to expand his immigration moratorium.

His foreign policy is also far closer to 2016 Trump than Cotton’s. The Arkansan is arguably the biggest hawk in the Senate and never seems to find a foreign conflict in which he doesn’t think America should be involved.

Hawley has expressed support for drawing down foreign entanglements and publicly opposes nation-building. But he isn’t a leader on this issue like Rand Paul and is hawkish when it comes to Iran.

Cotton and Hawley share nearly identical views on immigration, but the Arkansan has been at the forefront of the fight throughout his career. In contrast, Hawley doesn’t take leadership on this issue.

The one area Cotton is clearly more like campaign Trump is criminal justice. The Arkansan vigorously opposes attempts to eliminate the policies that have made America safer. He fought against the First Step Act when the White House and the GOP establishment pushed it. He continues to emphasize protecting citizens over coddling criminals.

This message may prove more popular in the wake of the riots and liberal cities considering the abolishment of police. Hawley does oppose the Fair Chance Act, which would expand the reforms found in the First Step Act, but otherwise avoids the issue. Opposing criminal justice reform would risk the good press he regularly receives. Hawley wants to be the respectable Trumpist who doesn’t horrify the chattering class.

Cotton doesn’t seem to care about pleasing the chattering class. Neither did Trump.

Whoever emerges as the next great populist will have to excite the Silent Majority and represent its core interests. That person will have to understand that the Trump base primarily is motivated by cultural and identity issues, not economic wonkery.

Cotton understands this better than Hawley. Trump didn’t declare himself the industrial policy candidate in 2016—he proclaimed himself the law and order candidate. The man or woman who succeeds him will follow his example.

About Paul Bradford

Paul Bradford is a Capitol Hill refugee now earning an honest living.

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

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