Cotton can't square the circle between Reagan and Trump

Tom Cotton.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

With an ambitious speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Monday night, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton became the latest Republican presidential aspirant to try and get himself anointed Donald Trump's populist successor. Cotton's remarks were noteworthy primarily for establishing him as a master of obfuscation who will go to almost comical lengths to paper over the party's many disagreements and contradictions.

One way to describe the fissures in the GOP is to contrast Reagan and Trump. The first was sunny and optimistic, a confident defender of democratic ideals who took a strong stand against the Soviet Union while championing immigration, free trade, and limited government at home. The second trafficked in anger and resentment, openly admiring dictators, denigrating NATO, and favoring closed borders and protectionist policies designed to insulate American workers from market forces.

Cotton elided these many differences by claiming that Reagan and Trump belong to the American populist tradition that traces back to President Andrew Jackson. According to Cotton, this tradition is known for proudly and unapologetically defending America's interests in the world — and the interests of ordinary Americans against corrupt economic and political elites.

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Cotton then set himself up as the truest successor of the Jacksonian tradition by calling out the biggest mistake made by each of his populist predecessors. Reagan, he claimed, should never have gone along with an immigration amnesty as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. As for Trump, his greatest error was supporting and signing the First Step Act, which passed the Senate in 2018 with 87 votes. (Cotton was one of 12 Republicans to oppose the bill.) It was championed by libertarians and widely hailed for its efforts to reform criminal law, sentencing guidelines, and federal prison policy to enhance fairness and reduce the inmate population.

As far as Cotton is concerned, the current surge in violent crime can be traced directly to this law, which supposedly encouraged the hiring of progressive prosecutors who engage in "nullification" by failing to prosecute criminals. The law also resulted in a drop in the prison population by "more than 400,000 inmates in 2020 alone," driven by the "faddish claim that our country has an over-incarceration problem" when in fact "we have an under-incarceration problem."

Combine this diatribe with other passages of the speech denouncing "globalism" and chain migration, calling for presidential medical adviser Anthony Fauci to be fired and "held accountable," denouncing the indoctrination of "our kids with extremist nonsense" in schools, railing against China, and mocking President Biden's appeasement of Russia — and listeners could be forgiven for assuming Cotton's vision of Jacksonian populism amounts to a nastier and more competent version of Trumpism that's also an outright repudiation of Reaganism.

If that's what Tom Cotton wants the Republican Party to stand for, he can certainly try to make it a reality and ride it all the way to the Oval Office. But he should admit the truth that this vision has as little to do with Reagan as it does with Abraham Lincoln, another president Cotton attempted even more absurdly to fold into the Jacksonian tradition. Anything else is deliberate mystification.

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Damon Linker

Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at He is also a former contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.