Cotton's send-the-troops argument is as wrong as it is dangerous

Cotton's argument is that "an overwhelming show of force" against Americans will restore "order to our streets." That's ridiculous.
Image: Tom Cotton
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., speaks to reporters as he arrives for a meeting with fellow Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who are at the Capitol to discuss the nation's criminal justice sentencing laws, in Washington on Nov. 27, 2018.J. Scott Applewhite / AP file
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By Steve Benen

Last summer, after Donald Trump reportedly eyed a plan to buy Greenland, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wrote an op-ed for the New York Times endorsing the idea. In January, after the president risked a war with Iran by launching an airstrike that killed Gen. Qassim Soleimani, Cotton wrote another op-ed for the New York Times endorsing the dangerous offensive.

And this week, Trump publicly threatened to deploy American troops to restrain American citizens on American soil, at which point the same Republican senator turned to the same newspaper with yet another op-ed offering his hearty support for using the Insurrection Act of 1807 to deploy the military against American civilians, even over the objections of state and local officials.

Cotton's argument is that "an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers" will, "above all else," restore "order to our streets." He concludes:

The American people aren't blind to injustices in our society, but they know that the most basic responsibility of government is to maintain public order and safety. In normal times, local law enforcement can uphold public order. But in rare moments, like ours today, more is needed, even if many politicians prefer to wring their hands while the country burns.

This, incidentally, puts Cotton to the right of Trump's own Defense secretary, Mark Esper, who yesterday said use of the Insurrection Act simply is not necessary.

Regardless, the Republican's argument didn't come out of nowhere. Earlier this week, the far-right Arkansan published tweets endorsing the idea of using active-duty American servicemen and women to do "whatever it takes to restore order." Cotton added, "No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters."

The senator's unfortunate op-ed fleshed out his position in more detail. It sparked considerable pushback, including from journalists who questioned the Times' editors' willingness to publish the GOP lawmaker's apparent support for authoritarian tactics.

That Cotton wrote such a pitch on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre was also unfortunate.

But let's also not forget that the argument outlined in the op-ed is spectacularly unpersuasive. To hear the senator tell it, the United States has descended into some kind of hellscape from which only the military can rescue us. While there's no denying the scope and scale of social unrest in communities nationwide, to see the current American landscape as one in which the police and National Guard have been overrun, leaving chaos and lawlessness in its wake, is plainly wrong.

What's more, while Cotton may see "an overwhelming show of force" -- against Americans on American streets -- as the best possible way to "restore order," he almost certainly has this backwards.

As Dan Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts, explained, "At every stage in the social unrest to date, the use of excessive force by police forces has resulted in even larger demonstrations. National Guard and other forces used overwhelming nonlethal force to get rid of protesters at Lafayette Square, and the result was an even larger number of demonstrators. If Cotton truly believes that these protesters are being infiltrated by 'cadres of left-wing radicals,' then larger protests will simply offer more opportunities for greater damage."

It's not exactly a secret that the far-right Arkansas senator is eyeing a national campaign in the coming years. When Cotton seeks the nation's highest office, it will be important to keep op-eds like these in mind.