David Frank | Hamilton College

Senator Tom Cotton has sustained a meteoric rise to prominence in the Tea Party-to-Trump Republican Party. Prior to Trump’s election, I knew little about the senator aside from his reputation as a hardline conservative firebrand.

That changed, however, when I stumbled upon two articles Cotton wrote for the Harvard Crimson during his time as an undergraduate in Cambridge. These pieces, published in 1996 and 1998 respectively, provide insight into some of Cotton’s most politically formative years.

The articles address fellow Arkansan and then-President Bill Clinton both before and during the unfolding of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Given Clinton’s Monday comments deflecting fault for his handling of the incident, they are both relevant and insightful today.

The first piece, entitled Clinton’s Politicking is Sincere, attributes Clinton’s political dexterity to his natural candor. Cotton described Clinton as “the most sincere campaigner of [his] time” and one who prudently “always sought counsel from an exceptional number of people” before acting. In 1996, Cotton considered Clinton’s honesty a natural political advantage.

Cotton’s tone had shifted dramatically by 1998 as the Lewinsky scandal was coming to light and threatening the Clinton presidency. In the Lesson of Lewinsky, Cotton likens Clinton to the many demagogues of history. But while he castigates Clinton as “a compulsive womanizer and liar” unable to be truthful even “on the most trivial matters,” his strongest criticism is of the American populace.

Cotton saw a clear choice between morality and degeneracy facing the American people. While he credited Americans’ rejection of the “fanciful nonsense” that was Clinton’s denial, he considered later polls showing relative indifference to the scandal both remarkable and ominous.

In Cotton’s opinion, a popular rejection of basic integrity subverts the “fundamental presumption” of democracy: “that the people have wisdom and virtue enough to elect politicians wise and virtuous enough to rule.” Democracy is therefor rendered unsustainable if the people cannot make basic moral judgments.

Tom Cotton’s political framework was clearly grounded in his conceptions of truth and morality during his collegiate years. Today, his alignment with President Trump leads one to wonder “what happened?”.

Sen. Cotton is one of Trump’s strongest congressional allies. He has voted in line with the president’s position on over 93% of bills proposed since taking office.

Furthermore, Cotton’s alliance with the White House transcends legislation. Cotton was one of Trump’s earliest congressional supporters during his presidential campaign. He has consistently defended the president’s character, most notably as one of two congressmen present who could “not recall” whether Trump described Haiti and various African states as “shithole countries.”

While I cannot know Sen. Cotton’s motives, I can recognize certain striking similarities between Presidents Trump and Clinton’s less-than-perfect public records. Each has been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple- and in Trump’s case plentiful- women whom the public has not been given a reason to disbelieve.

In 1998 Tom Cotton wrote that, if the American people continued to ignore their leaders’ immorality, our nation “may not be self-governing much longer.” Although his words may now be proven prophetic, I doubt that Sen. Cotton’s collegiate self would like the side of history he now finds himself on. 

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