Last week The Wall Street Journal put on a virtual presentation of its CEO Council winter summit in which the nation’s leading business figures hear from the nation’s leading thinkers and newsmakers.
A parade of high-end presenters included Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, tech innovator Elon Musk, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Dr. Anthony Fauci.
In an opening-evening session, a Journal editor conducted a 20-minute interview on the topic of Trump and the New Generation.
And whom did the Journal choose to interview on this timely and intriguing topic for the nation’s eminent business persons?
Was it Ted Cruz or Mark Rubio or Mike Pence or a Trump child? It was not.
Was it Pompeo? No, the secretary of state was presenting later on the state of the world in the waning days of the Trump presidency.
The interviewee was Tom Cotton. Your Boy Tommy was The Wall Street Journal’s designated generational spokesman.
That fact might help frame an appropriate response to the woman who asked me last week, with a tone of dubiousness and incredulity, whether such a seemingly cold extremist as Cotton might really contend next time for the presidency.
It was an odd question. Trump just proved anybody could be president.
Cotton’s short-term prospects hinge, of course, on whether Trump stays viable for the next four years or loses interest or runs into serious investigatory trouble.
If not Trump, then the next Republican standard-bearer will need to be an adapted imitation of Trump, encapsulating populist outsider resentments but appearing mildly less mad and absurd, and mildly more conventional and knowledgeable.
We just described Cotton.
All he lacks as a mildly less mad and better-informed Trump is a personality around which a cult might form. But there is scant personality in any prospective candidate field without Trump, which is how Trump wound up president in the tragic first place, and, conceivably, might again.
So Cotton told the Journal and the business people what he professed to think accounted for Trump’s popularity. He said it was policy and that those policies and the premium placed on them would survive.
“A lot of voters wanted to continue the policies that they saw in the first three years of the Trump administration before the coronavirus pandemic knocked the economy on its back,” Cotton said.
“They wanted a political leader in the president who would stand up for America, who would express a proud, deep and abiding love for our country, and who would not give in to the radical, politically correct liberals.”
Cotton said people elected Trump in 2016 because they were “tired of being lectured to by elites.” He said they understood that they “were not electing a Sunday School teacher.”
He said Trump had defied pre-2016 Republican thinking that a moderate course on immigration reform was necessary for the party. He said Trump showed a better way with a hard line on immigration that actually picked up Hispanic and Latino votes, at least in Texas and Florida.
Most news accounts of Cotton’s presentation contrasted it with the immediately ensuing presentation in which noted neo-conservative William Kristol said Trump’s essence was sheer demagoguery and that Republicans coming after him will likely try to follow that.
We so often cast matters as either/or when they aren’t. Cotton could be right about policy and Kristol right about personal style and demagoguery.
In fact, I think both are.
The Trump voters I hear from believe their lives were made better by this president’s policies. And they enjoyed that their adrenaline got pumped by the way Trump misbehaved, giving nastier than he got to those whom they resent.
Kristol was right when he said demagoguery relies on exploiting class resentments and pettiness while trivializing policy nuance and complex issues.
Cotton can do that kind of exploiting. It seems to suit him. He can be very bit as mean and spiteful toward moderate and liberal thought as Trump.
Cotton’s problem will be that he relies more on substance in his meanness and spitefulness than Trump, who offered little to no substance but could hold a giant rally rapt with entertaining and shameless bluster.
Audiences will need to listen more closely than they listened to Trump to pick up Cotton’s anger and petty resentment.
Closer listening would be an improvement over shallow megalomania. So I’m more than ready for a post-Trump Republican world, even one in which Cotton apparently will be prominent.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame. Email him at email@example.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.