Tom Cotton Touts (Sanitized) Andrew Jackson as GOP Hero

Old Hickory’s latest disciple. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Senator Tom Cotton may be best known for calling for the deployment of the U.S. Armed Forces to stamp out protests for racial justice in the summer of 2020. But long before his scandalous op-ed was published in the New York Times, the Arkansan had a reputation for being relentlessly reactionary on a wide range of issues, and extremely ambitious; he clearly fancies himself a presidential contender, and seems to be preparing for a possible 2024 run.

Both of these qualities were evident in the big speech Cotton delivered this past week at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, which was advertised as an effort to reconcile the legacies of Reagan and Donald Trump. The speech was mostly an extended owning-the-libs exercise full of the usual provocations and smears. But it’s noteworthy that the glue Cotton used to fuse the sunny Gipper to the saturnine mogul was their common admiration for a third president, Andrew Jackson.

Trump, of course, famously loves Old Hickory, who’s known for his unapologetic racism and a foreign policy based on hyper-belligerent isolationism. While Cotton cited Reagan’s praise for Jackson as “one of our greatest heroes” and made a big deal out of the fact that his image was displayed in the Oval Office during the Reagan presidency, said image shared space with portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, along with sculptures of western saddles, a cowboy, and a buffalo. The Reagan Library explanation of the Jackson portrait says that Reagan mainly valued him as the first “western” president (as defined in the early 19th century).

But Cotton mostly deployed Jackson as a partisan weapon against the Democrats who have abandoned him. He said:

Democrats today are busy cancelling their party’s founder. They’ve erased his name from their dinners. They’ve denounced his legacy as evil. They’ve even tried to remove his image from the twenty-dollar bill. The Democratic Party today is hardly democratic and certainly not Jacksonian. They reflect the tastes and prejudices of a small, over-educated elite clustered in a few of our great cities. They serve the interests of the wealthy and the powerful. They speak the alien language of the campus-seminar room and import its culture into the corporate boardroom.

This is interesting rhetoric coming from a man with two Harvard degrees who immediately stamped himself upon entering Congress in 2012 as an enemy of the interests of regular folk in public policy, as Molly Ball noted in an early profile of Cotton:

He was the only Arkansas Republican to vote twice against the farm bill and five times against disaster-aid funding—two initiatives that national conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation see as symptoms of big government, but that many rural Southerners rely on heavily. Cotton also was the only Arkansan to vote for a budget drafted by the Republican Study Committee that would slash spending, voucherize Medicare, and raise the eligibility age for Social Security to 70.

As a Georgia native with a grandfather, a great-uncle, and a cousin named after Andrew Jackson, I’d be willing to let Cotton appropriate Old Hickory despite all the grotesque incongruities. But his speech devolved into sheer delusion when he tried to paint anti-racist protesters who tried, unsuccessfully, to tear down the statue of Jackson in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square as the heirs of John C. Calhoun — yes, that John C. Calhoun, the arch-defender of slavery. Cotton said:

In the summer of 2020, a mob of Calhoun’s progeny, filled with hate for America, came with ropes and chains to tear down that statue. But no matter how much they pulled, and struggled, and screamed, that statue of Old Hickory would not fall, would not yield, would not crumble. One hundred seventy-five years in the grave and his legacy still captures so much about America. Defaced by radicals, but still standing tall.

The differences between Calhoun and Jackson, a slaveholder, actually had nothing to do with their common devotion to the Peculiar Institution. And Cotton gave the argument a new wrinkle when he touted Jackson as a crime-fighter:

Here we can take inspiration once again from Old Hickory. In 1818, criminals and marauders used lawless portions of Spanish Florida as bases to attack and kill American citizens. In response, General Jackson invaded Spanish territory, rooted out those responsible, and then conquered the Spanish capital just for good measure. We should show the same resolve in the face of crime and lawlessness today.

What exactly was the “crime and lawlessness” Jackson was punishing in 1818? There was a lot going on, by most accounts. Yes, there were some troubling, fatal attacks on United States citizens launched from Spanish Florida. But in addition, there was a long-frustrated desire among many Americans to seize Florida from Spain; there were land speculators gambling on it. Many of Jackson’s fellow slave-holders were frustrated by Spanish Florida’s status as a refuge for runaway slaves. And those who were committed to the great early 19th-century cause of “Indian removal” – which found its champion in Andrew Jackson – were determined to bring to heel the Seminole tribe that Spain had allowed (along with the runaway slaves) to govern itself. As University of Houston historian Matthew Clavin explained in a recent book, Jackson’s campaign can be interpreted as an part of a broader effort to restore white supremacy:

In the aftermath of the War of 1812, Major General Andrew Jackson ordered a joint United States army-navy expedition into Spanish Florida to destroy a free and independent community of fugitive slaves. The result was the Battle of Negro Fort, a brutal conflict among hundreds of American troops, Indian warriors, and black rebels that culminated in the death or re-enslavement of nearly all of the fort’s inhabitants. By eliminating this refuge for fugitive slaves, the United States government closed an escape valve that African Americans had utilized for generations. At the same time, it intensified the subjugation of southern Native Americans, including the Creeks, Choctaws, and Seminoles.

Cotton did not mention the racial implications of this “law and order” mission, and indeed portrayed it as exemplary. This parallels his willingness to tout Old Hickory as the beau ideal of the Republican Party without acknowledging Jackson’s racism and his shoot-first, ask-questions-later attitude during the unauthorized invasion of Spanish Florida.

Clearly Tom Cotton will go to great lengths in his longstanding crusade against Republican support for criminal-justice reform or anything other than the most atavistic crime policies. Though his speech was meant to tie Reagan and Trump to the same ideological heritage, he couldn’t resist including an attack on the First Step Act of 2018, the modest criminal-justice reform bill that Trump took vastly exaggerated credit for in his appeals to Black voters in 2020. Without a shred of evidence, Cotton blamed the spike in selected violent-crime statistics accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic as totally attributable to this mild and mostly unimplemented law, which he called “the worst mistake of [Trump’s] tenure.”

You have to wonder if Trump himself will soon respond to Cotton’s attacks and repudiate the criminal-justice reform initiative his son-in-law Jared Kushner reportedly talked him into signing, after years of slow bipartisan progress. It could be a necessary move for any Republican looking to make old-school racist crime demagoguery a major part of their 2024 presidential campaign.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece erroneously suggested that Andrew Jackson’s invasion of Spanish Florida was principally racial in motivation, and implied that Senator Cotton was praising it as such. Though the issue of fugitive slaves was a contributing factor, it was not the sole reason for the invasion; the senator did not reference the issue in his speech, and we do not know how it figured into Jackson’s personal motivations. We regret the error.

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Tom Cotton Touts (Sanitized) Andrew Jackson as GOP Hero