On Tuesday, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) compared the anarchist and antifa “insurrectionists” on the streets of Portland to the Confederate insurrectionists who rebelled against the Constitution, sparking the Civil War. This comparison led left-leaning pundits to demonize the senator, mock him, and suggest that he wanted to “go to war with Portland.”
“The federal government cannot allow anarchists and insurrectionists to destroy federal courthouses, federal buildings, or other federal property,” Cotton began, speaking on Fox & Friends. “These insurrectionists in the streets of Portland are little different from the insurrectionists who seceded from the Union in 1861 in South Carolina and tried to take over Fort Sumter. And just like President Lincoln wouldn’t stand for that, the federal government today cannot stand for the vandalism, the firebombing, or any attacks on federal property.”
“It is right to send federal law enforcement in to defend federal property and federal facilities,” Cotton insisted.
Indeed, over the weekend, antifa anarchists terrorized Portland, and Monday marked the 53rd straight night of riots. On Saturday, one group attacked the Portland Police Bureau’s North Precinct and the police union while another group targeted the federal courthouse. Agitators broke into the police union and set it on fire, while others fired mortars at the federal courthouse. Meanwhile, Mayor Ted Wheeler (D-Portland) decided to hamstring federal agents, aiming to prevent local police from teaming up with them.
Yet The New York Times decided to run an op-ed headlined, “Trump’s Occupation of American Cities Has Begun.” Cotton derided America’s newspaper of record as a “national laughing stock.”
“Well, The New York Times is a national laughing stock,” he said, responding to the op-ed. “Ever since they apologized for running my op-ed without citing a single factual inaccuracy in it, ever since they fired their own editor for running that op-ed [he actually resigned facing pressure], it reads like a syllabus from a social justice seminar,” the senator quipped.
He argued that Bari Weiss, a former opinion editor at the Times who condemned the paper as a stifling organ of leftist Twitter orthodoxy when she resigned last week, is correct. The Times “has read like a left-wing manifesto,” Cotton said.
Fox & Friends played clips from Chicago, showing antifa rioters organizing a violent attack against police in front of a statue of Christopher Columbus on Friday. During the riot, agitators threw frozen water bottles and incendiary devices at police and reportedly sharpened the tops of banners made from PVC pipes in order to stab police with them.
Responding to this violence, Cotton presented a “simple solution: Assault a cop, go to prison. We should have zero tolerance for these anarchists and insurrectionists and rioters who are attacking the men and women who put their lives on the line every day to protect us, to defend our lives and to protect our property.”
“We need to have political leaders who will support our law enforcement professionals, who are out defending the rights of protesters to peaceably assemble and to protest on any reason whatsoever. But we also ought not to allow those protests to be hijacked by these organized radical agitators who are using it for their own purposes to, as you see in that video, try to harm and even kill police officers,” the senator insisted.
Sen. Tom Cotton compares protesters in Portland to Confederate secessionists. pic.twitter.com/YX3uOX6RMn
— TPM Livewire (@TPMLiveWire) July 21, 2020
Left-leaning commentators, following the Times‘s lead, claimed that Cotton had maligned peaceful protesters by falsely accusing them of committing violence.
Sarah Reese Jones, managing editor at Politicus USA, tweeted that Cotton had “compared protesters to the traitors who rebelled against the United States and formed the Confederacy.” The article she shared claimed that “Cotton’s hyperbolic comparison is the latest in a Republican push to conflate criminal violence with legitimate protests as part of a ‘law and order’ pitch for November’s elections.” (As if rioters had not burned down buildings, fired mortars at police officers, or smashed in windows of local businesses.)
Tom Cotton compared protesters to the traitors who rebelled against the United States and formed the Confederacy on Tuesday.
— Sarah Reese Jones (@PoliticusSarah) July 21, 2020
Antifa Rioters Break Into Portland Police Union and Set It on Fire as Mayor Hamstrings Federal Troops
Molly Jong-Fast, editor-at-large at The Daily Beast and a contributor to The Bulwark, tweeted that “Tom Cotton has given up on war with China and now wants to go to war with Portland.”
Tom Cotton has given up on war with China and now wants to go to war with Portland.
— Molly Jong-Fast🏡 (@MollyJongFast) July 21, 2020
Josh Marshall, the founder of Talking Points Memo, did not bother to respond to Cotton’s argument but rather resorted to profane invective.
Remarkable what a nonsensical dumbass Tom Cotton is. Future of the gop. (Present also but you know what I mean.) https://t.co/Dq58OGXBFY
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) July 21, 2020
Luke Zaleski, legal affairs editor at Conde Nast, accused Cotton and Fox News of endorsing “fascist police state sanctioned terrorism” because Black Lives Matter annoys them.
“When black lives matter annoys the institutionalized racist media right wing cabal they make tv out of beating protestors and fascist police state sanctioned terrorism and act like victims performatively for old people in red states and greedy finance hacks who worship tax cuts,” he tweeted.
When black lives matter annoys the institutionalized racist media right wing cabal they make tv out of beating protestors and fascist police state sanctioned terrorism and act like victims performatively for old people in red states and greedy finance hacks who worship tax cuts
— Luke Zaleski (@ZaleskiLuke) July 21, 2020
Some attempted to mock Cotton, suggesting that since conservatives oppose removing Confederate monuments, the senator’s comparison suggests he would support efforts to erect statues celebrating the Portland rioters.
“BREAKING: Sen. Tom Cotton advocates building statues, renaming military bases to honor Portland protesters,” Paul Waldman, an opinion writer at The Washington Post, tweeted.
BREAKING: Sen. Tom Cotton advocates building statues, renaming military bases to honor Portland protesters https://t.co/lZ5NKcxe16
— Paul Waldman (@paulwaldman1) July 21, 2020
While some conservatives may harbor visions of the Confederacy as a “Lost Cause,” President Abraham Lincoln did argue that the Confederates had rebelled against the Union and against the Constitution, which includes no clause on secession. Rather than pushing a constitutional amendment in order to make secession legal, the southern states claimed to break away from the Union. They did so explicitly to defend and expand the institution of slavery.
The Constitution and U.S. law give the president extraordinary powers to suppress insurrection and rebellion. Repeatedly lawless attacks against police officers, federal property, and businesses arguably justify such intervention under the same logic that Lincoln used to respond with force against the Confederate rebels.
Contrary to the leftist rhetoric, Cotton was not calling for federal troops to break up peaceful protests or abridge protesters’ First Amendment rights. He was, however, insisting that federal troops should restore law and order in cities where antifa rioters have burned down buildings, thrown incendiary devices at cops, and vandalized private and public property. Portland, for example, faces endemic riots — 53 straight nights of lawless attacks and vandalism.
There is an essential and important difference between using federal troops to break up a peaceful protest and bringing in officers to bring peace to a violent riot. Cotton very clearly called for the latter, not the former, and it is both dangerous and disgusting that leftists would continue to falsely accuse him of authoritarianism.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.