For Tom Cotton and the Right, Violence and Cruelty Are Common Sense

The American right frequently takes unreasonable and anti-social behavior and presents it as commonplace and normal.

For Tom Cotton and the Right, Violence and Cruelty Are Common Sense

In 2020, Senator Tom Cotton sparked outrage with a New York Times guest essay calling for the use of the military to curb rioting and enforce order during the George Floyd protests. This past week, he called on everyday Americans to “take matters into your own hands” in dealing with pro-Palestinian protestors like the ones who blocked traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge on Monday.

As one of the Arkansans Mr. Cotton represents, I take issue with his assertion on Fox News that “If something like this happened in Arkansas, on a bridge there, let’s just say I think there’d be a lot of very wet criminals that had been tossed overboard—not by law enforcement, but by the people whose road they’re blocking.” I do not think my fellow Arkansans would, en masse, physically throw protesters into the Arkansas River.

But I also think his comments speak to a wider phenomenon on the American right, one where a kind of unreasonable, even anti-social, thinking has become commonplace but is presented as common sense and normal.

It is a mode wherein the usual conservative appeals to common sense and self-evident facts remain rhetorically but are used to uphold a deeply disordered set of assumptions.

Public disorder

Last November, Kenneth Darlington, a seventy-something expat living in Panama, allegedly shot and killed two climate protesters who were blocking the road. I wrote about this event and reactions to it at the time for Arc Digital.

In the immediate aftermath, the right-wing commentariat quickly framed the event as a tragic outcome that played out under sympathetic circumstances. Rod Dreher posted the photo of Darlington, holding the murder weapon, and commented, “He did wrong ... but I know just how he feels. And you do too.” On his Daily Wire show, Michael Knowles expressed a similar view: “A 77-year old man in Panama had enough of climate activists blocking the road. So he did what probably many people want to do in these situations and shot two of them dead.”

I do not think the impulse to kill protesters—much less the act of following through on such a thought—is typical. The murder of innocent people over inconvenience is neither trivial nor, one would hope, particularly relatable. And yet responses like Dreher’s and Knowles’s make it out to be exactly that.

Mr. Cotton’s own comments fall within the same boundaries. And so does much of the support being offered for his sentiments.

The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh echoed Cotton’s view of the protesters while lamenting that anyone who took his advice would find themselves arrested. As he put it:

…if someone does take matters into their own hands, there’s a very good chance they’ll spend the rest of their life in prison. The Biden DOJ will destroy them. They will do nothing to protect innocent people from these terrorists.

This is a comical inversion of reality. For Cotton and Walsh, protesters are “criminals” and “terrorists” and anyone who exercises vigilante force against them is an innocent. In this light, not only is enacting violence against protesters morally good, it’s the tyranny and lawlessness of Biden’s America that unjustly constrains the actions of decent, everyday Americans.

I agree, of course, with Chris Hayes’s assessment that “Even by the debased standards of the day, this is just crazy…” But what’s even more mad is the way in which human behavior has been forced through the cockeyed ideological framework of the new American right. If the average person truly does harbor the instincts being encouraged and even praised by figures like Cotton, Walsh, Knowles, and others, we would be walking down city blocks full of Arthur Flecks. Insanity would be the norm. We would be turning the agora into an asylum.

A powder keg

But as mad as the world may be, such disorderly behavior is not really the status quo. People do irrational things. They do emotional things. Sadly, they often do violent things. None of this is new. What’s worthy of special attention here is the way an entire political party and associated media ecosystem has begun normalizing what ought to be seen as breakdowns in socialization—behavior that is anti-social, marked by paranoia and rage, and at times perhaps even pathological—and presenting it as sane and reasonable.

Consider that just last week, Kari Lake told her supporters that they should “strap on a Glock.” This comment came as Lake was lamenting the various efforts to thwart Donald Trump’s return to the White House.

Libs of TikTok offers another useful example of this phenomenon. The account has amassed celebrity status on the right, even as reporters continue to show that harassment and threats of violence flow toward subjects covered by Chaya Raichik on her feed.

David Ingram, reporting for NBC News, reported in February:  

NBC News identified 33 instances, starting in November 2020, when people or institutions singled out by Libs of TikTok later reported bomb threats or other violent intimidation. The threats, which on average came several days after tweets from Libs of TikTok, targeted schools, libraries, hospitals, small businesses and elected officials in 16 states, Washington, D.C., and the Canadian province of Ontario.

Raichik has made light of these reports. Her profile picture on X features her smiling, holding a copy of USA Today with the front-page headline, “Where Libs of TikTok posts, threats increasingly follow.” So it should disturb any reasonable observer that Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters recently named her to a state advisory committee.

In a statement to The Oklahoman, Walters insisted, “No one does more to shed light on the extreme left vision these people want to force on our schools and our kids than Chaya Raichik.” Time and again, the evidence shows that Raichik is a real and active threat to the safety of LGBTQ youth. And again, the hard right turns reality on its head.

Consider this in context as we approach the thick of election season. Elected and unelected leaders on the American right continue to promote a combat mentality against their opponents on the left. It’s essential that mainstream media does not accept the terms on which these arguments are being made.

We cannot allow the casual discussion of violence and menace toward fellow citizens to be framed as reasonable or normal—and certainly not as virtuous. It’s essential that we call this worldview what it is: unreasonable, abnormal, and dangerous.

Featured image is Burning car, by Richard Hopkins