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Tom Cotton, or The Ghost of Joe McCarthy Returns to the U. S. Senate | Righting America

by Rodney Kennedy 

Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. He pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years, after which he served as interim pastor of ABC USA churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Kansas. He is currently interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, NY. His seventh book, Good and Evil in the Garden of Democracy, has recently been published. And book #8, Dancing with Metaphors in the Pulpit, will appear in April. 

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew at a Senate hearing Wednesday.Image by AP/Getty Images

Senator Tom Cotton, Arkansas, while wandering the halls of the Senate, has been possessed by one of the Senate’s most notorious ghosts, Senator Joe McCarthy. See, for example, Cotton’s questioning of TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew regarding Chew’s citizenship and alleged ties to the Chinese Communist Party during a heated hearing on January 31. 

Cotton directed his questions towards Chew, asking, “Have you ever been a member of the Chinese Communist Party?” Chew, a Singaporean citizen, responded, “Senator, I’m Singaporean.”

Did the good Senator not know that Singapore is a unitary parliamentary representative democracy? 

Cotton then inquired further, “Have you ever been associated or affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party?” Chew reiterated his citizenship, stating, “No, Senator. Again, I’m Singaporean!”

Cotton questioned Chew about his perspective on the events, asking, “You said earlier, in response to a question, that what happened at Tiananmen Square in June of 1989 was a ‘massive protest.’ Did anything else happen at Tiananmen Square?” Chew acknowledged, “Yes, I think it’s well documented. There was a massacre.”

Senator Cotton defended his comments in a Fox News interview, stating, “It’s entirely reasonable to pursue a line of questioning about whether he himself, like his company, is subject to the influence of the Chinese Communist Party.”

The media mostly contained their criticism of Senator Cotton to charges of racism. This was a natural conclusion given Cotton’s less than admirable stances on race in the past. 

On November 18, 2020, Cotton made a speech on the floor of the Senate, “Our Pilgrim Fathers.” While he embraced the mythology of the Puritans with unabashed love and loyalty, his real problem was with the New York Times’ 1619 Project. He took grave offense at the idea that somehow the arrival of slaves in 1619 was more determinative for America’s future than the arrival of the white pilgrims on the Mayflower. Cotton says, “Some—too many—may have lost the civilizational self-confidence needed to celebrate the Pilgrims.” 

Historian William Trollinger put Cotton’s racist perspective in a more honest framework in his article, “Tom Cotton’s Thanksgiving, or, My Second-Grade Textbook Told the Truth and I Don’t Want Actual History to Get in the Way of My Feeling Good About Myself as a White Male.” Trollinger’s conclusion puts the nail in Cotton’s really bad speech: 

He wants an American history whitewashed of the horrors of slavery, be it slavery of Africans or Native Americans. He wants an American history whitewashed of Protestant religious intolerance, whitewashed of the annihilation of the native inhabitants. Sen. Cotton wants a grade-school history that inspires a “civilizational self-confidence” among white students. That is to say, Sen. Cotton wants to cancel history.

This is the same Senator Cotton who said in an interview with the Arkansas Gazette

We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can’t understand our country. As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction. 

Cotton trotted out the now requisite conservative response to all charges of racism: He called the criticism of his remarks, “fake news.” 

No doubt, the Senator is “100% perma-press pure cotton white.” Cotton and his tribe of race-deniers have perfected a defense of denying the existence of systemic racism. Like fake historians insisting that America was born a Christian nation and is a Christian nation, Cotton and company argue slavery was not that bad and that racism no longer exists. 

But there’s more here than Cotton’s obvious racism. 

Senator Joseph McCarthy 

In reports on Cotton’s questioning of the TikTok CEO no one seemed to notice Cotton’s voice giving presence to Senator McCarthy. “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

Senator Joe McCarthy, dangerous demagogue and witch hunter, accomplished almost nothing in his attempts to root our communists from the American people, but his shadow continues to haunt political discourse. McCarthy’s ghost has the power to inhabit the minds of other senators. This is akin to the ancient idea that demons could take control of human beings and control them and speak for them. 

All attempts to exorcise McCarthy from our political discourse have failed miserably. Almost 50 years after his disappearance, McCarthy still disturbs the political waters. The man who saw a Communist in every niche and corner of our nation still haunts us.

At the 1950 Republican convention in Chicago, McCarthy held forth with his paranoid rhetoric of purification: 

I say, one Communist in a defense plant is one Communist too many. One Communist on the faculty of one university is one Communist too many. One Communist among American advisors at Yalta was one Communist too many. And even if there were only one Communist in the State Department, that would be one Communist too many.

Until he lost his crown to Donald Trump, McCarthy was considered the worst demagogue in American history. He was the “great smear campaigner.” James Darsey, in his article, “Joe McCarthy’s Fantastic Moment,” says, “The residual fear of that unidentified power still haunts the cloakrooms of American politics. There is something both elusive and perdurable about this incubus.” 

McCarthy talked of “hidden and undisclosed forces,” “dark forces,” “chicanery,” the “mysterious” disappearance of incriminating documents; secret contracts, and secret trials, and secret parleys; “treachery,” and “lies.” Metaphorically, McCarthy introduced octopi, snakes, and spiders into his dream. The hoax being perpetrated was “monstrous”; the Communist party – a relatively small group of deadly conspirators – had now extended its tentacles to that most respected of American bodies – the United States Senate; a “world-wide web” of conspiracy has been spun from Moscow; “the Truman Democratic Administration was crawling with Communists.”

McCarthy, an investigator with no evidence, still managed to disrupt lives from Washington to Hollywood. The symbol of McCarthy was a stuffed briefcase that he claimed contained all the evidence. Maybe this is where Trump and his minions discovered the strategy of constantly alluding to mountains of evidence that they were always going to produce to prove the 2020 election was stolen. As with Trump, McCarthy had nothing. Unlike young David, who had three smooth round stones in his bag, McCarthy’s briefcase was empty. He would slay no Goliath or unearth no Communists. 

Darsey concludes his article: 

Does this leave us with anything to say about the McCarthy ethos, fragmented and disjointed as it is? Certainly we can say that McCarthy was no prophet:  He was guided by no self-evident truths, no sacred canon, he did not offer judgment in time of crisis; all his cries of “smear” notwithstanding, the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that McCarthy did not suffer the burden of his commitments (at least not until after censure) but reaped the personal  rewards of his message—notoriety, money, and political power.  

The metaphor of ghost may be the best way to understand the continued ability of McCarthy to haunt the U. S. Senate and some of its members. McCarthy created a coalition that would rise again, and a rhetorical style that would be revisited by populist conservatives. 

Like Cotton. Where McCarthy saw Communists everywhere, Cotton sees liberal elites and enemies galore in his paranoid illusions. As with McCarthy, Cotton’s world is nightmarish, filled with conspiracies designed to destroy Western civilization. And as with McCarthy, Cotton does not need or even care about evidence.

The junior senator from Arkansas needs an exorcism, but who among us can “cast out” the ghost of Joe McCarthy? Even if such a healer came forth, he would face a culture already intoxicated with the spirit of paranoia, a fear of the pure and righteous being contaminated by “filth.” Ours is an age where truth has been run over by a hit and run driver, and lies in the ditch replaced by “alternative facts,” post-truth, lies, exaggerations, and conspiracy theories. 

Democracy and American Christianity have had its fill of demagogues. Senator Cotton needs to find a good exorcist or go home to Arkansas to raise hogs.