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How Sen. Tom Cotton emerged as one of Trumpism’s leading voices

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has emerged as a sort of heir to President Trump's populist, America-first agenda. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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Had Donald Trump lost the 2o16 election — as everyone expected him to do — Tom Cotton would be spending lots of time right now in Iowa and New Hampshire. The freshman senator from Arkansas was being touted pre-election as the next great national candidate for the GOP and he seemed more than willing to assume that mantle.

But then Trump won. And the Republican dream of Cotton leading the party's ticket in 2020 disappeared.

What's fascinating is how Cotton has adjusted since Trump's victory. He has emerged as a sort of heir to the populist, America-first agenda commonly referred to as Trumpism. The latest evidence: Cotton's legislation, introduced Tuesday along with Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), that would begin the process of overhauling the legal immigration system in this country.

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Politico, which first reported the news of the Cotton bill, says that it “swings an axe at the nation’s green-card system by eliminating several avenues for U.S. citizens and permanent residents to sponsor family members for green cards” and notes that it is the “first in what may be a series of bills to revamp the nation’s immigration system.”

That's a very interesting play by Cotton. He clearly recognizes that Trumpism lacks an obvious voice in the Senate with Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.) on the verge of being confirmed as attorney general. (Sessions has long been an advocate of looking at ways of restricting legal immigration.) And Cotton also believes that the 2016 election results weren't some sort of historic fluke but a broader rejection of elites — political and otherwise — that has staying power well beyond Trump.

Cotton is, at first blush, a very good messenger for this populist, nationalist message. Born in a small town in Arkansas, Cotton went to Harvard University for his undergraduate degree and then Harvard Law School. He then enlisted in the Army and led an infantry battalion in the Iraq War. He went on to serve in Afghanistan as well. Cotton was elected to the U.S. House in 2012 and quickly ran for the Senate — and won — in 2014.

While Cotton's résumé isn't the same as Trump's — for many people it is more impressive than that of the current president — what it reflects is that both men have spent time in elite circles and come out of that experience even more convinced that those elites are out of touch with what average people want and need.

“Donald Trump was the only one who saw that most Americans don’t like our current immigration system,” Cotton told Politico. “This is just the area of politics where I think leaders and elites are most disconnected from the people. Not just Republicans but in both parties, in business, in the media, in the academy, culture and so forth.”

The second and third sentences there from Cotton could easily have been said by Trump. Elites don't get it. I do. And the average person agrees with me, not them.

Cotton is someone closely attuned to the shifting sands of the Republican Party under Trump. While many of his colleagues continue to go about their business as though Trump's election has changed very little about their party or their jobs, Cotton appears convinced that Trump has fundamentally turned the GOP to a more nationalist, populist tone. And he wants to be on the leading edge of that movement.