What will come from the extraordinary protests taking place in cities and towns all over America? Police reform, a deeper understanding of the way racism persists in American life, an opportunity for progress and healing?

We can hope. But we should know that there will also be a fierce backlash, one already taking shape.

The New York Times decided to publish an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton in which he proposes to send the U.S. military into American cities to set upon the protests and crush them to dust. Citing “nihilist criminals” and “left-wing radicals,” Cotton writes: "One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.”

To do that, he suggests that President Trump — who can of course be trusted to use extraordinary powers with wisdom and forbearance — invoke the Insurrection Act and send in the troops. This was after Cotton called for “No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.” If you’re unfamiliar, the term “no quarter” refers to enemies not being taken prisoner but instead being killed en masse.

To anyone watching the news — let alone anyone who has been out participating — the idea that these protests are being met with insufficient force is positively deranged. All the police in riot gear, all the armored vehicles, all the tear gas launched, all the rubber bullets fired, all the flash-bang grenades thrown, all the protesters punched and kicked and tased — it’s not enough? The answer is more force?

The White House video of Trump's visit to St. John's Episcopal Church in D.C. erases the violent attack on protesters by authorities that preceded it. (The Washington Post)

Let’s pause for a moment and consider Tom Cotton — who, you can be sure, will run for president before long, perhaps in 2024 if Trump loses this year.

Cotton believes the American government should be able to torture prisoners. He advocated jailing journalists who expose things the government would keep secret. He claimed that the Islamic State was working with Mexican drug cartels and would soon attack his home state of Arkansas.

Cotton once proposed punishing the family members of those who violated sanctions on Iran with up to 20 years in prison, saying that punishment should apply to “parents, children, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, grandparents, great grandparents, grandkids, great grandkids.” He wanted to deal with Iran’s nuclear program with a vigorous bombing campaign.

In other words, while Trump is an impulsive, erratic man-baby with authoritarian impulses, Cotton is a perfectly sane adult with appalling authoritarian beliefs. Which might make him even more terrifying.

Which is part of why the publication of his op-ed has been met with outrage, including from many black staffers at the Times itself, who argued that the paper was under no obligation to print a column advocating a violent crackdown directed at U.S. citizens who are themselves protesting official violence directed at U.S. citizens.

It’s not as though Cotton lacked for outlets to spread his repugnant ideas had the Times declined to publish his submission, as they do with hundreds of others every day. But nonetheless, Cotton’s sentiments represent something that ought to be understood.

Chances are you watch the news and see 1) large, peaceful protests that have been 2) met with brutal force by police, while 3) some opportunistic radicals from both the right and the left, along with people just looking to steal stuff, take advantage of the situation for their own purposes.

No. 1 is what matters most, now and in the future, both in terms of what this activism really represents and the substance of what it demands. These protests appear to be mainly opening many Americans’ eyes to the reality of police brutality and the need for reform.

But what you may not understand is that a significant portion of America — a minority, but still an ample number of people — is seeing something very different.

Millions of loyal Fox News viewers tune in every day to be offered a perspective from the upside-down, in which they’re told that what’s happening in America right now is a smattering of legitimate protest surrounded by a sea of looting, rioting and attempted murder of noble police officers.

In this nightmare vision, violent black people and their terrorist allies are not only destroying cities but also will soon be coming for you, the angry, frightened white people who make up the audience.

“Violent young men with guns will be in charge” when all the police officers are gone, Tucker Carlson warned his viewers on Tuesday. “They will make the rules, including the rules in your neighborhood. They will do what they want. You will do what they say. No one will stop them. You will not want to live here when that happens.”

His colleague Sean Hannity informs his audience that “Black Lives Matter is planning to train armed militia for war on police." Hannity, like Cotton, says Trump must deploy the military: “He has the full authority to go into these states and restore order, which he now must do.”

So make no mistake: The seeds of a racist backlash are being planted as we speak, and one of its central tenets is that officials have not been brutal enough in their reaction to protests against official brutality.

Should Trump lose in November, this will be a story some on the right will tell: In the end, he was weak or held back by other squeamish Republicans, and what we need to deal with those not-really-Americans who demand too much is to bring down upon them an iron fist.

Tom Cotton will be there to offer himself as the one to wield it, but he won’t be alone.

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