Weird, but not unusual

When Tom Cotton held up a nomination hearing over a late apology, journalists called it a 'weird Senate moment.' Weird maybe, but not unusual

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A couple of months ago, an interesting news story passed my desk: Republican senator Tom Cotton held up an important congressional vote about the justice system. And why, one might ask? Because long ago, a Democrat involved with this procedure had interrupted him. Cotton was still furious about it, and he wanted an apology.

Let’s talk about why that apology mattered so much to Tom Cotton.

The social dynamics of an apology

Authoritarians have an extremely lopsided view of the world and their place within it. Their entire conceptualization of human society rests in power: the gaining of it, the flexing of it, the holding of it against interlopers, the stripping-away of it from their enemies.

They just don’t feel safe unless they have enough power to frighten their enemies—and to punish anyone who moves against them. They’ve seen what happens to the powerless in their world, and they want no part of it.

Their biggest fear is to stand at the mercy of their onetime inferiors.

To authoritarians, an apology isn’t just an apology. It’s everything they fear and work hard to avoid. It is

  • an admission of wrongdoing
  • taking the blame for it
  • asking forgiveness
  • putting themselves at the mercy of the one they wronged
  • opening themselves up to retaliation in turn
  • looking weak to the rest of their authoritarian tribe

So an apology is a terrifying thing to consider for authoritarians.

At least, having to give one.

They absolutely love to be on the receiving end.

Seeking just one Congressional apology demand in a sea of them

When I went hunting for the specifics of today’s story, I had trouble sifting through the veritable ocean of demanded apologies that exist in our congressional climate.

In January 2021, Republican Representative Chip Roy (Texas) demanded that Democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York) apologize to Republican Senator Ted Cruz (Texas). She had accused Cruz on Twitter of being partially responsible for the January 6 insurrection attempt on the US Capitol. She repeatedly refused to apologize. I suspect she simply refused to humiliate herself for their pleasure.

(Also, Ted Cruz did participate in the baseless voter fraud conspiracy theories that led to the attempt, so there’s that. When he dared to call the insurrection attempt what it was, “a violent terrorist attack,” his tribe went for his throat—and he had to apologize!)

In November 2021, Republican Representative Paul Gosar (Arizona) refused to apologize to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after he released an animated video on his social media showing him causing physical harm to her. Only two Republicans joined the Democrats in censuring him. She asked, “What is so hard about saying this is wrong?”

This post offers the answer she seeks.

There were lots more besides. On both sides of the aisle, one fact rises above all else: an apology is, to congresscritters, a sort of currency—one hoarded, one exchanged only in direst necessity.

For today, we focus on Senators Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois).

It only sounds dumb to non-authoritarians

In early December, the Biden administration set forth a list of various US attorney nominees. These nominees would be practicing in Democrat-held states. But the list had the great misfortune to be under the partial control of one Tom Cotton—a dyed-in-the-wool authoritarian.

I feel quite safe in making that assessment. For years now, journalists have been warning Americans about the danger Tom Cotton represents to our democracy.

The Arkansas senator, who seems likely to run in 2024, is a dangerous extremist who appeals to the Republican establishment and Trump’s base

“Think Trump is bad? President Tom Cotton would be even more terrifying,” The Guardian, June 2020

Or this:

The New York Times editorial page published an op-ed by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton calling for a wide-scale military crackdown on riots and looting that broke out on the periphery of protests against police brutality.

“The Tom Cotton op-ed affair shows why the media must defend America’s values,” Vox, June 2020

Or this irreverent but entirely reasonable take:

In Episode 14, Molly Jong-Fast and Rick Wilson talk about Cotton’s “over the top” New York Times’ op-ed and how it is likely his ploy to be some kind of “savior” in the 2024 election, who comes in to restore chaos but also has a plan “to shoot everybody who fucks with [him].”

“Tom Cotton represents the cutting edge of a Republican party that has abandoned the idea of limited government,” says Rick.

“Are We All Trapped in Tom Cotton’s Authoritarian Wet Dream?” Daily Beast, June 2020

Ah, but back in March 2021, Dick Durbin had had the audacity, the utter audacity, to briefly interrupt him during a committee hearing.

An authoritarian never forgets any slight, however tiny

Part of me suspects that this hearing involved nominees as well. The two men worked on a committee tasked with filling as many holes in the Department of Justice as it could. They’ve also shown up in hearings on gun violence around March 2021.

In April 2021, Tom Cotton went sorta viral after snapping at Durbin.

The magic happens about 3 minutes in. He even references Durbin’s previous interruption.

And by the way, despite Cotton’s very best obstructive grandstanding, Vanita Gupta did get confirmed as an associate attorney general. It’s important to note, though, that Tom Cotton references, in his outburst, Dick Durbin having interrupted him before then. That does make March 2021 sound like the date in question.

Certainly, nobody else noticed any interruption in March 2021. I saw no outraged news stories about it, no commentators on either side discussing it during that month. Look for yourself.

However, Tom Cotton never forgot this tiny slight.

And now, Cotton had his enemy right where he wanted him. The nominee list was an absolute necessity—and a duty that Republicans have routinely ignored over the past four or five years. Cotton has been singled out as “put[ting] up roadblocks” to stop these votes.

Nine months after its conception, the microscopic offense had gestated in Cotton’s head into a fully viable outrage before crowning through his apoplectic piehole. Senator Cotton refused to approve the nominees unless Durbin apologized to him.

An apology for Team Accountability

At the time, Yahoo News tells us, Tom Cotton put his very best Designated Adult face on over the childish demand:

“If there are not consequences when rules and traditions are breached in this institution, we will soon not have rules and traditions,” Cotton said. “I also said that if the senator from Illinois would simply express regret for what happened that day and pledge that it wouldn’t happen again, I would be happy to let all these nominees move forward.”

Yahoo News, December 2021

We’re all so lucky to have Tom Cotton to show us proper accountability.

Perhaps I can return the favor. I’m feeling helpful.

(Also, peep that little additional demand. In addition to insisting on an apology from his enemy, Cotton wanted to ensure that Dick Durbin couldn’t stop him from grandstanding again later on. Seriously, it’s never just about the apology. There’s so much else going on with authoritarians when they pursue a mea culpa.)

A helpful reminder for Tom Cotton

I note that according to Pew Research, Tom Cotton calls himself a Methodist. I also note that he considers himself a very devout Christian. In a statement brought to us by Arkansas Times, he talks about how deep his faith really is:

Barack Obama and Mark Pryor think that faith is something that only happens at 11:00 on Sunday mornings. That’s when we worship but faith is what we live every single day.

Arkansas Times, July 2014

(Ironically, Mark Pryor, also a very devout, committed Christian, demanded an apology, which Tom Cotton absolutely refused to give. Not only did he refuse to apologize, but he drilled down twice on his attempt to gatekeep Mark Pryor out of their shared religion.)

And since Tom Cotton is so dedicated to Christianity and so committed to the virtue of accepting the consequences of one’s actions, I’m sure he’ll completely welcome a reminder about Christianity’s rules about forgiveness of all offenses, large or small. Evangelicals do like to mangle the Bible’s crystal-clear commands, but they’re still there.

I don’t agree with them, personally, but officially they’re Tom Cotton’s rules—straight from Jesus to him. And he is hypocritically ignoring Jesus’s explicit commands to score victory over an enemy.

When an apology matters more to authoritarian Christians than following Jesus’ explicit commands

Many Christians are hypocrites like this because they’re essentially authoritarians with Jesus frosting.

I don’t mean they’re fake Christians. Of course they’re real Christians. They all are. Unless their beliefs center on Jesus being a flyaway rogue mattress on I-85 in Atlanta, nothing any Christian believes is too whackadoodle to possibly not qualify as Christian. No, there are just awful people who also happen to be actual Christians. And there are lots of kinds of awful people in Christianity. Here, I only center on one particular group.

Before they’re Christians, these particular awful people are authoritarians. Whatever Jesus explicitly commands his followers to do, they’re going to mangle it to give themselves permission to avoid doing it. They’ll always figure out a way to get permission from the Bible to do all the awful stuff they really want to do. And they will always gravitate to the flavors of Christianity that let them behave in the ways they like best.

In Tom Cotton’s situation, the truly biblical thing would be to completely forgive Dick Durbin for interrupting him—and to do his job like an adult without childishly demanding apologies for months-old slights so minor that no one else noticed. But he can’t do that because he is an authoritarian first. He can’t give Durbin that kind of power over him, nor show himself weak to his tribe.

Short-circuiting authoritarians

Authoritarian Christians talk a lot about how their culture-war enemies “just want to see them grovel.” I’d see that exact phrase every time in how they talked about their enemies. (We saw Chris Pratt do it recently, in fact.) Now that I’ve pointed it out, you’ll see it everywhere.

The truly biblical thing would be to completely forgive Dick Durbin for interrupting him. But Cotton can’t do that, because he is an authoritarian first.

They’d bellow and beat their chests bloody about how they refused to apologize, because every apology just gave their enemies more power over them. They refused to apologize like the refusal itself was some major win for them—some cherished trophy they denied their enemies.

So I began telling them how I felt about the concept of them apologizing:

Look, an apology is definitely nice. But what we ultimately want is for you to do better. If you’re not willing to apologize, then just resolve not to do the stuff that hurts other people anymore. We’ll be happy with that. What would your apology even do, anyway? It just centers attention on you, not the people you hurt. In and of itself, an apology doesn’t fix things. If you’re willing to change, that matters way more than a few words.

And I mean it. That’s how I feel. I don’t want anybody to feel beaten up or humiliated. I just want misogynists and bigots and racists to do better.

Every time I’ve ever told a culture warrior this, they’ve acted like I just whacked them on the nose with a clue-by-four. They’re always, without fail, blown away. They short-circuit. They have no idea how to deal with a world where nobody is stomping on anybody, nobody has control over others, nobody is flexing power at anybody else’s expense.

That’s the world I’m working for. That’s the world I want.

And the Tom Cottons of this world fear it more than anything.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...