On the Danger of Polemical Counterfactuals: Tom Cotton’s Scurrilous Nazi Allegation Against Ketanji Brown Jackson

Ok – the Nazi comparisons are really getting gratuitous.

Yesterday, as various media outlets reported, Oklahoma Senator Tom Cotton used a polemical transplant counterfactual to attack Supreme Court nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson (KBJ), by alleging that she might have defended Nazis accused of war crimes had she lived in the early years after World War II.

Cotton cited the famous case of Judge Robert Jackson, who left his position on the U. S. Supreme Court in 1945 to lead the allies' prosecution of Nazi officials at the Nuremberg trials, to smear KBJ, declaring: "You know, the last Judge Jackson left the Supreme Court to go Nuremberg and prosecute the case against the Nazis….This Judge Jackson might've gone there to defend them." 

As Barack Obama used to say: “C’mon man!” 

This comparison is not only scurrilous, it is clunky.  As if it weren’t bad enough that Marjorie Taylor Greene has accused GOP senators (and the entire Democratic wing of the Senate) of being predatory child-molesters, Cotton clunkily (and implausibly) transplanted KBJ back in time to allege she would have defended Nazis like she defended accused child molesters in her time as a Federal judge.  

Because, you know, child molesters are identical to Nazis.

In truth, Cotton’s claim was probably motivated first and foremost by the linguistic coincidence of two the two judges sharing the same last name and the opportunity to make a snappy sound bite.  It’s as if he thought: “Wow, two judges named Jackson.  What a coincidence – and one was involved in prosecuting Nazis (mental gears churning….) I know! Let’s milk that to produce sensationalistic clickbait.”   

To be sure, DNC chairman Jamie Harrison’s response wasn’t above diving into the mud either.  He replied by saying that Cotton's conduct shows that "he doesn't deserve to be in the United States Senate" and that the Republic Party is "built on fraud, fear, and fascism.” 

For his part, Harrison probably played the fascism card for similar linguistic reasons, thinking to himself “hmmmm…I need some alliteration, I need three bad things that begin with the letter “f,” one of which has to be “fascism.” 

This escalating rhetoric is getting out of control and becoming potentially dangerous.

Given how the Russian government of Vladimir Putin has been demonizing the leaders and citizenry of Ukraine as “Nazis” to justify his brutal military assault, we should all be on our guard about how hateful rhetoric can pave the way for violence.