Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas launched his 2024 presidential campaign Wednesday. His op-ed in The New York Times has created a blizzard of protest both within the nation’s most elite liberal newspaper (for publishing it) and beyond (for what it says). Both debates are valid. However, his column is best understood as a marker: Cotton is laying down a stake on a future debate, not one in the present.

Titled “Send In the Troops,” the column does indeed say that “it’s past time to support local law enforcement with federal authority.” Federal troops are necessary to crack down on the “anarchy” unleashed by “cadres of left-wing radicals,” Cotton writes. (No, he doesn’t bother with the nuisance of proving such “cadres” exist.) Only military force can smash the looters and rampaging criminals, who include “the thrill-seeking rich as well as other criminal elements.”

The essay is a demagogic hash, as greasy as the bacon Sen. Ted Cruz once cooked on the muzzle of an AR-15. But if you’re a precocious right-wing senator with a strong attachment to personal advancement and a weak one to pluralistic democracy, then you might view Cotton’s piece as pretty smart.

If President Donald Trump is reelected in November, or somehow manages to retain power without the benefit of election, Cotton’s hysterics will be completely forgotten. No harm, no foul. But if Trump is defeated, the battle for the 2024 nomination will begin immediately, and Cotton will have a message that resonates across the plains and valleys of racial and cultural resentment that define the Republican base: “Who lost Washington?”

This is not a new or original message. It hearkens all the way back to the communist hysteria of “Who Lost China?” after World War II. But it’s a crowd-pleaser, especially among Republican base voters who find Trump’s destruction of democratic norms and constitutional niceties one of his most appealing traits.

The party’s core voters chose Trump because they want someone to smite their enemies, not cooperate with them. Polls show Republican voters are not interested in compromise. Study after study documents the racial and cultural resentments that power this lust for political and cultural conquest.

If you’re tired of the “feckless” politicians of urban America and the “elites” who “have excused this orgy of violence in the spirit of radical chic,” Cotton is offering you a blueprint to own the libs once and for all. He won’t merely send officers deploying rubber bullets, batons, flash-bangs and pepper balls (tear gas) to disperse a peaceful crowd exercising its First Amendment rights of assembly and petition, as U.S. Attorney General William Barr did this week in Washington. Cotton will impose a hostile occupation of cosmopolitan America.

More important, Cotton is first to brand the assault as his idea. Whether Cotton actually believes his authoritarian dream is practical (let alone necessary) is beside the point. It’s the message that matters, and the message, circa 2021, goes something like this:

If only we’d cracked down harder on those liberal cities — and the omnipresent antifa that you’ve heard so much about on Fox News — then we could’ve saved America from the horrors of Democratic rule.

Donald Trump, in the end, may simply prove too weak to meet the threat posed by a diversifying country. Republican voters may discover that a merely thuggish president is not sufficient for the task they have in mind. They need a competently thuggish one, someone willing to go even further than Trump, yet without the flailing and chaos that has undermined the MAGA cause. Tom Cotton just made a pitch for their votes in 2024.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials for Bloomberg News.