On the morning of January 6, hours before a right-wing mob attacked Congress, leaving five people dead and halting the peaceful transfer of presidential power for the first time in the nation’s history, Josh Hawley arrived at the Capitol early. A group of demonstrators who had answered the president’s call to “stop the steal” cheered when they spotted the 41-year-old first-term Republican senator from Missouri, tall and thin with a youthful swoop of hair. Hawley glanced in their direction with a look of determination and raised his fist in solidarity. The image, captured by a well-placed photographer, would become one of the day’s enduring visuals. It depicted the confident strut of a guy who still thinks everything is going according to plan.
A week earlier, Hawley had been the first senator to announce that he would object to the Electoral College votes from a handful of key states. Not to be outdone in their loyalty to Donald Trump, more than a dozen colleagues (led by Ted Cruz) followed suit, turning a staid tradition into an unprecedented constitutional challenge. When a small group of protesters, clutching candles and bullhorns and signs quoting Hamilton, gathered outside his Washington- area home, Hawley denounced them as “Antifa scumbags” who were “terrorizing” his block. But he shrugged off warnings that, in his quest to earn the affection of Trump and his base, he was leading his followers to a dark place. During a Fox News hit the same evening as the protest at Hawley’s home, Bret Baier pressed the senator to tell viewers that Joe Biden would be president. He refused.
Hawley wanted those viewers to remain in doubt about the election’s outcome. He wanted them to believe something had been taken from them. He wanted them to be angry. His team even readied a fundraising pitch to monetize their rage. On the afternoon of what was to be Hawley’s big moment of righteous intransigence in the Senate chamber, his campaign messaged its supporters with an urgent request: Hawley was “leading the charge to fight for free and fair elections,” the text said. Could you chip in $20 to help?
By then the world was watching in horror as violent Trump supporters overran the Capitol. With the exception of Trump himself, no one would come in for as much blame for inciting the deadly attack as Hawley. What the senator would later defend as an innocent attempt at “democratic debate” was the culmination of what Biden, discussing Hawley a few days after the riot, would call the “big lie”—in which conservative leaders amplified bogus claims of voting fraud and irregularities and then claimed they were acting on behalf of outraged constituents in questioning the election’s results.
Until the Capitol insurrection, Hawley had sailed through the GOP ranks with the ease of a certain type of young politician— usually white and male—who gets floated for everything before he’s done much of anything. A product of all the right institutions, groomed by the GOP's old guard and endorsed by its fire-eaters, Hawley was the party’s top Senate recruit in 2018, when he unseated two-term incumbent Claire McCaskill. Barring a major scandal, he was in a position to hold onto his job for as long as he wanted—which, if you listened to the presidential speculation, didn’t appear to be very long at all.
But suddenly Hawley was facing condemnation from all directions. Republican colleagues called his objection to the certification of electoral votes a “dumbass” stunt and a ploy to “get attention & raise money.” Donors jumped ship. Hawley had “blood on his hands,” the Kansas City Star editorialized, demanding that he resign or face expulsion. As the Senate prepared to evacuate, reporters watched Mitt Romney, the Utah Republican, turn to the objectors in his caucus and shout: “This is what you’ve gotten, guys.”
If Hawley survives this crisis—and there’s no reason to think he won’t—it will show that Trumpism won’t be purged from the Republican Party so easily. While some of the leading Republicans in Congress sound desperate to make a clean break from Trump (and his most rabid supporters), one of the party’s brightest and most brazenly ambitious young things made a different bet about the future of his party. Among a small army of Republican up-and-comers vying to succeed Trump in 2024, he’s carved out a place for himself by fusing social conservatism with the savvier aspects of Trump’s “populism,” encapsulated in a crusade against the monopoly power of Big Tech and an out-of-touch “aristocracy.” During the pandemic, he had even linked arms with Democrats to push for massive relief programs to help “working people.” The party’s future was a multiracial “working-class party, not a Wall Street party,” he proclaimed after the election. Hawley has made the cynical gamble that the movement Trump assembled isn’t going away, and that a smarter, more disciplined messenger can harness its power while avoiding the self-defeating pitfalls of its erratic founder. But in his quest to inherit Trump’s mantle, he has also shown himself to be every bit as willing as Trump to trash democratic norms and push the nation toward autocracy for his own political ends.
HAWLEY GREW UP in Lexington, Missouri, a river town of about 4,500 people an hour east of Kansas City. His father, a banker, was active in local Republican politics. His mother was a teacher. They regularly hosted Bible study for high school students in their living room. Lexington is Hawley’s political anchor, the embodiment of the cultural and political universe he calls “the Great American Middle.” It is “where people work hard and live right,” he told voters during his 2018 campaign— where “you know your neighbors” and “people look out for each other.” When Hawley returned to Missouri as an adult after a sojourn on the coasts at some of the nation’s most prestigious academic institutions—this time to Columbia—it was, he told voters, because he wanted to raise his kids “somewhere that was a real place that they could really be from.” (Hawley is currently raising his kids in a $1.3 million home in Northern Virginia, while listing his sister’s house in the Ozarks as a voting address—but only until construction is finished on a new home nearby, he says.)
Rural Missouri looms large in Hawley’s political identity as much because of what it is as because of what it is not, chiefly: other places, outside the Great American Middle, where he contends American values are under attack. Those places are the domain of a “cosmopolitan elite,” Hawley told a ballroom of conservative dignitaries in DC last year. “This class lives in the United States, but they identify as citizens of the world.” They prize “social change over tradition, career over community, and achievement and merit and progress.” They “run businesses or oversee universities here,” he said, “but their primary loyalty” is to the profitable and “progressive” idol of globalization.
The populism that Hawley embraces, as much as it is about a theory of economics and governance, is also about defining who “the people” are—often in relation to a villain class that doesn’t belong. And his remarks had a familiar and ominous ring to them. A writer at Jewish Currents compared Hawley’s language to that of Henry Ford, whose Dearborn Independent mounted a seven-year crusade against “the International Jew” in the wake of the First World War. Basing its jeremiads in part on the anti-Semitic forgery known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Ford’s paper alleged that the nation was being undercut by members of a stateless class who controlled economic levers—such as banks and mass media—and who lived in the United States but did not subscribe to its values. “The Jew has been for centuries a cosmopolitan,” one article in the Independent said. “While under a flag he may be correct in the conduct required of him as a citizen or resident, inevitably he has a view of flags which can hardly be shared by the man who has known but one flag.” Citizens of the world, if you will. Trump, channeling his adviser Steve Bannon, similarly railed against “international bankers” and a conspiracy of “global special interests” who were “rigging the system” during his 2016 campaign. The Anti-Defamation League condemned Hawley’s speech (as it did Trump’s), arguing that he deployed anti-Semitic tropes, even if unintentionally. Hawley called the ADL's charge “absurd,” and said that “using the charge of bigotry to shut down debate” was, well, typical “elite” behavior.
The foundation for Hawley’s political career was laid early. During his Senate race, the St. Louis alt-weekly Riverfront Times dug up columns he wrote for his hometown Lexington News in the mid- 1990s—as part of a regular feature called State of the Union—in which Hawley castigated a society “increasingly devoid of moral values,” and leaped to the defense of Dan Quayle and his attack on the sitcom Murphy Brown. Hawley wasn’t even old enough to drive.
America’s cultural drift was a theme he returned to again and again. As a high school senior, he wrote in the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader that a lawsuit to remove a religious symbol from a government emblem in a nearby community accelerated “the decline of America’s shared civic life.” When the St. Louis Cardinals’ Mark McGwire broke baseball’s single-season home run record a few months later, Hawley hailed it as a glimmer of hope “for a nation increasingly concerned about society’s decay.”
Swap out the names and Hawley’s refrain has changed very little: Elite culture is at odds with a healthy society; something profound about America is threatened by something new. For a man who missed out on being a millennial by barely a year, he has sounded for most of his life like the world’s youngest boomer.
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