JOSH HAWLEY'S TOXIC POPULISM
Reason magazine|April 2021
IS THE SENATOR’S AUTHORITARIAN GRANDSTANDING THE DARK FUTURE OF THE GOP?
PETER SUDERMAN

WHEN RIOTERS STORMED the U.S. Capitol in January, Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) was there. Not only was he happy to see the mob assembled outside his workplace; he cheered them on.

Shortly before the group of conspiracists and reactionaries broke into the building—vandalizing offices, taking selfies amid the wreckage, and dramatically halting business on both the House and Senate floors as lawmakers were evacuated to secure locations, sometimes fearing for their lives—Hawley had been photographed giving them a raised fist of encouragement.

Earlier that morning, then–President Donald Trump had addressed a rally at the National Mall. “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women,” he directed. “And we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them, because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

Trump pumped the mob up, but it was Hawley who gave it an official channel and a sense of legitimacy. The week before, Hawley had been the first senator to announce that he would oppose certification of the electoral votes that would give the presidency to Joe Biden. “I cannot vote to certify without pointing out the unprecedented effort of megacorporations, including Facebook and Twitter, to interfere in this election, in support of Joe Biden,” he said at the end of December. Congress, he complained, had “failed to act.”

The announcement was entirely typical of Hawley: blustery, partisan, pro-Trump, anti–Big Tech, and transparently authoritarian. And it led to disastrous consequences.

The events that followed played out as a kind of ironic insurrection, part 4chan lulz prank, part lethally serious attack. There was the “Q Shaman” wearing face paint and a Viking helmet, the gaggle of internet provocateurs cackling as they looted Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s chambers, and images of a ransacked parliamentarian’s office (presumably not out of frustration with the Byrd rule). These madcap images were juxtaposed with more potent horrors: a mob-built noose and chants of “hang Mike Pence”; video showing rioters mercilessly assaulting a Capitol Police officer with whatever happened to be on hand, including the pole of a Blue Lives Matter flag. By the time it was over, five people, including a protester shot by police and an officer beaten over the head with a fire extinguisher by rioters, had died.

This was not the glorious revolution the rioters had imagined but a deadly cosplay version of it brought to life, a dangerous joke planned and perpetrated by trolls and cranks—and backed by people in power who should have known better. Those few hours on January 6 were like the entire Trump era in concentrate: There were the absurdist aesthetics and lunatic logic, the self-serving lies, the made-for-YouTube showmanship, the chaos and conspiratorial impenetrability, the muddling of the serious with the deeply unserious, the swirling threat of political violence and, finally, its palpable, horrible reality.

And there, as always, were Republicans like Hawley, standing by. They coddled Trump’s delusions and saluted his mob of supporters, fueling their paranoia and excusing their outbursts. And they did it all under the guise of representing ordinary Americans who, they said, simply wanted to be heard.

That was Hawley’s stated logic when he defended his decision to object to certifying the election results. “Many, many citizens in Missouri have deep concerns about election integrity,” he later wrote in a column for the Southeast Missourian. “For months, I heard from these Missourians—writing, calling my office, stopping me to talk. They want Congress to take action to see that our elections at every level are free, fair, and secure. They have a right to be heard in Congress. And as their representative, it is my duty to speak on their behalf. That is just what I did last week.”

Hawley’s defense was crafted with a veneer of deniability. Strictly speaking, he had not called the election rigged, nor had he directly endorsed the nuttier theories that had propagated among the president’s lawyers and supporters. He hadn’t even quite said, outright, that Biden hadn’t won. Instead, he had concocted a dubious rationale about supposedly improper changes to Pennsylvania’s election law—an issue that, as a U.S. senator from Missouri, would not normally fall within his purview—and then insisted he was just echoing the concerns of Missouri voters.

His constituents, in Hawley’s telling, were deeply worried about the technicalities of another state’s vote-counting procedures. As if that’s what the noose and death chants were about.

Did anyone really believe this too-clever-by-half shtick? Did Hawley? Did it even matter? The episode generated an uproar and entirely justified outrage, but it also generated something Hawley clearly craves: attention. More than anything else, the junior senator from Missouri specializes in grandstanding and gimmickry cloaked in the language of Middle American populist righteousness. And he is hoping he can grandstand his way to the top of American politics.

It’s no secret that Hawley sees himself as a potential heir to the Trump coalition, a man of the people who dreams of one day occupying the Oval Office himself. After Hawley announced his plan to object to the vote certification but before the Capitol riot, Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger—one of the few House Republicans who later voted yes on Trump’s second impeachment— mocked him on Twitter. “I want to be President so I decided to try to get [a] POTUS tweet saying I’m great even though I know this isn’t going anywhere,” Kinzinger posted, imagining Hawley’s internal monologue, “but hey... I’ll blame someone else when it fails.”

Hawley has denied that he’ll run for president in 2024. Yet he clearly wants to set the party’s tone and recalibrate its self-image. In just two years in Washington, Hawley has already positioned himself as one possible future for the GOP, a new breed of legislator that is younger, more vehemently nationalist, and less committed to the party’s “outdated” orthodoxies, particularly when it comes to free speech and limited government. Hawley’s vision of government is a vision of vast power, used to forcibly advance a particular kind of life.

Yet he also represents a link to the party’s past, following in the long tradition of socially conservative scolds and media panic mongers who have found a home on the American right.

Hawley doesn’t want to be the next Trump, exactly. But he wants to be the heir to Trumpism. To that end, he combines the MAGA movement’s ugliest traits with many of the worst tendencies of the pre-Trump Republican Party. He may well be the GOP’s dark future, bringing the culture war into the social media era and repurposing the Progressive Era’s statist playbook for faux-populist ends.

In the wake of the Capitol riots, though, Hawley became something else as well: a smug and self-serving avatar of his party’s darkest and most shambolic moment.

HAWLEY VS. THE ELITES

IF THERE’S ONE thing to know about Hawley’s politics, it’s that they’re rooted in opposition to contemporary elites. In speech after speech, Hawley has decried the progressive overlords who hold the commanding heights of American politics, tech, academia, and culture, who he says have joined together to rule over a vast Middle American public that does not share their values.

“Elites distrust patriotism,” he said in a 2019 speech at a conference on conservative nationalism, “and dislike the common culture left to us by our forbearers.” They “look down on the common affections that once bound this nation together: things like place and national feeling and religious faith.”

America’s Founders “built a new republic governed not by a select elite, as in the days of old, but by the common man and woman, grounded on the premise that it is the common man and woman who are the noblest of citizens,” Hawley explained. But today, America is ruled by a “cosmopolitan consensus” that prioritizes “social change over tradition, career over community, and achievement and merit and progress” and global integration over family and national loyalties. The looming threat, he warned in a separate speech that year, is “government by unelected elites who are confident they know better than the American people, that they know better than the Constitution, that they should be in control.”

Hawley takes this outlook personally. “I’m not happy that people in Washington, D.C.—and, let’s be honest, New York, on Wall Street, in Hollywood—look down on the kind of upbringing I had,” he told The New York Times in 2018.

That’s more than a little bit ironic, given that Hawley is, by almost any definition, an elite himself. A graduate of both Stanford University and Yale Law School, he went on to be a Supreme Court clerk for Chief Justice John Roberts before his 30th birthday. From there, he worked as a lawyer in private practice, a teacher at the prestigious St. Paul’s School in London, and an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Law. Along the way, he wrote articles for the conservative policy journal National Affairs and a scholarly book, based on his graduate thesis, on the life of President Theodore Roosevelt, published by Yale University Press.

All this was before he ran for office, first becoming a state attorney general and then being elected to the U.S. Senate at the age of 39. Hawley often passes himself off as a man of the people, but he’s also a man above the people, an elite in nearly every sense of the word. He’s well connected and well traveled. You might even call him cosmopolitan.

That’s something he shares with Roosevelt, the subject of his book, who was born to a wealthy family, traveled the globe extensively as a child, and attended Harvard before entering politics. Hawley’s biography is scholarly and intellectual, a dense and sometimes fascinating text intimately concerned not only with the character and philosophy of the man who would become president but also with the character and philosophy of the age, and with how the era and his subject pushed and pulled against each other.

As a sickly young boy, Roosevelt came to emphasize physical strength and vigor as pathways to virtue; he was obsessed with the idea of action, of being a player on history’s grand stage. Roosevelt’s political career, meanwhile, was defined in part by a desire to tame the corporate growth and consolidation that came with turn-of-the-century industrialization. He wielded the threat of antitrust as a weapon against the era’s large corporations. He too was an elite whose political program was a response to a backlash against rapid social change, whose actions were taken in the name of assisting ordinary people.

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