When he was in his twenties, Missouri’s precocious junior senator Josh Hawley authored a biography called Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness. Might he have been projecting?
Sen. Hawley chases moralizing populist causes like Wile E. Coyote following the Road Runner straight off a cliff. The difference is that the cartoon coyote only ended up hurting himself. Hawley, in his antics worthy of the ACME Dynamite Corporation, could deal a blow to American democracy.
Hawley has managed to make a lot of enemies, or at least caused a lot of eyes to roll, over the past few years. Whether he’s suggesting the government audit alleged bias on social media sites or blaming sex trafficking on the sexual liberation of the 1960s, Hawley really seems to have a problem with the way people live their lives and thinks it’s his role as a politician to step in. (First Amendment be damned.) Now, he’s attracting more attention than ever for his attempt to overturn last fall’s presidential election results, which Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney called ‘an exceptionally dangerous precedent’ and which caused Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, also a Republican, to publish an I’m-mad-as-hell rant on Facebook about the stunt.
‘We have a bunch of ambitious politicians who think there’s a quick way to tap into the President’s populist base without doing any real, long-term damage,’ Sasse wrote in a thinly veiled jab at Hawley. Shameless ambition and personal brand-building, even if it tosses civil liberties or the long tradition of American innovation out the window in the process, is after all the Josh Hawley way. If he keeps it up, the telegenic senator could doom his laughably transparent 2024 presidential ambitions just by virtue of being a complete jackass.
Sasse was proven right: Hawley’s attention-grabbing antics are dangerous. On Wednesday, as Congress met to certify the results of the presidential election, hundreds if not thousands of demonstrators spurred on by rhetoric the likes of Hawley attempted to thwart what they saw as a stolen election. With a woman shot dead in the Capitol Building as lawmakers sheltered in place, events had clearly descended into more than just an attention-grabbing ploy.
The trouble is: will Josh Hawley ever learn when to stop?
It’s not just Ben Sasse who’s had enough. Libertarians and free-market types have been calling out Hawley’s inauthenticity for years now, with Reason magazine calling him ‘the ultimate Karen’ and a ‘moral scold’. Veteran conservative pundit George F. Will posited of Hawley this week, ‘Has there ever been such a high ratio of ambition to accomplishment?’
Historically, Hawley’s problem has been that so few of his stunts offered substance and seemed better geared toward creating headlines than affecting change. Prior to his Electoral College objection campaign, Hawley was best known for going after Big Tech companies — which undoubtedly are in need of scrutiny over issues like the mishandling of user data, anticompetitive practices and lax attention to potentially dangerous content. Unfortunately, his solutions typically involve wrongheaded tactics like banning various user interfaces to curb ‘addiction’ and subjecting internet companies to creepy bias audits.
Before that, Hawley was doing much of the same as Missouri’s attorney general. Hawley was by no means the first to use the AG post to build a national profile as a righteous crusader — Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, now in the Senate, and Roy Cooper of North Carolina, now that state’s governor, are Democrats who were both well-known for it in the Noughties. To be fair, Hawley seemed to be on a promising track as attorney general; he went after pharmaceutical companies for their roles in perpetuating the opioid crisis and investigated the state’s then-governor — a member of his own party — over a sexual misconduct and blackmail scandal. But alas, after running for the post while decrying ‘insiders just climbing the political ladder’, Hawley served as AG for less than a year before he announced he was running for Senate.
Politicians of all stripes have an authenticity problem; it comes with the territory. But Hawley takes it to new highs. Perhaps he is trying so hard because his background is about as legitimately populist and anti-establishment as a photo op of Donald Trump Jr posing on a pheasant farm in hunting garb still stiff from the rack at the local Cabela’s. Hawley is the son of a banker; he attended a prep school that currently has a $14,000 annual price tag, followed by Stanford and Yale Law. The idea that he actually wants to tear down the system that’s entirely responsible for his rise to power is, shall I say, difficult to believe. At the very least, he could acknowledge where he really came from once in a while, and emphasize that he’s willing to exploit the insider connections he has to create reforms for the benefit of liberty and the greater good — something that he likely is aware Theodore Roosevelt was very good at doing.
But Hawley doesn’t. In fact, he told the New York Times in 2018, no joke, ‘I’m not happy that people in Washington DC — and, let’s be honest, New York, on Wall Street, in Hollywood — look down on the kind of upbringing I had.’ (Prep school? Stanford? That’s a résumé tailor-made for Goldman Sachs, a frat-boy tech accelerator’s Demo Day, or Patrick Bateman’s table at Dorsia.)
This would all be extremely funny in a Green Acres sort of way, except it reached a point where it frankly isn’t. This week, leftist demonstrators showed up at Hawley’s DC house after dark to protest his attempts to invalidate the Electoral College vote. Objecting to protesters showing up at your family’s private home is an activist tactic that crosses a line at best and sets a dangerous precedent at worst is perfectly reasonable. It’s also reasonable to assume that a politician’s family and kids might find such action unsettling and threatening. Hawley, however, made a big stink about ‘left-wing violence’ in spite of the fact that nearly an hour’s worth of video shows a much tamer scene with about a dozen yuppies holding candles. The whole thing devolved into an even more absurd situation when, days later, pro-Trump demonstrators who Hawley had arguably egged on morphed into an errant mob. The agitators outside the senator’s house looked like a gaggle of irritating Christmas carolers by comparison.
There are nearly four years until the next presidential election, and as a likely contender for the Republican nomination, Josh Hawley is already exhausting us all. He’s also at risk of running out of steam himself. Being the squeaky-clean young moral crusader in the primary doesn’t seem to go over well with voters of either party: just ask Marco Rubio or Cory Booker. But it’s more than that: Hawley’s role of preacher-of-MAGA-righteousness is actually putting lives in danger. As the Kansas City Star put it, ‘No one other than President Donald Trump himself is more responsible for Wednesday’s coup attempt at the US Capitol than one Joshua David Hawley.’
The paper added, in a nod to what Hawley really cares about, that while violent protesters were storming the Capitol, the junior senator from Missouri was emailing his supporters to solicit funds.