“We do need an investigation into irregularities, fraud,” Hawley said, deglazing President Trump’s ecstatic paranoia into a call for election integrity. “We do need a way forward together.”
Hawley, against Senate custom, was playing directly to the TV camera. His flinty baritone was dialed down to match the somber aftermath of insurrection. The 41-year-old junior senator denounced the violence of the day, and of the past year, and then framed his objection as a restoration of order. He was there to give peaceful voice to the anger of constituents but, on a granular level, Hawley’s move had something to do with the laws and constitution of Pennsylvania. It also had something to do, if you followed Mitt Romney’s cues, with the ambitions of Josh Hawley.
“I ask my colleague,” said Romney (R-Utah), seeming to address Hawley, “do we weigh our political fortunes more heavily than we weigh the strength of our republic, the strength of our democracy and the cause of freedom?”
For 20 years Hawley’s political fortunes came together neatly: Stanford University, Yale Law School, clerkship for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., a few years of litigation at a powerhouse D.C. firm, a few years as an admired professor at the University of Missouri School of Law, two years as attorney general of Missouri and two years so far in the U.S. Senate, pampered with chatter about presidential prospects.
As this avowed populist prepared to take a stand in the Senate, he raised his fist in solidarity with pro-Trump protesters who had massed by the Capitol. An hour later, the worst of populism stormed the building, assaulted police officers and parkoured around the seat of the republic in a mockery of the process.
Democrats, pundits and some Republicans saw a connection between the mob’s siege and Hawley’s procedural objection, which he announced Dec. 30 ahead of others like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). Hawley’s Democratic colleagues in the Senate have demanded their resignations and — in the case of Republican Ben Sasse (Neb.) — called Hawley’s actions “really dumbass.” He is now “public enemy No. 1” for the Lincoln Project, the posse of anti-Trump conservatives. The businessman in Joplin, Mo., who helped launch Hawley’s political career called him “anti-democracy.” Simon & Schuster refused to publish his new book, titled “The Tyranny of Big Tech,” because of “his role in what became a dangerous threat to our democracy.” He has “blood on his hands,” according to the editorial board of the Kansas City Star. Hallmark, based in Kansas City, sent Hawley a card asking him to refund its contributions.
It’s a different anger than people reserve for Trump, who seems oblivious to the damage caused by his ego spasms. With Hawley, the backlash from friend and foe is colored by disappointment.
“Josh knows better,” says Thomas A. Lambert, law professor at Missouri, where he became friends with Hawley and his wife, Erin, after they joined the faculty in 2011.
“He is parroting the big lie, even though he knows better,” says former Democratic senator Claire McCaskill, whom Hawley defeated in 2018.
“A lot of people who should’ve known better thought they could achieve their policy goals under Trump and Trumpism,” says historian David M. Kennedy, who mentored Hawley as his undergraduate thesis adviser at Stanford. “But elites should educate, uplift and enlighten the body politic, not exploit its darkest corners. Josh and company have failed to educate them, and instead exploited them.”
This is what some people have been afraid of. This is why Hawley’s opponents are using outrage from Jan. 6 to try to crush him.
Maybe the right read on this isn’t Josh knows better but Josh knows exactly what he’s doing.
“Hawley is likely to emerge with the political upper hand from today, and it’s important to be clear-eyed about that,” tweeted Adam Jentleson, former deputy chief of staff to Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), on the night of the siege. “Elite opinion may pile on him for a while. But by this time next year his GOP colleagues will be begging him to do fundraising events for them.”
Fifteen years ago this week, John C. Danforth, a Republican senator from Missouri from 1976 to 1995, gave a lecture at Yale Law School titled “Who Is Responsible for World Order?” In the audience was 27-year-old Joshua D. Hawley, who had come to the law school to become a “philosopher-in-action.” Hawley was then president of the campus chapter of the conservative Federalist Society and an editor for the Yale Law Journal. He was also transforming his Stanford thesis into a book called “Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness.”
At a dinner after the lecture, the dean of the law school sat the two Missourians next to each other. Hawley didn’t strike Danforth as one of those Ayn Rand individualists; he was into communitarianism, into the strength of the social fabric. Danforth was impressed. They kept in occasional touch. “He was a true intellectual who thought deeply about politics and political philosophy,” says Danforth, who would help launch Hawley’s political career nine years later. “I thought he would bring something special to politics, like Pat Moynihan in my day.”
Hawley, who declined to be interviewed for this story, grew up in Lexington, Mo., 40 miles east of Kansas City. His father was a community banker, his mother a teacher. His parents hosted Bible study at their home. As a teenager he listened to Rush Limbaugh, according to the National Review, and wrote a political column for the local newspaper called “State of the Union,” in which he used flourishes such as “the future of this nation hangs in the balance,” according to the Riverfront Times.
At Stanford, Hawley majored in history and worked with adviser Kennedy on a thesis about Teddy Roosevelt. Hawley pondered the competing political philosophies of Roosevelt, champion of statism, and the market-oriented liberalism of Woodrow Wilson, according to Kennedy.
“He was an utterly boon companion: charming, witty, unpretentious,” Kennedy says. What fascinated Hawley about Roosevelt “was his attempt to infuse politics with some kind of moral dimension, and to summon people to be morally strenuous in their lives for the good of the greater community, not just for their own personal advancement.”
According to Kennedy, they discussed two career paths: academia or politics, perhaps a PhD, perhaps a JD. After a year teaching at St. Paul’s School in London, Hawley settled on the law degree and, it appears, a path toward politics.
“It’s easy to forget, in the crush of learning rules and precedents, that all law is for something, directed toward some end,” Hawley was quoted as saying in Yale’s commencement literature in 2006. “The job of the reflective practitioner, I take it, is to help ensure those ends are the right ones.”
The language was professorial but the meaning was aspirational: Hawley seemed to be saying that a thoughtful man, while immersed in procedure, remembers to use the law for good.
Hawley met his wife while they clerked for Roberts, and in 2011 they both accepted associate professorships at the University of Missouri School of Law in Columbia. They were respected by their colleagues, who got the impression that Hawley was bound for public office.
“Josh’s reputation as a teacher was outstanding,” says one former administrator. “The students just loved him. He and Erin — there was somewhat of a star factor there, that these are people who clerked for the chief justice, he graduated from Yale, and here they are in our classrooms. And when you talk to them after class, they’re just nice people.”
Outside of class, Hawley was a Bible study moderator and a regular at the gym. He attended breakfast confabs hosted by a pastor of a large evangelical church in town. He mentored students and published an 87-page treatise arguing that the 12th Amendment, which reformulated the electoral college, turned the presidency from a nonpartisan office into a populist political institution. He also wrote an extracurricular essay on the alignment between secular democratic government and Christianity.
“The mission of the state is to secure justice,” Hawley wrote. “Justice, as it turns out, is the social manifestation of the kingdom.”
As he stretched his philosophy muscles, he sharpened his political weapons. Hawley founded a nonprofit called the Missouri Liberty Project to collect names of supporters, solicit donations and advertise himself as a conservative warrior on issues like religious liberty. In 2015, when Hawley was ready to run for attorney general of Missouri, Danforth whipped political support and David Humphreys, the Joplin businessman, gave millions to the campaign. Hawley made a TV ad mocking politicians who use one office to reach a higher office but then, 11 months after he won the attorney general’s race, he announced that he was running for McCaskill’s Senate seat.
Days later, when asked by the media, Hawley’s campaign was noncommittal about supporting Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as Senate majority leader. McConnell called Danforth, according to the former senator, and asked what was going on with the new guy. Danforth called Hawley.
“His reaction was almost righteous and indignant,” Danforth says, adding that Hawley said he would go to D.C. not to get along but to fight. Hawley, through a spokesman, rejects that characterization and says he told Danforth that he would be independent-minded.
On the campaign trail, Hawley gushed about “the heartland life” and sneered at “the D.C. cartel.” He built a coalition of old-school Republicans and ravenous Trumpists. He proclaimed that Donald Trump was driving a political realignment of coalitions and demographics.
Trump held at least four events for him in Missouri. At an airport rally in Columbia five days before the 2018 midterms, Hawley mentioned Hillary Clinton. The rabid attendees drowned him out with a thunderous chant of “LOCK HER UP!” For a moment Hawley looked unsure, like he’d let something loose that he couldn’t easily control. Briefly unable to continue, he shifted between a bemused smile and a stern face, then shrugged and glanced back at Trump, who gestured to the crowd as if to say, “You’re welcome.”
Hawley’s interest in communitarianism had become a more ferocious populism. He spoke of the social fabric even as he picked at its seams. He was an elite decrying the elites. He seemed like someone who would eventually raise his fist in protest as he walked on hallowed ground to the U.S. Senate.
For Danforth, looking back, the phone call about McConnell was a red flag. The day after the siege of the Capitol, Danforth placed blame squarely on Hawley and called his early support for him “the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my life.” Like others who’ve known Hawley, Danforth wonders whether he misjudged who Hawley was or whether he failed to predict what he would become. He wonders about the role of the Republican Party, and its embrace of grievance, and the Senate, with its deterioration into stagnation and self-promotion.
“This is a Greek tragedy,” Danforth says. “This is the fall of somebody from a high position. There’s some tragic flaw there. And I’ve also been thinking of the Garden of Eden. Maybe the apple is presidential politics.”
Is this a fall? Nearly 50 percent of Americans still don’t know who Josh Hawley is, though a majority who do know him have a very unfavorable opinion, according to a new poll from the Economist and YouGov. Nearly 50 percent of Republicans now disapprove of Hawley’s “recent behavior,” according to Axios and Ipsos.
It’s a single poll, at a single moment in time, but perhaps it hints at the realignment that Hawley sees, a tectonic shift that will continue past the aftershocks of Jan. 6. In the same Axios/Ipsos poll, Romney, who after the siege called for truth-telling and appeared to knock Hawley for opportunism, fared even worse than Hawley.
The Missouri senator’s allies view the current pile-on as evidence of how he threatens the ruling class. In this view Hawley’s castigation is a kind of baptism, a necessary rite in a party whose pro-Trump base delights in offending liberal and elite sensibilities.
“If Donald Trump is the populist id, because he’s coarse and says outrageous things, then Hawley, in the Freudian sense, is the superego,” says Gregg Keller, who worked on Hawley’s 2018 campaign and is the former executive director of the American Conservative Union. “He is a more thoughtful, more credentialed, better-read, true populist.”
His first year in the Senate, Hawley gave speeches about forging “a new consensus” at “one of the great turning points in our national history,” turning away from “the new aristocrats” and toward “the working man and woman.” He spoke of “the great task of the hour” with the same epic vagueness as his teenage columns, but something more specific might be forming underneath.
Admirers of Hawley see glimmers of Barry Goldwater and William Jennings Bryan. Critics see Hawley cobbling a coherent philosophy from the garbage of Trump’s grievance politics. Wall Street is spooked by his aggression toward China and Silicon Valley. LGBT and abortion rights activists are worried about Christian nationalism creeping toward the presidency.
“Both parties are undergoing a massive realignment that has to do with demographics,” says Rachel Bovard, senior director of policy for the Conservative Partnership Institute. “The Republican Party tries to govern for the white-collar class, and that’s not their base anymore. And I think Josh Hawley is reflecting that. He’s forcing the Republican Party to grapple with new truths.”
For example: Over the objection of other Republicans, Hawley partnered with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a democratic socialist, to push for $2,000 checks for coronavirus relief.
“Wall Street is doing great,” Hawley said last month, looking right into the Senate camera, in a speech that would be uploaded to his Facebook page. “Big Tech, they’re doing great. The big multinational corporations? Fantastic. Working people? Working people are living in their cars.”
And if you believe him, Hawley was representing the concerns of these people on Jan. 6, just as Democrats have done previously during the counting of electoral votes. The difference, of course, is that Hawley’s legitimate procedural action — carefully worded, if rhetorically flimsy — was happening within a larger, delusional narrative of a stolen election.
“One thing that Hawley is proving, more so than any other Republican in the country right now,” Keller says, “is he shares these people’s hopes and fears and views, and he’s willing to go through hell in order to represent them, and he’s not going to apologize for it.”
In 2024 he will face reelection in the Senate, and he may try for the presidency. But soon the Senate will weigh the evidence against Trump, and potentially bar him from holding federal office again. It will be interesting to see how Hawley votes. If he considers this a matter of political fortune, perhaps the superego thrives by acquitting the id.
But the Senate trial is not a matter of political fortune. It is a matter of justice — the “manifestation of the kingdom” — and the culpability of an impeached leader who pushed his version of populism too far.
So, to paraphrase a future senator: Will a thoughtful man use the law for good?
Or, to put it in familiar terms: Does Josh Hawley know better?