A Conservative Senator’s Crusade Against Big Tech

Josh Hawley’s skewering of Silicon Valley has earned praise from some Democrats, but is it truly a sign that right and left agree on something?

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President Trump’s social media summit in July featured pretty much what you’d expect: improbable anecdotes, boasts about the economy, a discourse on the failed Arnold Schwarzenegger “Apprentice” reboot. The attendees, who included such right-wing Internet luminaries as Diamond and Silk and former White House aide Sebastian Gorka, were even treated to a vintage diatribe against the mainstream press: “The media says — the establishment media, the fake media — they say, ‘Aww, there’s no censorship in social media! That’s all made up, that’s all fake.’ You and I know that’s not true.”

It was classic Trump. Only it wasn’t Trump. That last bit was delivered by Josh Hawley, a 39-year-old Republican freshman senator from Missouri who has quickly become the face of the conservative side of the backlash against Silicon Valley. Half a year into his first term, he has introduced a raft of legislation aimed at cracking down on some of the business practices of giants like Facebook and Google. And, somewhat improbably for a Republican senator who often speaks in the language of Trumpian grievance, much of this legislation has been bipartisan. In March, he teamed up with Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) on a bill to strengthen online privacy protections for children; then in May, he partnered with Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) on the Do Not Track Act, which would let users opt out of having their data mined.

All of this has earned Hawley accolades from across the aisle, even though the bills stand little chance of becoming law anytime soon, and some of them strike experts as clunky and overbroad. (A measure he introduced in late July — the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act — reads like a parody of hyper-regulation: “[T]he operator shall present the user with an option to decline by clicking an icon that is identical to the other icon in terms of size, shape, font, and other visual or auditory design.”) Feinstein told me that she and Hawley are “both advocates for individual control of personal data.” Warner said, “It’s great to work with a Republican partner who is thinking deeply about these issues.” And Markey called Hawley “a tenacious privacy advocate.”

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) questioning William Barr during the attorney general's confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

The senator from Missouri — a devout Christian conservative and former law professor, widely seen as a likely 2024 presidential contender — says his goal is to hold tech companies accountable. “These companies, Google and Facebook in particular — Twitter, too — have built a model based around exploitative and addictive practices,” he told me recently. “I think we need to be asking ourselves, ‘What is it that these companies have really given this country? Have they increased our economic productivity? Have they given us new and better jobs at higher wages? Have they made us more literate? More hospitable?’ I don’t think so. I think the answer is ‘no’ to all those questions.”

Hawley’s mix of policy entre­pre­neur­ship, anti-tech zeal and Trump-style provocation doesn’t, of course, always win friends on the left — and, in fact, it can sometimes prove off-putting to conservatives. Consider legislation he introduced in June that would crack down on alleged anti-conservative bias in online searches and social media. The Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act would force large tech companies — under penalty of losing their immunity from what their billions of users do on their platforms — to submit to federal audits to ensure they don’t engage in politically biased moderation.

The bill attracted zero co-sponsors and was panned on both sides of the political spectrum. Liberals argued that there’s no evidence of anti-conservative censorship on the big platforms; to the contrary, conservative outlets like Fox News do quite well in Facebook engagement, and YouTube’s recommendation algorithm has been great for right-wing channels. Many conservatives, meanwhile, balked at the notion of empowering the federal government to regulate speech online. “Josh Hawley’s Internet Censorship Bill Is an Unwise, Unconstitutional Mess,” declared a headline in the National Review.

Yet Hawley remains defiant. And why shouldn’t he? The bill curried favor with Trump, the only Republican endorsement that matters. Moreover, the politics of tech have changed dramatically — in Hawley’s direction — during the Trump era. Silicon Valley was long politically untouchable, insulated on the left by its ties to the Democratic establishment and on the right by a stable pro-corporate, free-market consensus. Trump’s election threw both dynamics into question. Democrats have realized that social media platforms very likely enabled Trump’s victory, no matter the political leanings of Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg. And Republicans increasingly understand that the GOP base has little affection for long-standing party orthodoxy on economic issues; maybe corporations — especially those tech companies seen as progressive — aren’t untouchable just because they’re profitable.

The result of all this is a D.C. environment that has become far more hostile to Big Tech, with the Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission and House Judiciary Committee recently launching parallel investigations of the major players. “The tech companies and their allies need to be really careful in this world,” says Zach Graves, head of policy at the Lincoln Network, a conservative tech-focused think tank. “A lot of them are still operating on George Bush-era assumptions about what the rules are. I don’t think those rules apply anymore, and Hawley is great proof of that.”

But Hawley may not be content to stop with Big Tech. In July, he introduced a bill with Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) to lower the value of the dollar — a serious break from long-standing Republican consensus on trade. And in a speech he gave not long after the social media summit, he took shots at both parties for worsening the nation’s economic divide: “For years, the politics of both left and right have been informed by a political consensus that reflects the interests not of the American middle, but of a powerful upper class and their cosmopolitan priorities,” he declared, adding: “And where has this left middle America? Well, with flat wages, with lost jobs, with declining investment and declining opportunity.”

You can almost hear those words coming from the mouth of someone like Bernie Sanders — and they raise tantalizing questions about just how far the bipartisanship of Josh Hawley and those who share his views may, or may not, plausibly go. Is the overlap between the left and Hawley-ism like the middle of a Venn diagram? Or is it more like the momentary intersection of two lines pointing in very different directions, and diverging outward to infinity?

Hawley campaigning in St. Charles, Mo., in 2018. (Jeff Roberson/Associated Press)

Like many political phenoms who seem to emerge out of nowhere onto the national stage, Hawley’s preparations for a career in public office began early. Growing up in Lexington, Mo., a small town surrounded by farmland about an hour’s drive east from Kansas City, Hawley showed a keen interest in what was happening in Washington. While still in high school, at a private Catholic prep school in Kansas City, he wrote an opinion column for his hometown newspaper called “State of the Union.” (Sample take: “The American people no longer want security provided by the government; they want freedom to provide their own security unhindered by government.”)

As a freshman at Stanford, Hawley approached historian David M. Kennedy to do an independent study about the history of the presidency. Kennedy was reluctant. “I gave him a list of pretty heavy readings going back to the 19th century, frankly expecting I’d never see him again,” he recalls. Hawley returned two weeks later and Kennedy, skeptical that he had actually absorbed the reading, quizzed Hawley on the contents. “He nailed every question absolutely perfectly. It was clear he had read it all carefully, critically, assimilated it, thought it through. It was a truly impressive response from a young student.”

Later, Kennedy supervised Hawley’s senior thesis, an intellectual history of Theodore Roosevelt that would turn into a book. “It might have been one of the most impressive senior theses that I supervised over more than 40 years of teaching at Stanford,” Kennedy says. At the same time, Hawley was very much a politician in the making: “It was clear he had that kind of ambition. He had the whole package from a very early age.”

After Stanford came Yale Law School, where Hawley led the school’s chapter of the Federalist Society, an influential conservative legal network. Ian Bassin, who was Hawley’s liberal counterpart as president of Yale’s American Constitution Society, remembers Hawley as a “religious and moral person” who had compassion for people with different views. “Those of us who really appreciated talking to people we didn’t agree with, we found Josh to be genuinely principled and interesting,” he told me. “It was a good back and forth that we had.”

Hawley sometimes seems like a walking manifestation of horseshoe theory — the idea that the political spectrum is not a line, but a curve along which the far left and the far right eventually bend toward each other.

At Yale, Hawley made an important early political connection. Harold Hongju Koh, then the Law School dean and a fixture of the Democratic foreign policy establishment, had invited former senator John Danforth, a pillar of the Missouri Republican Party, to give a talk. Afterward, at a dinner party, Koh made a point of sitting Danforth next to one of his students, a young conservative from Missouri. “He is just such a good person that I want you to know him,” Danforth recalls Koh saying. Koh remembers the setup slightly differently. Hawley “was eager, desperate to meet Danforth, and I like to help my students achieve what they want, so I introduced them to each other,” he says. Either way, it was the start of a friendship — one that would come in handy when Hawley was ready to enter Missouri politics.

Following law school, Hawley spent a year clerking for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and he began dating a co-clerk, Erin Morrow, who would become his wife. After a stint at D.C. law firms, they joined the University of Missouri Law School faculty, while Hawley also worked for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm.

His writings from those years provide a window into his politics. In a 2010 essay for National Affairs titled “America’s Epicurean Liberalism,” he wrote that the “celebration of individual will” is “closely associated with a series of prominent dysfunctions in contemporary America.” By Hawley’s account, the growth of a liberal state devoted to individualism had paradoxically reduced liberty by replacing the functions of civil society with government — “too often leaving no room for the mediating institutions of family, churches, civic associations, and fraternal groups that keep society strong and free.”

Hawley stresses that he doesn’t think the government has any business directly promoting Christianity. But his views on religion certainly place him toward the far right of the spectrum. This spring, he shocked even Republican colleagues by torpedoing a federal judicial nominee who, as a lawyer representing East Lansing, Mich., had defended the application of that city’s anti-discrimination law against a Catholic-owned orchard that announced it wouldn’t allow same-sex marriages on its property. And in Missouri in 2018, he drew criticism for suggesting that the 20th-century sexual revolution was responsible for sex trafficking “on a scale that we would never have imagined.”

Hawley, left, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

In his book, “Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness,” which he published when he was just 28, Hawley describes a scenario that may sound familiar. For the election of 1884, the Republican Party nominated James G. Blaine, a controversial presidential candidate with a history of sketchy real estate dealings and an economic platform centered on protective tariffs. A number of high-minded GOP members broke ranks and refused to support him. But Roosevelt, an up-and-coming Republican politician, decided to set aside his contempt and back the nominee in the name of party loyalty. “Politics,” he told himself, in Hawley’s summary, “was a rough business; the political man must, to do any good, be willing to work with the less-than-ideal.”

Hawley has taken many of his cues from the iconoclastic former president, his boyhood hero. Like Roosevelt, who grew up wealthy in New York City but remade himself as a rugged outdoorsman, Hawley has cultivated an image as a political outsider. In 2016, when he ran for Missouri attorney general, his campaign produced an ad featuring him walking toward the camera as, all around, men in suits climb literal ladders. Hawley is tall, lean and muscular, with a thick swoop of brushed-back brown hair and a narrow, serious face. Speaking in the sonorous baritone of a radio announcer, he says: “Jefferson City is full of career politicians just climbing the ladder. I think you deserve better.” A narrator’s voice concludes: “Josh Hawley. Conservative. Outsider. Attorney general.”

The 2016 race was Hawley’s first foray into politics. That November, he cruised to victory, winning slightly more votes statewide than even Trump. From the beginning, he did not behave like someone content to stay on the bottom rung. An investigation by the Kansas City Star found that, as attorney general, Hawley’s payroll included a team of D.C.-based political consultants, who helped choreograph high-profile initiatives including litigation against opioid manufacturers and a raid on alleged sex traffickers, where Hawley appeared, camera-ready, wearing a law-enforcement badge around his neck. (The consultants were paid not by the attorney general’s office but by Hawley’s campaign committee, which is allowed under state law.) What drew Hawley’s first national headlines, however, was the announcement of an antitrust investigation against Google — a sign both of his early interest in the subject and of its political potential.

The ladder-climbing ad became infamous in Missouri politics when, less than a year into his term, Hawley announced he was running to try to unseat Sen. Claire McCaskill (D). Hawley, who was heavily recruited to join the race, insists that the Senate wasn’t on his mind when he ran for attorney general.

To a Bernie Sanders or an Elizabeth Warren, the problem with woke capital is the capital. To a Josh Hawley, it’s the wokeness.

It was during his Senate race that Hawley’s current public persona started coming into view. In his campaign announcement video, flanked in the family kitchen by his wife and two young sons, he began laying down the anti-elite refrain he has been humming ever since. “The D.C. career crowd just keeps on doing the same old thing,” he told the camera. “And you know? The system works pretty well for them. They’re connected.”

His challenge, as Missouri political reporters Lindsay Wise and Bryan Lowry would later write, “was to convince both the populist, Trumpian wing of the Republican Party and the country club establishment that he was secretly one of them — and that he was just humoring the other guys.” Early on, it looked like that might prove difficult. In August 2017, Hawley skipped a Trump rally in Springfield; the week before, his political mentor, Danforth, had published a blistering op-ed in The Washington Post urging Republicans to break with the president. After Hawley refused to denounce Danforth, a pro-Trump Republican threatened to jump into the race. According to news reports at the time, Hawley’s campaign grew worried that former Trump adviser Steve Bannon would follow through on threats to back a primary opponent, and Hawley called Bannon to assure him they were on the same team. The next time Trump came to Missouri, Hawley was there to greet him. After that, Trump became a frequent visitor to the state, appearing with Hawley at a rally the night before the election. The next day, Hawley defeated McCaskill 51 percent to 45 percent.

Hawley’s embrace of Trump and other politically expedient positions — he ran ads declaring his support for coverage of preexisting conditions even as he joined litigation to overturn the Affordable Care Act — strained some relationships. “I was deeply disappointed in his behavior,” Koh told me. “It shocked me he was so eager to win he was ready to say pretty much anything.”

Danforth, who in an interview described himself as a friend and admirer of Hawley, didn’t criticize him directly — but he made clear that he dislikes anti-elite populist rhetoric. “That’s just a standard political style today, to try to convince people that they’re being victimized by the in group, the powerful,” he said. “I think it’s wrong.”

Some of Hawley’s Yale classmates, including former friendly rival Bassin, also wrote an open letter to Missouri voters blasting him. “We may not have always agreed with Josh’s politics during law school, but those of us who knew him respected his principles,” they wrote. “We have been saddened to see Josh abandon those principles as he tries to climb the political ladder.”

President Trump at a campaign rally for Hawley in Springfield, Mo., in 2018. (Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)

Every politician faces questions about authenticity; the unusual thing about Hawley is that the private version of him appears to be more likable than the political one. When I asked his wife, Erin, to tell me something that most people don’t know about him, she said: “I would probably say the fun side. He has a wicked sense of humor and so we laugh a lot. … I’m not sure you get that from the public persona.”

Indeed, the public Hawley is dependably grim. In Senate hearings, he’s sarcastic and stern. During one hearing a week after the White House social media summit, he verbally cornered Karan Bhatia, vice president of public policy at Google, letting Bhatia repeat his assurances that Google would never censor or filter results based on political viewpoints, before pouncing on the fact that the company deployed a censored search engine in China for four years before shutting it down in 2010. “You have been more than happy to partner with the most repressive authoritarian regime on the planet,” Hawley said from the dais. “All for profits. Whatever it is that’s good for Google. Why would anybody believe you now?”

In other settings, Hawley can be downright apocalyptic. A few hours after the Google hearing, he was at a hotel in Washington delivering a keynote speech to the first National Conservatism Conference, a three-day gathering of the nascent movement to impose intellectual architecture on the post-Trump conservative coalition. “The fate of our republican government is at issue,” he warned, raising the specter of a “cosmopolitan elite” with questionable allegiances. “This class lives in the United States, but they identify as ‘citizens of the world.’ They run businesses or oversee universities here, but their primary loyalty is to the global community.”

The speech drew warm applause in person, but Hawley’s rhetoric didn’t go over so well online. A number of Jewish and left-leaning critics, including New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, called out Hawley’s notion of a “cosmopolitan” elite as anti-Semitic. (“Rootless cosmopolitan” was a common anti-Semitic slur in the Soviet Union, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories often depict Jews as globalists who are disloyal to the nations they live in. “If you’re Jewish and the use of ‘cosmopolitan’ doesn’t scare you, read some history,” Krugman tweeted.)

Hawley, as always, was unapologetic. “When it comes to liberals,” he told Tucker Carlson the following week on Fox News, “there’s only one thing that they love more than being elites, and that’s accusing everyone else of being bigots.”

When I met Hawley in his Senate office the next day, however, there was little trace of that hostility. In person, he was a totally game interview subject, playful, quick to laugh, including at himself, and to smile broadly. Even his theory of politics was subtly different. In speeches and Fox News appearances, he portrays elites as scheming and disloyal; at the conference, he argued that “the leadership class have tried to build a new state in their own image.” But when we spoke, he seemed more understanding. “I think both parties were probably caught off guard by this, frankly, by these developments over the last 20 or 30 years, because the neoliberal consensus, if you like, predicted something different,” he said, leaning back, one arm draped over his office’s leather couch. “And now we’ve got to think through what do we do about that.”

I asked him what he meant by “cosmopolitan elite” — and how someone with his résumé doesn’t qualify. “The problem is not people going to places like Stanford or Yale, or wherever they go,” he said. “The problem is thinking that just because that’s something that they wanted to do with their lives, that their priorities and their ambitions and their values should control the whole rest of the country’s.”

Hawley insists that his evocation of “the great American middle” is not code for whites or Christians. “In this country, we are proudly and rightly — we’re not united by blood, we’re not united by ethnicity, we’re not united by race,” he said. “We are united by the things we love together. And in loving those things together, we come to love each other. That has got to be our goal, and that has got to be our aspiration.”

It’s poetry. Who could object to coming together in love? (At that point, I scribbled in my notebook: “Marianne Williamson?”) But an unpleasant corollary is that there’s another group of Americans who don’t love the same things. According to Hawley, that’s an elite made up of Wall Street, Hollywood, academia, the news media — and, of course, Big Tech.

Hawley at a campaign rally before Trump takes the stage in Springfield, Mo., in 2018. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Defining politics in opposition to some enemy of the masses is the very definition of populism, and the role that the cosmopolitan elite play in Hawley’s rhetoric is similar to the one that “millionaires and billionaires” play in Bernie Sanders’s. In fact, Hawley sometimes seems like a walking manifestation of horseshoe theory — the idea that the political spectrum is not a line, but a curve along which the far left and the far right eventually bend toward each other. “These orthodoxies, plural, that have defined our politics, really since the Second World War, it is time for them to be put to rest,” he told me.

And yet, with the major exceptions of trade policy and his willingness to aggressively regulate Big Tech, it’s hard to find examples of Republican orthodoxy that Hawley actually rejects. He supported the 2017 tax cut, which heavily benefited corporations and the wealthy, and told me he still thinks it was a good idea. In Missouri, he backed a right-to-work law that voters overwhelmingly rejected in a statewide referendum. And while Hawley expresses general concern about the threat of rising corporate concentration, especially to small businesses, he hasn’t co-sponsored any of the bills Senate Democrats have introduced to strengthen antitrust enforcement. (In a statement, Hawley’s spokesperson pointed out that Hawley asked about antitrust and tech during Attorney General William Barr’s confirmation hearing. “As he has said consistently,” the spokesperson noted, “antitrust enforcement is a critical tool in the competition policy tool kit, and he is friendly to all efforts to begin a conversation about how best to use and strengthen those tools.”) I was surprised to have to prod him to discuss Amazon, a corporation that in some ways dominates the economy more than any of the other tech giants and may be doing the most to crush independent merchants. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Since his speech at the National Conservatism Conference, a fair bit of liberal commentary has pointed to Hawley’s political positions and wondered whether he’s a “real” populist. That may be the wrong question. Populism isn’t an ideology; it’s a style, not wedded to any particular policy agenda. J.D. Vance, the conservative author of “Hillbilly Elegy” and a friend of Hawley’s, told me he thinks Hawley is betting that the Republican Party can be the first to win over an American working class that is to the left of the GOP economically, but to the right of the Democrats on social issues. The challenge — especially as long as Trump leads the party — is figuring out how to appeal to working-class whites, whose cultural conservatism heavily centers on immigration and race, without alienating minority working-class voters.

Hawley attempts this by blaming the declining economic fortunes of the working class not primarily on illegal immigration, but on the various manifestations of cultural liberalism. Philosophers and screenwriters are, in this telling, somehow responsible for offshoring jobs to China. “I think the big divide of our time is between the leadership class and their aspirations and their value set and their ideals, and the aspirations and ideals and therefore the lives of the folks in the middle of our country,” he told me. “And our economic structure reflects that.”

This theory helps explain why social media is such a natural target for Hawley. If any place in America combines liberal cultural values with a hardcore capitalist streak, it’s Silicon Valley. Conservatives even have a name for this: “woke capital” — the idea that corporations engage in performative cultural progressivism to stave off criticism of their business practices.

Hawley’s anti-censorship bill is “one of the best examples that we have of what a nationalist would mean when they say they want to use political power to address a cultural problem,” says David French, author of the National Review piece criticizing the legislation. “The one area in which the right broadly has been much more successful is politics, and the left has been broadly successful in culture, and therefore [they think] what we must do to save our nation is exert political power to change the national culture.”

This is where the left and right critiques of corporate America part ways. To a Bernie Sanders or an Elizabeth Warren, the problem with woke capital is the capital. To a Josh Hawley, it’s the wokeness.

To the left, the sweeping social changes over the past 40 years happened despite a growing economic divide. But to Hawley, the former caused the latter. The rise of an individualist culture that devalues traditional Christian morality, hard work and civil society is responsible, along with the endurance of the post-New Deal welfare state, for the hollowing out of the middle class. If you believe that, then of course your political program is going to look nothing like that of a liberal who wants to raise the minimum wage and expand the social safety net. “That doesn’t give people dignity,” Hawley told me. “That doesn’t give them the ability to manage and control their own lives.”

This is why, despite the surface-level overlap between left- and right-wing economic populism, they remain so irreconcilably opposed. Both sides might hate Big Tech; both sides might justify their policy objectives in terms of reviving the economic fortunes of middle America. But because their theories of what has gone wrong are almost entirely different, they will continue to pull in opposite policy directions. And they will continue to train their anger on (mostly) different enemies.

After about an hour, Hawley’s staff finally persuaded him to wrap up the interview so he could make his next appointment. As we stood up, I squeezed in one more question: Did he really believe the media was ignoring censorship of conservatives, as he had said with his “fake media” comment at the social media summit? “My sense is the mainstream media thinks that is just ridiculous, that it’s a joke,” he said. But “fake news” is such a loaded term, I countered — it implies malice. “There might be some malice,” he responded, with a sly wink, as we headed for the door. “Not for everybody, but I think there’s some malice out there.”

Gilad Edelman is executive editor of the Washington Monthly.

Clarification: A sentence has been added to make clear that consultants hired by Hawley were paid not by the Missouri attorney general’s office but by Hawley’s campaign committee, which is allowed under state law.

Credits: Story by Gilad Edelman. Designed by Michael Johnson. Illustrated by Raphaelle Macaron. Photo Editing by Dudley M. Brooks.