The problem with political decadence is not what it does to those who are already disordered. The primary problem is what it does to talented, knowledgeable, ambitious young leaders who can be warped toward a destructive influence.
Ambition is a human trait assumed by the nation’s founders and incorporated into their design of our system, which pits ambition against ambition to check and balance power. By implication, it is a neutral characteristic — a source of mischief or a spur to greatness. Ambition can lead men and women to say things they don’t believe, to the detriment of their character. The worse problem comes when it leads politicians outside the boundaries of democracy, which is where Hawley now finds himself. In the cause of his own advancement, the senator from Missouri is willing to endorse the disenfranchisement of millions of Americans — particularly voters of color — and justify the attempted theft of an election. He is willing to credit malicious lies that will poison our democracy for generations. The fulfillment of Hawley’s intention — the ultimate overturning of the election — would be the collapse of U.S. self-government. The attempt should be a source of shame.
The ultimate responsibility lies with Hawley himself. But his temptation also represents the more general triumph of a dangerous type of politics — the politics of delegitimization. We have seen hints of this over the years. Jerry Falwell Sr. hawked videotapes on television accusing President Bill Clinton of murder. Some on the far left charged President George W. Bush with complicity in the 9/11 attacks. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) objected to the certification of the 2004 presidential election based on conspiratorial lies about vote counting in Ohio. (Boxer’s effort came after John F. Kerry’s gracious concession, which distinguishes it from Hawley’s move.)
Yet the greatest practitioner and innovator of political cancel culture has been Donald J. Trump. This may be his largest influence on the practice of U.S. politics. He rose to prominence in the GOP by spreading racist lies about President Barack Obama’s birthplace. Now, he is making the acceptance of conspiratorial myths about Biden’s legitimacy into a test of GOP fidelity. And Trump has made room in his party for even more extreme versions of his method, involving the accusations that Democratic leaders are pedophiles: “Stop the steal” and QAnon are on the same spectrum of vile lunacy.
This is the type of politics that Hawley is enabling — a form of politics that abolishes politics. A contest of policy visions can result in compromise. The attempt to delegitimize your opponent requires their political annihilation. And a fight to the political death is always conducted in the shadow of possible violence.
Trump has brought these trends into a dangerous new phase. As president, he is attempting to deconstruct American institutions from the top down. He intuitively grasps — like many authoritarians before him — that the biggest lies motivate the most abject servility. His message is carried like lightning on social media and is amplified by right-wing media personalities and grifters (but I repeat myself) who find profit and influence in the humiliation of their country. It is truly the technological golden age for casual sedition.
What can be done? We can refuse to inhabit the lie. We can praise and support Republican politicians such as Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), and Govs. Larry Hogan (Maryland) and Brian Kemp (Georgia) who are standing in the gap. And we must ensure that the aspirations of people such as Hawley — who has made the madness more mainstream — come to nothing. This begins with a simple and sad recognition: The ambitions of this knowledgeable, talented young man are now a threat to the republic.