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Josh Hawley on the Rocks

The 41-year-old Senate up-and-comer was, until 2021, just that. Things have changed. 

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 22: U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) speaks during U.S. Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland's confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Demetrius Freeman-Pool/Getty Images)

Donald Trump believes there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Even from Elba at Palm Beach.

We know this. In his eighth decade, it’s unwise to expect much change from the 45th president—or “the 45th,” as Trump is now explicitly rebranding (that is a change). Steve Bannon, Trump’s once and, now that he is pardoned, plausibly future counselor, also would seem to feel there’s no such thing as poor press. In his nearly five years as a household name, Bannon’s appetite for exposure and public bombast has been notorious, if unproductive, and put him at odds with Trump. But the final verdict on the outlaw approach of both men, forever twinned, is best summed up by the late Chinese premier Zhou Enlai on the revolution in France—it’s too early to say.

I could write a full dispatch on my personal impressions of the Trump relationship with Bannon, and vice versa: the junkie energy of the duo together, how Trump was ideologically affected by Bannon but, perhaps more interestingly, how persuaded Bannon became of the virtues of Trump’s approach. Trump is often sneered at as lazy, but his former chief strategist has told me he was enthralled by Trump’s work ethic when it came to what he actually cared about. The insane, germophobic flights back and forth daily from Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina to the New York penthouse. The cavernous appetite for media bloodsport. The willed obliviousness to establishment niceties, Trump’s brass tacks desire to get things done and chuck the process. The relentless propagation of The Brand, its exposure, its purity be damned, the preoccupation of loser historians of the future.

“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s “brain,” to whom Bannon would later be compared, was once quoted as saying. “And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too… We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” If Bush and “the man with the plan” (Bush’s words) fell short of doing this in the Middle East, the team that overthrew them in the Grand Old Party may have achieved this vision domestically, controlling the right for a generation. They pitched—and continue to pitch, I should say—what almost all concede is direly needed renewal, not in Baghdad, but in Biloxi, Buffalo, and Beaufort. Their tactics are electroshock therapy for a country that’s seen better days. Think what you will about electroshock therapy—it’s too early to say.

Yet, through it all, are figures like Trump and Bannon really so apart from the rest of the party, or merely ahead of the curve?

John Boehner confesses, glass in hand, in his new memoir, On the House, that he once felt inferior to Fox News. This is way back in 2010 now: “Besides the homegrown ‘talent’ at Fox, with their choice of guests they were making people who used to be fringe characters into powerful media stars,” Boehner writes. “One of the first prototypes out of their laboratory was a woman named Michele Bachmann.” Boehner reports that Bachmann demanded placement on the House Ways and Means Committee, Congress’ wallet.

The wise chainsmoker naturally refused. “There was no way she was going to get on Ways and Means.” Until of course Bachmann threatened to caterwaul on Fox, at which point Boehner caved. He received the consolation prize of getting to call her a “lunatic” years later in his book, his book on leadership. In David Simon’s The Wire, the famous television meditation on Baltimore disrepair, the masterful drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield tells a convenience store attendant he’d just robbed without remorse, “You want it to be one way,” but “it’s the other way.” To watch the almost nightly coliseum maulings of establishment Republican figures—Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Gov. Kristi Noem, Sen. Roger Wicker, and Sen. Mike Braun in recent months—on Tucker Carlson Tonight is to witness judgment night for the old guard.

***

If America’s political scene is now, truly, only for the knife-fighters, the wily and the politically self-created, where does that leave polished, posh Ivy League senators? Where does that leave the less smash-mouth but nonetheless seemingly sincere? Where does a streetfighter’s world leave, for example, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri?

In Hawley’s swift ascent, he has shown no aversion to the limelight, but for most of his years in Washington he’s also displayed a desire to cultivate what President Bush once bragged was his constituency. “Some call you the elite,” said Bush 43, “I call you my base.” It’s been less Fox green rooms (to say nothing of Newsmax or One America News Network) and more the Center for New American Security. Hawley is thick as thieves with defense intellectuals such as Elbridge Colby, formerly of CNAS, who would no doubt one day like to run Hawley’s National Security Council.

Never mind President Biden’s first hundred days. Far more outlandish have been Hawley’s first hundred-odd days since it was clear that Trump lost power.

First, with the socialist independent Democrat Bernie Sanders, Hawley pressed outgoing President Trump to veto anything out of Congress that didn’t generate direct $2,000 payments to Americans. In early January, Hawley graced the cover of the Washington Examiner magazine, in a largely laudatory profile from the lefty realignment writer Zaid Jilani. The piece explored Hawley’s plausible similarities to the erudite, nationalist trust-buster Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president, of whom Hawley once wrote a biography. It’s safe to say that TR serves as a sort of working life model for Hawley in the way that Winston Churchill holds a similar sway over British prime minister Boris Johnson, another intellectual-cum-politician.

Then came the big kahuna.

Hawley broke the Senate seal. On January 6, the 41-year-old threw in with Trump’s attempt to jam up certification of the Electoral College, the gadfly effort which created the pretext for the nihilistic mayhem at the Capitol. This is critical, because a senator is necessary procedurally to advance objections from the rabble of the House. Less famous failed attempts to dam up the certification of new presidents have occurred since the 2000 election, when America’s politics went off the rails. Young bucks in the Senate have been using their status to complain about the integrity of the vote for a while now. Freshman Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, casting doubt on electronic voting machines that don’t have paper backups, said Congress should “take it upon itself once and for all to reform this system” in his very first speech in the upper chamber in January 2005. Obama’s effort wasn’t serious, and neither was Hawley’s, as he later conceded (“I was never attempting to overturn the election,” he now maintains). But, mercifully for the 44th president, there was never a Black Panther “shaman” on the floor of the House. And nobody got killed.

Hawley didn’t get so lucky. Accordingly, when the next magazine cover came for Hawley, this time in libertarian Reason, the headline was “THE DARK FUTURE OF THE GOP?” Juxtaposed against Hawley’s goofy and ill-advised but now famous fist pump photo, Peter Suderman’s discourse on “Josh Hawley’s toxic populism” was a nonstop polemic that concluded Hawley “specializes in grandstanding and gimmickry,” without a trace of irony. If the flagship magazine of Libertarian Inc. says you’re doing something wrong, in 2021 anyway, it’s certainly going to drive a lot of folks to ask if you’re doing something right.

So is Hawley doing anything right?

Yet another piece, in The Atlantic, explored the collapse of Hawley’s relationship with John Danforth, the former senator and U.N. ambassador and don of Missouri politics. Danforth is a successor to Thomas Pendergast, the mafioso who propelled Harry Truman to the presidency, that is, if Pendergast ever read Reinhold Niebuhr (the subject of Danforth’s Princeton thesis). Emma Green reported that the mentor had come to see his protege’s actions as unacceptable, dare she say gangster, in line with the state’s more checkered past. 

For now, the reality under President Joe Biden is that Hawley is less the fan favorite of the Federalist Society than he is the big bad wolf of Washington. And one does wonder if it’s the best thing that ever happened to him.

***

This was Josh Hawley’s coming out party, said one Freedom Caucus congressman. It was Hawley “unleashed.”

At the most recent Conservative Political Action Conference, held for the first time ever in Florida, the Republican headquarters-in-exile, Hawley greeted the gathered but was seemingly addressing the elephant in the room: himself. “Didn’t anybody tell you that you’re supposed to be canceled? You didn’t get the memo. You’re supposed to ask permission before you came here today,” Hawley said.

Hawley then unveiled his thesis, which, with the cancellation of his book by a major publisher and the termination forevermore of his goodwill with Google, he spoke from the heart: “We’re facing a fight for the republic itself, and we are facing an unprecedented alliance of radical liberals and the biggest, most powerful corporations in the history of the world. They are standing together. You know who I mean, people like Google, Facebook, if you’ve heard of them, Twitter. These companies have more power than any companies in American history, and they’re aligned with the radical left to try to impose their agenda on this country. They want to run this country, and if we don’t do something, they are going to.”

Josh Hawley wants to be president. As Thomas Meaney dished in Harper’s last year about the 2019 National Conservative Conference in Washington, D.C., “It was Josh Hawley over whom the crown most plausibly hovered… Hawley was a scholar-warrior out of NatCon heaven. In presentation and style, he reminded me of the young Austrian leader Sebastian Kurz.”

But prior to his newly minted bad boy status, it all felt a little academic. Hawley had neither the bombast of Trump nor the platform and panache of Tucker Carlson, the military record of Tom Cotton, the gubernatorial record of a Ron DeSantis, the presidential runner-up status of Ted Cruz, nor the biography of J.D. Vance, now a potential future senator.

Asked for an honest assessment of Hawley’s chances, as recently as this past Christmas you might have found yourself in the situation columnist Jack Burden did on the campaign trail in All the King’s Men. “How you think it’s going, Jack?” gubernatorial candidate Willie Stark asks Burden. “It was one of those embarrassing questions like ‘Do you think my wife is virtuous?’”

But to watch his speeches now is to watch a different and, yes, more famous Hawley. He’s pissed off.

When Hawley first came up in politics, he drew on his small-town Missouri roots, but the populism he expressed was clearly more of an abstraction. The sense of peril for the nation was communal but not individual. How could it be, for the youngest member of the United States Senate, a former Supreme Court clerk and Stanford and Yale alum?

But now, it is his family that has been harassed. Unfamiliar for the ace student, it’s his writing that’s been thrown out. It’s the details of his biography that have been combed through without mercy.

Following January 6, by necessity, Hawley ditched the intellectual circuit and took his case more directly to the people, with an uptick of appearances on Fox that outmaneuvered power brokers of yore like John Boehner. As Willie Stark concluded about his cerebral approach, before changing course and becoming governor, “Those things need doing, don’t they? But they won’t listen to it. God damn those bastards, they come out to hear a speaking and then they won’t listen to you. Not a word.”

I suppose it was in this spirit that Hawley declined to be interviewed for a piece in The American Conservative. The first column I ever wrote about the young senator was the attention-grabbing “The Talented Mr. Hawley” in the Spectator. It was a mostly sympathetic portrait, although it’s true the namesake of the headline was a chameleonic serial killer, Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley”; mostly it was just a good headline. The gist of what I wrote—apparently so negatively in his office’s eyes—was that Hawley had expressed skepticism toward foreign wars and a sympathy for American extrication from the Middle East but had failed to provide much in the way of elaboration and had not registered votes where it counted, for instance in Yemen, where other Republicans had.

Turns out there was some reason for concern, if this issue is something you’re concerned about. In recent weeks it has been uncovered that, as a younger man, Hawley was a pro–Iraq War blogger and an approving name-checker of neocon éminence grise William Kristol. Hawley’s response to these revelations has been unequivocal, with his spox Phil Letsou commenting to CNN, “Senator Hawley’s views have definitely changed… If the twenty-year failed experiment in ‘neo-conservative’ globalism in the Middle East doesn’t convince you that nation building doesn’t work, nothing will.”

The legendary correspondent Steve Coll wrote a 700-page book, Private Empire, much of it about Rex Tillerson, without ever being granted an interview with the secretive-to-a-fault Exxon CEO. When Tillerson was chosen to be secretary of state, Coll wrote that it was “astonishing on many levels” and “as an exercise of public diplomacy, it will certainly confirm the assumption of many people around the world that American power is best understood as a raw, neocolonial exercise in securing resources.” If Hawley ever becomes president, I pledge never to write such an unsparing epigraph on his rise. But I suspect I might have to work on my lines.

The 2024 race is a crowded highway, and it will be a lot more frenzied if the eighteen-wheeler known as Donald John Trump takes an off-ramp. But this much is clear. The Republican Party now believes, deeply, in two things: the preeminence of the voter fraud concern and corporate coldness to a more tested way of life. Hawley’s actions aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but against such a dire backdrop, it’s not so outlandish to think that Republican, if not American voters could in the end ask for someone like Hawley. This new Hawley, served like his life lately—on the rocks.

about the author

Curt Mills is Senior Reporter at TAC covering national security, the Biden White House and the future of the Republicans. He has reported for The National Interest, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, Washington Examiner, UnHerd, the Spectator, among others. He was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism fellow, and has been a fellow at Defense Priorities and the Claremont Institute. He is a native and resident of Washington, D.C.

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