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Josh Hawley, the Senator From Main Street

A new kind of Republican, he talks more about despair and the elites than taxes and Reagan.
josh hawley

Josh Hawley, elected to the Senate from Missouri last year, was born on December 31, 1979. As such, he is the youngest sitting U.S. senator, and a member, at least on the older end, of the Millennial generation—that being a cohort thrust into the political conversation by Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg.

Hawley, of course, is a Republican, and so his words and deeds are of little interest to the mainstream media. And yet that could change, as the press catches up with just how different Hawley is from the usual Grand Old Partier. Of course, the torch is always being passed to a new generation—to borrow the words of another young leader, John F. Kennedy—and now it’s Hawley who’s bearing fresh fire.

In his so-called “maiden speech,” delivered on the floor of the Senate on May 15, Hawley spoke with the coiled energy of a reformer, the intense passion of a muckraker, and the Trumanesque bluntness of a Show-Me Stater.

In his address, he offered no defense of the status quo and nary a word about his fellow Republicans—no ode to President Donald Trump nor paean to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He didn’t insult them; he simply didn’t mention them.

Instead, Hawley used his quick 14 minutes to strike a stark tone on other topics. He used the word “despair”—as in the feelings of ordinary people—four times. He used the word “middle”—as in middle class or middle America—nine times, a typical formulation being “middle America [is] under siege.” He used the words “work” and “workers”—as in “we need a society that puts American workers first, that prioritizes them over cheap goods from abroad”—15 times.

And he was equally detailed and dire about the culprits. He used the word “aristocrat,” or a derivation thereof, five times, and “elite” 10 times.

Just as interesting were the words not found in Hawley’s speech. Unheard was that staple of Republican platforming, “taxes”—not a peep about raising them, nor about lowering them. Nor did he mention “debt,” “deficit,” “spending,” “Constitution,” or “federalism.” Also unmentioned: “Reagan,” “Bush,” “terror,” “Iraq,” and “Iran.”

On the other hand, Hawley went into detail about the “drug addiction” that has “flooded our streets and our homes,” name-checking heroin, cocaine, fentanyl, meth, and marijuana.

He put it all together in a sharp critique of contemporary America. “Over the last 40 years, our economy has worked best for those at the top: the wealthy, the well-educated,” he charged. “If you have a job in Silicon Valley or an expensive and prestigious degree, this economy has worked for you. And Washington has focused on how to get more people to join this elite.”

We might pause to note that over the last four decades, four Republican presidents have occupied the White House. And speaking of those decades, we might note that the Millennial generation has been especially hard-hit. As The Wall Street Journal reported recently, Millennials have less income, less wealth, lower rates of home ownership, and overall worse life prospects than any living previous generation.

Hawley’s sweeping jeremiad thus brings to mind another young Republican reformer willing to take on the status quo, Theodore Roosevelt. Back at the turn of the last century, TR was the 43-year-old newcomer to the White House, having succeeded William McKinley, as well as a long line of Republican presidents before him. Yet in his First Annual Message to Congress on December 3, 1901, Roosevelt implicitly chastised them all:

The tremendous and highly complex industrial development which went on with ever accelerated rapidity during the latter half of the 19th century brings us face to face, at the beginning of the 20th, with very serious social problems. [emphasis added]

We can be confident that Hawley is aware of this historical parallel. And why should we be so sure? Because back in 2008, he published an admiring book on the 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness. (As Hawley notes, the preaching allusion comes from the prominent naturalist and TR ally Gifford Pinchot.)

In his book, Hawley describes the changes Roosevelt saw during the late 19th century:

Factories and railroads and coal mines and telegraphs transformed the American economy. The era of the small, independent producer, long an American ideal, succumbed in the fierce battle of prices and production to larger business conglomerates the press called “trusts.”  The age of combination was at hand.

It should be noted that TR was no enemy of industry; he was, in fact, an ardent proponent of Hamiltonian economic development. Still, mindful of basic justice—and fearful that radical revolution would be the inevitable consequence of Social Darwinism—Roosevelt wanted to make sure that the working man and his family received, as he called it, a “Square Deal.”

In that same spirit, Hawley aimed to speak to the same Main Street aspirations, even as he took note of the hurdles that elites have put in front of ordinary folks.

“If you want a life built around the place where you grew up, if your ambition is not to start a tech business but to join the family business, to serve in the PTA or in your local church, well, you’re told that you’re not a success,” he exclaimed. “And you’re told that you’re on your own.”

Warming to his theme of righteous indignation, Hawley said of such systematized injustice: “This is no accident. The people who make the rules now, who run our large corporations, who set the tone for our popular culture, all belong to the same class. This economy has been their economy. They made it for themselves.”

Hawley did not use the famous TR phrase “malefactors of great wealth”—but he well could have.

So what will Hawley do now that he has a Senate-sized bully pulpit? Only time will tell—although as an early indicator, he has just proposed neo-Rooseveltian legislation aimed at protecting consumer privacy from the slicing and dicing of Big Tech.

Yet in the meantime, if we’re thinking back to reformers of past centuries, it’s hard not to recall another important figure from that era, one who was even more of a righteous preacher, namely William Jennings Bryan.

When in 2019, Hawley vindicates the simple verities of “family business,” “PTA,” and “local church,” it’s easy to reel back the years to 1896, when Bryan spoke of “the merchant at the crossroads store,” the “miner,” and “those hardy pioneers.” That speech, of course, was Bryan’s famous “cross of gold” oration, delivered to the Chicago Democratic National Convention. Bryan thus earned the nickname “The Silver-Tongued Orator of the Platte.” Indeed, the effect of his words on the delegates was so electric that he went from defeated 34-year-old ex-congressman from Nebraska to Democratic presidential nominee.

Bryan lost the 1896 presidential election, yet he carried Missouri. And four years later, when he ran a second time—against the GOP ticket of McKinley and Roosevelt—he carried Missouri yet again, even as he lost the nationwide balloting.

TR never liked Bryan. Yet he also understood that anyone who had earned another, more enduring nickname, “The Great Commoner,” had appeal to those whom TR affectionately, albeit perhaps condescendingly, referred to as the “plain people.” As Hawley wrote in his book a decade ago, TR was shrewd enough to “appropriate many of the Boy Orator’s themes and ideas.”

So now, in 2019, Hawley seems to be channeling a lot of TR, even as he, too, appropriates a little bit of Bryan.

That sure sounds like a potent political formula.

James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.



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