In May, first-term Republican Sen. Josh Hawley delivered the commencement address at the King’s College, a small Christian liberal arts college located in downtown Manhattan. After a few jokes about the overall aging character of the U.S. Senate, the 39-year old Missourian soon cut to the real thrust of the speech: a coming-out of sorts for his version of right-wing populism beyond Trump.
Hawley referred to our current era as “the Age of Pelagius,” after a medieval British monk who was among the first advocates in the early Catholic Church for free will, and then began what seemed like a broadside on conservative orthodoxy, going back to Edmund Burke himself:
In the last five decades, our society has become hierarchical. Consider: If you are wealthy or well-educated, your life prospects are bright. College graduates and those with advanced degrees enjoy markedly higher wages. They rarely divorce. They have higher life expectancy. They enjoy better access to better healthcare. Their children attend better schools and score better on achievement tests. They have more opportunities for civic involvement and participation.
But if you don’t have family wealth and don’t have a four-year degree—and that’s 70 percent of Americans—well, the future is far less glowing. These Americans haven’t seen a real wage increase in 30 years. These Americans are fighting to hold their families together, as divorce rates surge. For these Americans, healthcare is unaffordable. Drug addiction is growing. And too many of their local communities, especially rural ones, have been gutted as industry consolidates and ships jobs away.
A society divided by class, where one class enjoys all the advantages, is a society gripped by hierarchy.
The National Review sneered at what it called Hawley’s “virtue politics,” taking aim particularly at Hawley’s bill to regulate social media and his evasiveness on the question of Paul Ryan’s entitlement reform. “Some of politics is helping voters get what they want,” National Affairs editor Yuval Levin told the National Review. “And some is leading voters to see problems they’re inclined to want to ignore.”
For this and other speeches, including one earlier this month at the much-ballyhooed National Conservatism conference in which Hawley lambasted “cosmopolitan elites” and “globalists” and then denied the clear dogwhistles at anti-Semitism, Hawley’s already bright star has risen in the GOP, and has the particular potential to win over Trump voters who don’t see much of a home for themselves in the GOP in a post-Trump era.
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But while Hawley and others in the still-nascent populist right, such as Tucker Carlson, offer insight into what the next step of Trumpism might be, he is not a warrior for the working class by any stretch of the imagination. And while Hawley might be kicking the gears on a new populist movement on the right, he’s a departure from the norm only so far as it serves his greater, overarching goal: a theocratic culture war.
Unlike Carlson, who in his Bow Tie Period freely mocked the faux-populism of Bill O’Reilly that he now routinely practices on his own Fox News show every night, Hawley has been espousing rhetoric like this for years. In the fall of 2010, just before the Tea Party wave hit Congress, Hawley wrote an essay for National Affairs which disputed the Republican orthodoxy that liberty is a “personal choice” (albeit in the context of abortion rights) and writing warmly of the trust-busting Theodore Roosevelt that “while he...may have assigned government too great a role in reforming society...Roosevelt was right to recognize that society and liberty go together.” To Hawley, who was in his 20s at the time, freedom wasn’t a matter of choice as the post-Goldwater Republican Party stressed, but self-determination.
But while Hawley might embrace a more fully-fleshed out idea of freedom than “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” he is still very much an animal of the modern conservative movement.
To start, Hawley is, like Carlson, an “elite” himself by every definition of the word. Hawley’s father Ron is a banker. Hawley himself graduated with a B.A. from Stanford, then went on to receive a law degree from Yale and clerk for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts. He then became one of the lead lawyers for the right-wing Alliance Defending Freedom arguing the Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court, and was elected the attorney general of Missouri at the age of 36. Josh Hawley has had a privileged childhood, an academic pedigree from two of the top private universities in the world (and then, briefly, was an academic himself), a place in some of most prestigious places in the legal profession all before he turned 35, and is now a United States Senator.
As the National Review itself noted in a much-more glowing story about Hawley during his successful run for Senate against Claire McCaskill, Hawley usually glossed over all of these details on the campaign trail in favor of anecdotes about “hard work” and “growing up in a small town.”
But Hawley’s supposed populism is betrayed by more than just his upbringing and achievements. For example, he was a vocal supporter of last year’s right-to-work amendment in Missouri, which was demolished by voters at the polls. During the Senate race, Hawley campaigned on his support of the Trump tax cuts, which is probably why the Club for Growth dumped $10 million into his coffers before he even officially entered the race.
And since he began serving in the Senate, Hawley’s legislative focus has not been on lifting up the working person by reining in the financial elite, but rather by attacking the wildly popular bogeymans of the right: universities and immigrants. Answering calls on the left for a student debt jubilee, one Hawley proposal would require that universities pay back half of defaulted loans by the students who attended them. Doing so would only increase the reliance on criminally underpaid and misclassified adjunct professors, especially when taken in tandem with the full-throated attacks by Republican governors on university systems in recent years, such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Mike Dunleavy in Alaska.
And to help the plight of workers, Hawley has taken a distinctly Trumpian approach, by co-sponsoring a bill with fellow Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue—one of the richest people in the U.S. Senate, and the former CEO of Dollar General—to cut legal immigration in half. “We need an immigration system that puts American workers first,” Hawley said in a press release in April. “With the RAISE Act, the United States can finally end chain migration and move to a merit-based system. All Americans deserve rising wages, a growing economy, and an equal shot at the American Dream.”
In the same November election Hawley was running in, Missouri voters were set to vote on a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $12 by 2023, a proposal supported by Hawley’s moderate Democratic opponent, McCaskill. Hawley’s response to this was to propose transforming the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) into a “work credit,” which would bring every American worker who wasn’t making the median wage 50 percent closer to that median wage. Such a solution doesn’t just completely avoid the problem and provide an ineffective solution; it’s also impossibly technocratic.
In that election, Missourians emphatically voted for the minimum wage increase. The same night, Hawley easily defeated McCaskill.
While the end result of Hawley’s brand of populism is always going to be workers getting the shaft, that doesn’t mean that both Democrats and the left don’t have reason to combat it in its infancy.
It speaks volumes that in the same year where Missouri voters overwhelmingly shot down right-to-work and approved a minimum wage increase (not to mention an ethics reform package which included changes to Missouri’s redistricting process) they voted for a reactionary Senate candidate over a two-term incumbent, the kind of moderate who we’ve been told over and over again is the Democratic Party’s only hope at winning swing or Republican-leaning states like Missouri.
Since her forced retirement from politics, McCaskill has been making the rounds both blaming the left for her loss and showing off her mock bewilderment that people are drawn to fresh faces on the party’s left, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. That’s not to say that Ocasio-Cortez could have beaten Hawley last year had she lived about a thousand miles southwest of the Bronx. But contrast McCaskill with Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, who won an overwhelming re-election in a state which has leaned more to the right than Missouri since 2016.
Brown is not a socialist by any stretch of the imagination. But he is a liberal populist—one who’s been calling for a $15 federal minimum wage since the early days of the Trump administration, and has centered workers in his politics without throwing immigrants and LGBTQ people under the bus. And while Brown might not be the enemy of Wall Street that Elizabeth Warren is, or the fighter for single-payer that Bernie Sanders is, he’s been trying to break up the banks for years and is pushing a healthcare plan that tries to approach single-payer in steps.
Disagree with Brown’s politics or not—I do, on healthcare—but the Democratic Party’s turn away from candidates like him and towards corporate, business-friendly Democrats in swing states and districts around the country is the reason why someone with Josh Hawley’s politics is a United States senator. And fraudulent as it may be, the politics that Hawley, Trump, and Carlson are selling has a constituency on the right, one which will only continue to grow if the Democrats and the left fail to combat it. The only way to do that is with a coalition of leftists and liberal populists, unified around the idea that workers are getting screwed, and that the blame lies with actual elites who run this country—not the universities or immigrants, but the financiers of working class decay—and their unwillingness to part with their many, many dollars.
Otherwise, Josh Hawley won’t be the last of his kind that we see rise to the top.