Five Things You Need to Know About Republican Senator Josh Hawley's Coup Attempt
And the last one is most important
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On Wednesday, January 6, Senator Josh Hawley will object to Congress’s certification of the 2020 election results, the final step in the process that will lead to Joe Biden being inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States on January 20, 2021. Eleven other GOP Senators are expected to vote with him, and they will be joined by over a hundred Republicans. After dithering for days, Mike Pence sent an ambiguous message yesterday that he will not oppose this conspiratorial foolishness.
At least four separate pro-Trump demonstrations, some of which are expected to contain armed men, will assemble at the Capitol.
This is as close to an insurrection as Washington has seen since the planned coup to stop Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in 1860, and we know how that story ended. For many in both political parties, this final attempt to overturn the 2020 election symbolizes another norm established in the wake of that catastrophe that Trumpism has cast aside. And while Hawley’s protest seems like just another chapter in a bizarre Republican post-election theatrical production aimed at undermining the Biden presidency, it isn’t.
It is about something more: ambition.
Josh Hawley is one of those conservatives whose embrace of Trump is often spoken of as a mysterious, aberrant phenomenon by upper-class people like himself. He seems to be a conservative product of the most normal institutions in American cultural and political life on the surface. Hawley graduated from Stanford, a history major and a student of the eminent historian of American progressivism, David M. Kennedy. After a short teaching career, he attended Yale Law School. A card-carrying member of the Federalist Society, Hawley went on to clerk for Chief Justice John Roberts. After a stint as Attorney General of Missouri, he ran for Senate in 2018, emerging from an eleven-person primary to take the seat formerly held by incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill.
Josh Hawley campaigning at the Jackson Egg Farm in Jackson, Missouri, 2018. Photo credit: NatureofThought, Wikimedia Commons.
Last Friday night, on the PBS News Hour, New York Times columnist David Brooks cited this respectable trajectory as something that should have kept Hawley in a lane with GOP normies. Noting that Hawley’s futile attempt to thwart a Biden presidency will brand maintain the Republican Party’s status “as divorced from reality…even in a post-Trump era,” Brooks seemed puzzled as to why someone who is not dumb would buck Mitch McConnell (and the obvious truth) to commit political kamikaze. “Josh Hawley, it should be said,” Brooks emphasized, “went to Yale Law School, arguably the finest law school in the country.”
After noting that Hawley wrote “a very fine book on Alexander Hamilton” (it was actually Theodore Roosevelt, and Hawley’s mentor, Kennedy, co-authored it), Brooks emphasized that Hawley is “no intellectual slouch. And yet he's pretending that something is true that he has to know is not true because it plays to his base. And so it means, in the future, the Republicans are going to do a lot of performative display of Trumpian unreality.”
I'm afraid I have to disagree with Brooks’s implication that enabling Trump is generally an indication that a person operates on the fringes of intellectual life. Moreover, I differ with his conclusion that there is a simple lesson in Hawley’s protest about the future of the Republican party. One thing is certain. The GOP will retain and repackage elements of Trumpism to build on the conservative goals that have already been met: a profoundly divided electorate, a revival of nativism and white supremacy as acceptable elements of a political platform, and a more conservative judiciary.
Because of this, a politician like Josh Hawley—an Ivy League brain with a populist tongue and an evangelical soul—is the future of the party. This is why.
Hawley’s campaign finance data shows that he has all the right people on board. Federal Election Commission data is always a good place to start to see who a politician is. Hawley’s leading donor is The National Rifle Association ($708,000 since 2011). He is also well-liked by leading Super PACs: libertarian agribusiness tycoon Chris Rufer’s Liberty for U.S., the National Federation of Independent Business Federal Political Action Committee, and Women Speak Out PAC, a Susan B. Anthony List partner that funds anti-abortion candidates.
As importantly, progressive PACs have spent almost $30 million against Hawley—and failed to keep him from unseating Claire McCaskill.
Hawley’s assignments on the Senate’s most influential committees show that he is on the right side of the GOP leadership as well, giving him lots of good government experience and C-Span time at hot political moments. Hawley serves on Judiciary, Armed Services, Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Small Business and Entrepreneurship, and the Special Committee on Aging.
The Judiciary Committee appointment, in particular, has allowed him to put his culture warrior credentials on display. This included an opportunity for a prolonged hissy fit about attacks on Amy Coney Barrett’s religious faith during her Supreme Court hearings, attacks that had not been made by Democrats. In 2018, as Missouri Attorney General and a Senate candidate, he also issued a statement that characterized Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony as part of a Democratic “smear campaign,” and Claire McCaskill’s opposition to Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a form of “radical obstruction and resistance” to Donald Trump.
Hawley’s record in the Senate shows him to be conscientious and uncontroversial. Perhaps too, uncontroversial.
Josh Hawley did not miss a single vote in 2019, making him the most-present Senator (Mitt Romney came in second, of course) of his nine-member freshman class. Given that, he might have done more. According to Gov.track.org, Hawley ranks well below the others on sponsoring and co-sponsoring bills, joining bi-partisan bills, acquiring a Democratic co-sponsor, or attracting an influential member of his own party to co-sponsor a bill. Only two of his bills became law in the last two years: S. 998, legislation to support social services for police officers and their families; and the obscure S. 1521, which amends a bill regulating federal employees' participation in state and local search and rescue teams during natural disasters.
What does this mean? Unclear, except that Hawley has been very present. He is a man with no real record or obvious allies, which can be held against him by other Republicans.
Let’s add to this that Hawley voted with Trump 85.7% of the time, which puts him in the select company of RINOs like John McCain, Susan Collins, Jeff Flake, Jon Kyle, Mitt Romney, Todd Young, Jerry Moran, Lisa Murkowski, Bob Corker, and Mike Lee. So he can’t be tarred as a Trumper either.
I don’t know what you see — but I see a young man keeping his legislative record uncontroversial. I see a guy bringing himself to national attention (remember “You lie”?) while also making a play for a middle ground that has been cautiously carved out by Trump’s opposition, to the extent that there is one, in the Republican party.
In 2024, the GOP will not be looking for its next Trump. Party leaders will be looking for a white, male, conservative Obama who will help mainstream Republicans forget Trump and build on key elements of Trumpism: the destruction of the administrative state and a Christian social policy agenda. That is how Josh Hawley is positioning himself. Although his trajectory differs in its details, Barack Obama had a similarly swift rise, powered by ambition, charm, intellectual accomplishment, and an Ivy League pedigree that no African-American presidential candidate had yet brought to the table. Obama had only been in the Senate for four years when he ran for president and was 43 years old, positioning him as a Washington outsider who had successfully navigated the most conservative political institution in Washington: Hawley will be 45, with six years in the Senate under his belt, and — listen closely here — a record of having bucked the leadership of a GOP that most Trumpists hate. Similarly, Obama entered the 2008 campaign as an anti-establishment candidate, clearly opposing the war in Iraq, a vote which 29 Senate Democrats, including primary opponents Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, had voted to support.
You guessed it: Josh Hawley is running for president in 2024. This conjecture has already emerged from an elector in a divided and puzzled Missouri GOP but got no national media attention. All of the other leading candidates in the party are already tainted, either by have lost to Trump already (Cruz, Rubio, Jeb!, Christie) or can never capture the number of Trump votes they will need to win a national election because they have opposed Trump (Romney, Flake, Lee).
And all of the “normal” aspects of who Josh Hawley is will make him a far more acceptable vessel for Trumpian populism if he can catch that lightning in a bottle four years from now. So if you are watching on January 6: no, this Senator doesn’t actually believe Trump won the presidential election.
But Josh Hawley thinks he can win the next one.
What I’m watching:
Play that funky music, white boys: An outtake of the New Year’s Eve party at Mar-a-Lago, where a maskless, shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of MAGAs sings with Vanilla Ice at the top of its lungs. (H/T Laura Barrón-López, Politico Playbook, January 2, 2021)
What I’m reading:
All he wanted for Christmas was 11,780 votes: at the top of this article, listen to Trump berate and threaten Georgia’s Ben Raffensberger (Amy Gardner, Washington Post, January 3, 2021)
Heather Cox Richardson argues that the fruitless effort to promote the election conspiracy is part of a plan to hobble the Biden administration with investigations. (Letters from an American, January 2, 2021)
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical