Josh Hawley's UnAmerican Nationalism
The Republican Senator's incitement of the Jan. 6 mob has a cause deeper than gaining raw power
Creative Commons. DonkeyHotey
The infamous image of Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri raising his fist in solidarity with the Trumpist mob assembled outside the Capitol on the fateful Jan. 6 morning found its ideal— and inevitable—bookend at Thursday’s concluding House Select Committee hearing. The Committee revealed footage of the senator skedaddling away from that same mob as it stormed the building.
Hawley was the first senator to announce that he’d challenge then President-elect Joe Biden's victory. And hours after running away from the mob he’d incited, and with the dust barely settled from a siege that had left five dead, Hawley did just that: He voted against certification, giving credence to the unwarranted concerns of a stolen election that catalyzed the insurrection.
Something deeper than ambition and opportunism propelled Hawley’s participation in the attempt to overthrow a duly elected president. Hawley rejects liberalism—not as in the liberal left, as the word is too often used to describe— but the principles of individual freedom and autonomy that are at the core of the American experiment. And it's not because he’s a shallow reality TV host or a politician. He's thought deeply about liberty—and he doesn't like it.
Hawley’s politics are driven by a social and political philosophy that has come to be known as national conservatism. But unlike recent converts, Hawley developed his ideas long before that term was coined, and long before he joined the Senate in 2019.
Hawley’s brand of national conservatism rejects the animating principle of the Declaration of Independence—its radical proposition that Americans have a right to the pursuit of their own happiness. Each American has to individually decide what that means for themselves and that autonomy is protected by America’s constitutional scheme. (That does not mean that individuals make their choices sui generis without any influence of family and community, only that the object of political protection is whatever lifestyle an individual chooses, a thick communitarian—or a ruggedly lonesome—one.)
Hawley rejects the idea that “liberty is all about choosing your own ends,” a notion he derogatorily dismisses as Pelagian after a heretical 5th century British monk who believed that free will gave individuals the tools for their own salvation without the aid of clerical authorities. In fact, he sees freedom as a destructive turn away from a purer way of life that is constrained by social hierarchies and tradition. Liberty, he objects, “is a philosophy of liberation from family and tradition, of escape from God and community, a philosophy of self-creation and unrestricted, unfettered free choice.” He believes liberty has led to a country that is riven by conflict, marked by a distasteful cosmopolitanism, thanks to an overly welcoming attitude toward foreign people and ideas. It has made America too open to the outside world when it should focus on promoting a socially conservative working class protected by impenetrable borders.
But Hawley’s antipathy toward liberty runs deeper than his view of national interest. As far as he is concerned, your freedom to choose your own happiness “denigrates the common affections and common loves that make our way of life possible.” Hawley employs the phrase “our way of life” narrowly. It’s not what you find in America’s bustling, multicultural cities. Rather, it’s present in small towns, traditional families, strong churches, and blue-collar work. These sustain the kind of cultural homogeneity that fosters nationalistic unity, in his telling. Hawley believes the reason all of America doesn't look like a Midwestern small town is because Hollywood, Big Tech, and foreigners are constantly injecting their alien ideas and cultures everywhere. Thus the proper role of government, which Hawley aspires to direct, is to use social and industrial policy to undo these influences and to impose a “happiness” that isn’t freely chosen.
Since entering the Senate, Hawley’s political project has been to harness Trumpism’s infatuation with an imagined “real America” into the service of a more intellectual and effective authoritarian movement.
In this context, his crusade against Facebook, Google, and Twitter doesn’t merely stem from the ambition of someone who is latching onto a trendy, new right-wing cause to advance his political career. In fact, Hawley was arguably the progenitor of the right’s backlash against Big Tech with the explicit aim of undermining the chief mechanism by which America’s cosmopolitan spirit and culture—a by-product of its classical liberal commitments—develops and spreads. He’s been the most outspoken senator pushing to place government in charge of moderating online speech, jettisoning his party’s alleged commitment to limited government pre-Trump. And he introduced legislation that would force Facebook to make its product less appealing—by, for example, banning “infinite scrolling”— to save you from enjoying it so much that you use it more than he considers healthy.
His aversion to “more immigration, more movement of capital, more trade” is only partly driven by his belief that protectionism would help American manufacturing and working class jobs—although it would do no such thing; the opposite, in fact. But the bigger reason for his protectionist turn is to stop cosmopolitanism, to close the country to “foreign” people and ideas that, in Hawley’s philosophy, drive us away from an authentic way of living. In short, his economic policies are driven not so much by concerns for the material wealth of Americans, but instead their cultural health—as defined by him.
It’s no wonder then that Hawley embraced Trumpism and the primarily white cultural anxieties that motivates it. Hawley sees our dynamic, multiracial cities not just as enemies of the rural, God-fearing way of life, but as claxons warning of America’s cultural and intellectual decline. This is why, when he says, “We must rebuild a culture that affirms the dignity of the working man and woman , that protects their way of life and honors their central role in the life of this country,” he mentions the great “middle of America”— but never, as best as one can tell, the working class of our inner cities, who voted overwhelmingly against the president.
In Trumpism, Hawley saw a power that could be wielded to his philosophical ends. Hawley wants to inherit the mantle of a strongman so he can exercise his will against the “unseemly” spontaneous preferences of Americans.
Because Hawley objects to the free decisions of individuals when they lead to choices he dislikes, he sees nothing wrong with undermining the institutions that protect their freedom. If that means lying about election fraud so that he can channel conservative skepticism and anger to boost his own power, then so be it. He’d wield it for their own good, after all.
While Hawley didn’t expect his stunt to succeed, it likely wouldn’t have bothered him if the election were, in fact, overturned. As far as he’s concerned, self-government is “a project bound to a particular place, practiced by citizens loyal to that place and loyal to the way of life they share together.” And since the Americans who voted for Biden weren’t loyal to Hawley’s conception of a shared way of life, neither their “self-government” nor their liberty likely counts for all that much in his scheme.
Josh Hawley’s distaste for liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and his contempt for the institutions protecting both, makes him a threat to the American way of life. Fortunately, the humiliating video released this week makes it less likely he’ll achieve his ambitions.