Is Josh Hawley For Real?

Missouri’s Josh Hawley
is as close as the U.S. Senate gets to the Facebook generation. At 39, he’s
young enough to have used Hotmail as a teenager and Friendster as a young
adult. But his views on the tech industry are those of a curmudgeon. As
Missouri’s attorney general, he launched an
antitrust probe against Google in 2017. In
his six months in the Senate, he has attached his name to no less than five
bills aimed at regulating and reducing the power of Big Tech. He routinely
raises the prospect of breaking up Facebook, and in May he slapped Mark
Zuckerberg with a six-page letter that challenged his fellow thirty-something dad
to an era-defining duel. “The burden to illustrate that Facebook will make a
positive contribution to American life is on you,” wrote Hawley. “The burden to
protect the American people from forces parasitic on our national life is on
me.”

For a
nakedly ambitious up-and-comer in D.C.’s corridors of power, there is obvious
logic to the theater of telling Mark Zuckerberg, “I’m coming for you.” Public
opinion has begun to turn on the tech giants, and the populist art of taking on
a villainous monopoly is something Hawley, author of an admiring biography of
Teddy Roosevelt, understands better than most. As he told The Washington Post, “My great worry is an economy that works for a
small group of billionaires and then everybody else gets their information
taken from them and monetized.” 

Taken
at face value, there is much to admire in this approach to Big Tech, which goes
beyond standard-issue conservative outbursts over the alleged censoring of Diamond
& Silk and James O’Keefe. He’s right to raise fundamental questions about the
attention economy, and taking a sledgehammer to Facebook has been proposed by Democrats, too. But Hawley’s stated concerns about growing inequality
and user privacy don’t explain the peculiar intensity of his crusade. To
understand the source of its heat, it’s necessary to probe the culture-war
frilling that lines his rhetoric—the lamentations over a faithless “cosmopolitan” consensus paralyzing the once-noble American republic, as Hawley
announced in a jeremiad before a high-profile conference of conservative
nationalists in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.

This
closer-in look reveals Hawley, a devout evangelical
Presbyterian, to be something other than just another fresh-faced family
values Republican or opportunistic trust-buster. In
his very first speech on
the
 Senate
floor in May, Hawley invoked an “epidemic of loneliness and despair … a society increasingly defined not by the genuine and personal love of
family and church, but by the cold and judgmental world of social media.” These
lines illuminated the edges of a worldview bigger than the sum of its
policy expressions. Behind this weltanschauung
is an emergent conservative tendency dubbed “post-liberalism”—a stewing amalgam
of long-marginalized ideas on the right that have found new life, like ancient
spores released by an earthquake, in the aftermath of the 2016 election. While
the lead thinkers of this movement might more accurately be dubbed
“pre-liberals,” they claim Hawley as one of their own, and it is through the
prism of their crabbed, reactionary political thought that Hawley’s tech
crusade is best understood.

Stated
simply, the post-liberals—represented foremost by the rightwing Israeli scholar
Yoram Hazony, but also by more mainstream writers like The New York Post’s Sohrab Amari—reject universal reason as a basis
for laws and government. They mourn the institutions, values, and hierarchies
that secular rationalism has laid to waste in the name of progress. They see
the global rise of right-wing populism as evidence of a profound and widespread
if inchoate dissatisfaction with the Enlightenment legacy of pluralism, the
primacy of individual rights, and the hard separation of church and state. Lockean
ideas about “liberty” have led to an “Epicurean liberalism” that consecrates “the right to choose your own meaning, define your own
values, emancipate yourself from God by creating your own self,” Hawley has
said. The post-liberals propose an alt-liberty
grounded in place and tradition, bound by social relations and obligations, rooted
in the Bible. 

For
the post-liberals, Big Tech is basically Armageddon. In his post-liberal
manifesto, Why Liberalism Failed,
Patrick Deneen calls technology an “anticulture, a tradition-destroying and
custom-undermining dynamic that replaces cultural practices, memory, and
beliefs, [and] now seems to be leading us ineluctably into a condition of
bondage.” Meanwhile, the campuses of Silicon Valley, liberalism’s futuristic imperial
city, are monuments to the failure of “fusionism”—the Cold War alliance of
convenience between traditionalist conservatives, libertarians,
neoconservatives, and Chamber of Commerce Republicans. For their decades of
junior partnership in a movement based on false ideas about human nature, the
post-liberals hold up a dismal tally: A hollowed-out culture. Trans story hour
at the local library. A few good judges, but not enough. A postcard of Grover
Norquist in a Speedo and dust-goggles postmarked from the pagan bacchanal of
Burning Man. 

The
post-liberal lens reveals Hawley’s internet politics in their full dimensions.
Each of his proposals—a ban on the selling of digital indulgences to children
playing Candy Crush, federal certification regimes to oversee social media content
policies—are attempts to assert control over a revolutionary technology that is
the apotheosis of modern placelessness, anomie, secularism, and vulgarity. They
are also, one suspects, tentative steps toward answering the not-so-rhetorical
question posed by R.R. Reno, editor of the flagship post-liberal journal First Things: “Has the high moral
mission of liberalism and its noble defense of freedom really come down to
unlimited access to pornography?”

As
the political face of this philosophical challenge, Hawley has been criticized
by the editors of The Wall Street Journal
and by mainstream conservatives like National Review’s David French, who summarized Hawley’s signature internet legislation as “constitutionally
suspect … coercion.” He’s been tagged for close monitoring on the left, where
he’s been called “fascinating and scary,” and “the one man most likely to turn the U.S. into a theocracy.” So
far, Democratic officials mostly seem puzzled. “His attacks on higher
education, social media, and technology are really out of left field and not
priorities for voters,” said Lauren Gepford, executive director of the Missouri
Democratic Party. “It’s almost like he’s attacking modernity itself.”

That is one way of putting it. Another
way is this: The post-liberal project seeks to cage the furies loosed by Donald
Trump and put them at the service of an intellectually coherent movement without
the baggage of a leader accused by multiple women of rape. Last week, this
project marked a milestone in Washington with the inaugural conference of the
Edmund Burke Foundation, a post-liberal think tank hatched in January. The only elected
politician on the schedule was the junior senator from Missouri, who delivered the dinner keynote on the last night. In
it, Hawley blasted sinister, Janus-faced “cosmopolitan elites” whose
“old political platforms have grown stale.” He called on likeminded conservatives
to fight for their definition of liberty, a fight “born of love for the place we call home.” 

Hawley’s
speech, condemned by some Jewish leaders for trading in anti-Semitic tropes and
by liberals for sending coded messages about the dangers of racial diversity,
did little to counter the perception that post-liberalism is just high-concept lipstick applied
to the Trumpian pig. Neither did anything else on the conference agenda, billed
by its conveners as “the kick-off for a
protracted effort to recover and reconsolidate the rich tradition of
conservative thought as an intellectually serious alternative to the excesses
of purist libertarianism, and in stark opposition to political theories
grounded in race.” 

The question
shadowing this effort is why its “stark opposition” to racism looks and sounds
more like a slippery and morally bankrupt triangulation. As a political ally and
potential heir to Trump, this question shadows Josh
Hawley most of all.


In his campaign ads and speeches, Hawley gives the
impression that he grew up hard on a struggling family farm. But he’s the
small-town son of a banker who prepped at Rockhurst, an elite Jesuit boys
school on the Kansas City state line. In high school, Hawley wrote a column for
his  local paper, The Lexington News, that demonstrated a
precocious interest in the culture war. “It will take great insight,
understanding, and courage to successfully lead this nation through the rough
waters ahead,” wrote a 14-year old Hawley in 1994. “Maybe we should be
carefully listening for the leader who starts by saying something VERY
unpopular because he believes in it and lives it, a man who takes the ridicule
but doesn’t back off. Perhaps that person is … Dan Quayle.”

At Stanford, Hawley studied history and wrote columns for
the Stanford Review, a conservative
student rag founded in 1987 by Facebook billionaire Peter Thiel (now an
unlikely patron of Hawley’s political career). Under Bancroft-winning historian
David M. Kennedy, Hawley wrote an honor’s thesis on Teddy Roosevelt that he
expanded into a book, Preacher of
Righteousness
, published by Yale University Press in 2008. Hawley presents
Roosevelt as a flawed but heroic figure whose greatness lay in rejecting the
idea that liberty is synonymous with freedom. Hawley’s Roosevelt understood
liberty as “a fundamentally social undertaking” based on civic, moral, and
economic conditions, the maintenance of which required a strong-handed approach
“toward government regulation and social melioration.” Unlike the Republican
presidents who followed him, Roosevelt

knew that politics
is a profoundly moral enterprise. [And that] the laws a people adopt shape the
type of citizens they become. … His career … demonstrates that the statecraft of
economic growth need not be the sum and substance of democratic life.

It is hard to imagine that Hawley was not already
fantasizing about becoming the twenty-first-century Bull Moose when he moved
east in 2002. He quickly collected the shiniest gold rings available to a young
conservative lawyer on a certain path: President of the Yale Law Federalist
Society, a Blackstone fellowship, clerkships with federal appellate Judge
Michael W. McConnell and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

In 2011, after a stint with a D.C. law firm, Hawley returned
to Missouri and joined the faculty at the University of Missouri Law School.
What little writing he did during this period hit the intersection of religion
and politics. A 2010 essay for National
Affairs
restated the “virtue politics” thesis of his Roosevelt book, and
proposed its revival as a cure for “America’s Epicurean Liberalism.” A 2012
meditation on “Kingdom Politics” finds a resigned-sounding Hawley telling
activist Christians to stop trying to convert the country and instead “call the
state to its true purpose—to serve justice, and by extension, the Kingdom of
God.” He defines this as supporting policies that help “the poor and
marginalized,” including better access to public education and vocational
training. “The kingdom life is the
common good,” concludes Hawley, using language often found in religious-left
magazines like Commonweal.

This rejection of the minimalist market state may not have
landed Hawley a job with the Romney campaign that year, but it fits within a
post-liberal camp that draws on a number of conservative leveling and
communitarian traditions, from Midwestern agrarianism to the neo-Marxism of the
English Distributists.

To hold the line against the second Obama
administration—what he called “the most hostile administration to religious
liberty in our nation’s history”—Professor Hawley began moonlighting for the
Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, writing briefs and advising on cases. It was
his luck that two of these cases ended up before the Supreme Court. The second,
Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, resulted in a
landmark decision establishing the right of closely held corporations to reject
federal anti-discrimination regulations on religious grounds.

Hawley’s relatively modest role in the Hobby Lobby case propelled him to celebrity status on the local
religious liberty circuit. With a handful of practiced (and perhaps
exaggerated
) Supreme Court war
stories, he crisscrossed the state. In 2016, he announced an “outsider”
campaign for attorney general backed by the old guard Missouri Republican
establishment, including its patriarch, the former Senator Jack Danforth. In
November, he received more votes than any other Republican on the ticket,
including Donald Trump, who won the state by 19 points. 


A few
months into Trump’s term, there appeared the first flickers of a new traditionalist
project that had one eye on the future and the other deep into the past. In the
pages of
American Affairs and First Things, articles explained eruptions
of right-wing populism around the world as breaking-point insurgencies—against
pluralism, against globalism, against a world premised on the rational Lockean
individual for whom the social contract is just a ticket for the pursuit of
narrow, selfish, anti-social ends. Writing in the Spring 2017 issue of
American Affairs, Yoram Hazony and his
fellow Israeli scholar Ofir Haivry delivered a stern history lecture to “political
figures, journalists, and academics,” and particularly the conservative ones, publicly
wringing their hands over the president’s “illiberalism.” Trump isn’t some
ominous departure from conservatism, they suggested, but a tantalizing glimpse
of the real thing—a reminder that “our nationalist and religious traditions … are not liberal.” (Hazony and Haivry’s article singled out, among others, the
New York Post’s Ahmari as an exemplar of
confusion on this issue, which might explain Ahmari’s recent diatribes against
mainline conservatives, delivered with the zeal of a recent convert.)

Hawley
was likely too busy during his rookie year in office to follow any of this. He
began his political career on a conventional note by attending the Kochs’ semiannual
donor event in Palm Springs. There is no record of him giving any Teddy
Roosevelt–style speeches about using state power to pursue the common good, but
he did join former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker on a panel about how attorneys
general could best help the
Trump administration “move quickly on deregulation.” The first flash of Hawley’s self-styled populist streak came in
June 2017, when he joined the ranks of state attorneys general who had sued
large pharmaceutical companies, filing a suit against Purdue Pharma and two
other major companies for misleading Missourians about the addictiveness of
opioids. He later continued to investigate other drug makers and distributors.

Hawley
announced his candidacy for Democrat Claire McCaskill’s Senate seat in October
of 2017, and promptly flew to New York for another pow-wow with the Kochs.
There was never any doubt he’d be luxuriously funded—the Club for Growth pledged $10 million to the campaign before it formally existed—but the
bottomless backing of the Kochs’ dark money network, together with a bevy of
Trump administration PACs, guaranteed Hawley’s leisurely steamroll in a crowded
primary. The only holdout of note was a briefly suspicious Steve
Bannon
, calmed during a reassuring
phone call from the candidate.

As a Senate
candidate and state attorney general, Hawley opened an antitrust
probe
 against Google and sought to keep the
idiosyncrasies of his traditionalist conservatism out of public view, if not quite
chained to the basement. His one scare came in January of 2018, when audio
emerged of the candidate saying that the loosening of sexual mores during the
1960s and ‘70s was responsible for the existence of today’s human trafficking crisis. Just as troubling
was the venue where he made the comment: a “Pastors and Pews” event sponsored
by the Missouri branch of the rabidly anti-gay
American Renewal Project. As detailed at the time by New York’s Ed Kilgore, the event
featured a roster of speakers making up a Who’s Who of Christian nationalism,
including the extremist evangelical pastor
and alternative-history writer David Barton. Hawley was stung by the
reaction. When news broke weeks before the election that he was scheduled to
share another stage with Barton, his campaign promptly canceled the appearance,
citing scheduling issues.

Hawley
was more forthright about his position on health care. In February of 2018 he joined 19 Republican state attorneys in a lawsuit to repeal the
Affordable Care Act’s protections of people with pre-existing conditions. McCaskill
pounded Hawley over the callousness of the effort throughout the campaign, forcing
him to respond weeks before the election with a TV ad that used his young son’s
unnamed chronic condition as a prop for his professed compassion. But without a
credible alternative to replace the ACA protection for preexisting conditions,
the ad amounted to manipulative treacle. Indeed, nothing in Hawley’s record before
or since—not his support for vocational training, not his drug pricing bill,
not his pretty words about the great, forgotten Middle—comes close to making up
for trying to take away the health insurance of millions of sick Americans.
 

Hawley’s
campaign had other unpopular features that likely tightened the race. His stump
speech often attacked McCaskill’s support for a state university system that Hawley
dismissed as a pipeline for leftist ideological indoctrination. Among other
things, this culture war plaint was a brazen gambit for a rich kid whose
start-to-finish private education cost $500,000. The attacks on McCaskill—who
waitressed her way through two degrees at Mizzou—failed to generate much
grassroots excitement, but then Hawley never needed it. “He won with a very
negative campaign that was mostly supported
by the unlimited spending of anonymous mega-donors,” said Gepford,
of the Missouri Democrats. “He isn’t
very well known in the state.”

Voters did know he was Trump’s
candidate. The president held three rallies in Missouri down the stretch, and Hawley won
McCaskill’s seat by six points.


Hawley
moved into his Senate office this past winter just as post-liberalism was filling
out its skin as an identifiable movement. It now had a name—coined and carried
over from the world of academic theology by First
Things
editor R.R. “Rusty” Reno—and a spectrum. At one end were traditionalists who proclaimed they no longer had any
fight left in them for a culture war that was lost long ago. The classic
statement of this view is Rod Dreher’s The
Benedict Option
, which urges Christian soldiers to follow the example of
the book’s titular monk, who retreated from a corrupt and decrepit Rome to conserve
the flame of Christ within the walls of a rural monastery. In Why Liberalism
Failed
, Deneen offers a spirited
safari through the rubble of the systemic collapse, predicted by Tocqueville and others, of a monad-like rights-based
liberalism. At the end of the tour he admits
he can’t imagine a viable traditionalist project of national renewal, and
concedes the value of building intentional communities to serve as
“lighthouses” and “field hospitals” for refugees in flight from high-entropy
liberalism.
 

On the other end of the spectrum are the
fighting post-liberals energized by Trump’s shock victory and its echoes around
the world, from Brexit to Bolsonaro.

The fighting post-libs deny that they are merely
“reverse-engineering an intellectual doctrine to
match Trump’s basic instincts,” as Jacob
Heilbrunn described the shared assessment of the left and
conventional right. But there doesn’t appear to be a basis for any other
conclusion. As men of morals who
define themselves against liberalism’s crassness, materialism, and lack of self-restraint,
they either support or show sympathy for a presidential caricature of the Seven
Deadly Sins. As professed walkers of a high road that ostensibly never
intersects with racism or ethno-nationalism, they have nothing to say about the
racism and nativism that now disfigures American life under Trump. The
post-liberals instead offer assurances, abstractions and, most of all, excursions
into history. Their writings are quiet on birtherism, but loud with stories about
Biblical characters, medieval monks, Roman generals, and seventeenth-century
English legal scholars. This spring, Hawley raised some eyebrows when C-SPAN broadcast
a graduation speech he gave to King’s College centered around a fourth-century
heretic who beefed with St. Augustine over original sin. 

The
same suspicions and denials dogged the anti-liberals who came together in the
margins of the Reagan years. In the mid-1980s, the heyday of fusionism, the GOP
was unified behind a popular president who spoke in sweeping liberal language
about personal freedom, global crusades, and universal progress. But there were
some who dissented from the politics and premises that defined the party.
Huddled around the journal Chronicles,
they went by many names, most of them coined in disparagement: theocons, trads,
paleoconservatives. Among their prominent critics was the theologian Richard Neuhaus, who founded
First Things in 1990 as a rebuke and
counterweight to Chronicles
anti-modernity politics, which was, in
Neuhaus’s estimation,
“insensitive to the classic
language of anti-Semitism.” (One can only imagine what Neuhaus might make of the
post-liberal tenor of today’s First
Things
; he died in 2009.) 

Chronicles anticipated everything that
welled up in support for Trump, including a lot of anger at the conventional
social right that talks a good game, but puts families and faith groups
second to the needs of Wall Street,” said Allan Carlson, the publisher of Chronicles between 1986 and 1997. “We
did battle with Cold War liberals and neoconservatives. We looked to older,
non-Lockean traditions, because there are stronger conceptions of freedom, like
the Christian idea of the freedom to do what is right.”

To
get a sense of what this new conception of freedom would look like in practice,
just read the post-liberals’ blueprints. In Hazony and Haivry’s essay “What is
Conservatism?”,  they explain how the ideal post-liberal state is “neither
authoritarian nor liberal,” but a middle way that avoids the excesses of both. In other essays, they have written that this is
the only way to stanch an accelerating “internal
disintegration” that will drive Americans “into the hands of genuinely
authoritarian movements.”

Hazony’s own middle-way program
does not permit a proliferation of rights based on the autonomous individual’s pursuit
of happiness or abstract conceptions of universal justice. Preserving a social
order rooted in tradition requires that some freak flags not be allowed to fly.
In his essay “Conservative Democracy,” Hazony limits toleration for religious and
social views to those whodo not
endanger the integrity and well-being of the nation as a whole.” Some rights
established under liberalism will remain; others taken away. Quoting Burke in
“What is Conservatism?”, Hazony and Haivry explain that all rights will be decided
by traditions and heritage passed down like a “recorded hereditary title,”
rather than subject to revision by “every wild litigious spirit.” At the center
of this heritage is the Judeo-Christian Bible, which imparts “a certain dignity
and sanctity to each human being,” as Hazony writes in “Conservative
Democracy,” but says “nothing about our being by nature perfectly free and
perfectly equal.” Membership in the post-liberal state will be reserved for
those who declare, like Ruth of the Old Testament, “Your people is my people,
and your God is my God.” 

Hazony’s case for a post-liberal
nationalism is not all Burke and the Bible. There are also references foreboding
darker directions for post-liberalism. As Gabriel Schoenfeld notes in a piece at The
Bulwark
, an anti-Trump conservative website, Hazony quotes Johann Gottfried Herder, the eighteenth-century German poet and
theorist of Volk nationalism, on the
dangers of “the wild mixing of races and nationalities under
one scepter.” But Hazony denies
that Hitler’s Reich has any place in a discussion of post-liberal nationalism,
because Hitler was not a nationalist, but an imperialist, which makes him a
universalist—and hence a permutation of liberalism.

Nobody is accusing the post-liberals of being
Hitler-style fascists. It’s enough that they often sound like the people who prepped
the ground for later authoritarian or fascist movements. Much of the language,
sensibility, and obsessions of the post-liberals—the modern university,
cosmopolitan elites, social cohesion and order—echoes the anti-modern rumblings
in Fritz Stern’s study of post-liberalism in Wilhelmine Germany, The Politics of Cultural Despair. One of
Stern’s subjects, the nineteenth-century German biblical scholar Paul de
Lagarde, liked to imagine the literat
and the liberal political system that he believed inseparable from it as a
“poisonous weed” that “must be extirpated from our streams and seas” before the
“ancient gods [could] reemerge from the depths.” The idea of avenging gods is
echoed in the title of R.R. Reno’s forthcoming post-liberal treatise, Return of the Strong Gods:
Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West. 
 

Nobody knows how the gosh-golly, Ivy League–educated
senator from Missouri will figure into all this in five or ten years. But if
Josh Hawley seems too smooth, too educated, and too thoughtful to worry about, well,
that is precisely what makes him worth worrying about. He was the only elected
official to address the Burke Foundation last week for a reason. And he didn’t launch
a PAC after one month in the Senate to teach Sunday School on a commune with
Rod Dreher. He aspires to be a transformational figure, in more ways than one,
and has the support of both the post-liberals and the billionaires. If it’s premature
to say what, exactly, this portends, it’s not too early to know it isn’t
anything good. 

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