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Is Josh Hawley For Real?

How the junior senator from Missouri has become the face of the post-liberal movement—and positioned himself as the philosophical heir to Trump.

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 right-wing Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony, but also by more mainstream writers like The New York Post’s Sohrab Ahmari—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 dimension. 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 “coercion” and “constitutionally suspect.” 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 like-minded 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 honors 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 lies 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 antidiscrimination 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, antisocial 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 preexisting 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-’80s, 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 Chroniclesanti-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 social and religious 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 will be 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.