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Why Josh Hawley is Playing the Victim

The Missouri senator probably won’t shut up about how he was “silenced” any time soon.

Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Two and a half weeks ago, something terrible happened to Senator Josh Hawley. Something not only fundamentally opposed to American values but downright unconstitutional, as well. Something that should never, ever happen to anyone. Hawley, you see, lost his book deal for a hundred hours or so. 

Why did this happen? Well, according to Monday’s Hawley-penned cover story in The New York Post—titled, without irony, “The Muzzling of America”—it happened because “leftist politicians [demanded] I resign from office for representing the views of my constituents and leading a democratic debate on the floor of the Senate,” in which he contended that the legitimate presidential election results, which had been upheld over and over again by relevant authorities, should be thrown out. Now Hawley—who quickly got another book deal from an independent conservative publisher (one whose books are distributed by the publishing house that originally “canceled” the book in the first place)—is not only the latest victim of the left’s war on free speech but an American Solzhenitsyn, whose samizdat is published on the front page of one of the country’s largest daily newspapers and whose interviews are regularly broadcast on cable television. 

As you may have surmised, Hawley’s account leaves quite a bit out. He notes that he led a challenge to “the presidential electors from Pennsylvania after that state conducted the election in violation of the state constitution” but doesn’t explain why he didn’t make these objections sooner—for instance, before the election itself. But the strangest omission of all is that the violent Capitol riot, which left five dead and dozens of police officers injured—violence inflamed by Hawley’s baseless objections to a legitimate election—is not even mentioned. Instead, Hawley has constructed a cancel culture fantasia that handwaves all the wreckage and carnage of January 6 and instead focuses on America’s real victim: Josh Hawley. 

Casting himself as the casualty of “cancel culture”—which Hawley is defining as having his book’s publication scheduled altered for a day or so, as well as being the target of criticism for his attempt to invalidate the votes of the residents of Pennsylvania and offering fist-pump support to a gang of insurrectionists—is apparently the strategy that the Missouri senator has settled on for reinvigorating his presidential aspirations. But it also serves as a test for whether the right’s embrace of “wokeness” and “cancellation” as culture-war issues might be effective in the Biden era. 

Hawley has pushed the idea of conservatives being censored by leftists and “woke capital” before. It is stitched to the center of the anti–Big Tech stances that have won him the otherwise largely unearned “populist” label that has followed him around for the last four years. Now, instead of making arguments about “shadow-bans” and purges from the position of wry observer, Hawley can martyr himself to this cause. 

It’s a substantially flawed case. Hawley, in his New York Post piece, contends that America now has a “social credit score” like Communist China and that citizens are being ranked and punished based on how “woke” they are. “If you want to get a good job, stay at hotels and be served at restaurants, you will need to do a few other things,” Hawley writes. “You will need to voice the right opinions. You will need to endorse the right ideas. You will need to conform.” 

The allegation is profound (and cribbed from an episode of Black Mirror)—the United States has adopted authoritarian means of rating and tracking citizens. But it’s not backed up with any evidence; Hawley, like so many critics of his ilk, is objecting to his fellow citizens pursuing their own right to freely associate. But Hawley has yet to suffer any ill effects from these controversies. He is still a U.S. senator and one of the most powerful people in the country. Despite his negative “social credit score,” Hawley is still publishing a book with a well-known publisher and writing a cover story for The New York Post. The consequences for attempting to cancel the legitimate votes of hundreds of thousands of Americans who lack Hawley’s elite standing—something that actually fits the “authoritarian” label—seem to be rather light. 

Portraying himself as the victim to phantasmic societal forces is a fairly old trick for a legislator of Hawley’s pretensions to innovation to be playing. But there’s nothing new under the sun: Hawley is facing some feather-soft consequences for his actions, and The New York Post’s front page is conveniently available for his crybaby act. It’s a rather transparent attempt to win the affections of conservative voters who may similarly resent the intrusions of the “woke” into their schools, churches, communities, and social networks. “Your vote may still be yours, but if your party is denied the means to effectively organize by corporate monopolies, it’s not going to win,” he writes. “Your church, well, you can still attend for now, but go to the wrong church and you may not have a job in a few years.” It’s all rather rich considering Hawley’s boundless ambitions were only briefly waylaid. 

It’s also a vintage whine: Grievance politics have played an important role in Republican politics for decades, from Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech to Donald Trump’s endless accounts of the wrongs that had been done to him by, well, everyone. Hawley’s decision to turn himself into the victim of the situation he helped engineer is in line with this tradition, but also profoundly myopic. What we are really talking about here is a book deal. Trump’s complaints were at least occasionally linked to tangible issues of interest to ordinary Americans, such as the economy, unemployment, and immigration. Hawley’s injustices, by contrast, are more abstract—how many people, really, can relate to having lost a book deal for four days after being accused of inciting an insurrection? The grievance that means the most to Hawley is the one he can’t actually name aloud because it’s the least relatable problem in the world: The events of the last month have made it less likely that he’ll become president. The horror!