There’s been a lull in Republican politics recently. The endless litigation of the 2016 election is entering its disappointing final stretch as Democrats decide what to do with the Mueller report. After the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the president’s first-term agenda is mostly exhausted. And the record he’ll take into the 2020 election is a decidedly mixed one. On the one hand, he has an economy that’s running in rude health: historically low unemployment. But Trump’s big promise of a wall and a normal immigration policy is not just forfeit, but something of a joke. The border crisis is worse than ever. What was a security concern and a question of law enforcement is rapidly trending toward a humanitarian disaster.
This political stagnation is leading to a stagnating debate about the future of the Republican party, and of conservatism. The old Republican guard either has retired or is waiting to see if the populist and nationalist challenge of Trumpism will fade away in 2020, if a Democrat bests him. The populists and nationalists are awaiting a Trump reelection, and perhaps a renewed congressional majority to put the motor back into MAGA. A few of us have longed for a synthesis between the conservatism that we inherited and the populist and nationalist character of the emerging Trump coalition, a synthesis that Trump hasn’t delivered himself.
Enter into this scene Missouri senator Josh Hawley. In basketball, a shooter sometimes goes on a streak and is seen to have a “hot hand.” Hawley is on a run like this. From grilling a Trump judicial nominee on religious-freedom issues, to a high-profile op-ed musing about the parasitic nature of social-media companies, to a series of legislative sorties fired over Silicon Valley, Josh Hawley is making waves. He’s certainly delivering on a commitment he made in his maiden speech on the Senate floor last week to “ask new questions, force new debates, articulate new priorities, and find new solutions.”
Hawley made his bid for describing the politics of our time as a conflict. On one side a vulnerable middle class, and middle America. On the other, an entrenched and self-serving elite class that is engaged in a moral and political secession from their countrymen.
After years of sacrifice, the great American middle is being pushed aside by a new, arrogant aristocracy. The new aristocrats seek to remake society in their own image: to engineer an economy that works for the elite but few else, to fashion a culture that is dominated by their own preferences.
When they think of helping their fellow citizens, they think of making everyone else more like themselves. And Washington — Washington has just gone along. This town has embraced a politics of elite values and elite ambition rather than building opportunities to thrive in the great and broad American middle.
This has left middle America — the great American middle class — under siege: battling the loss of respect and work, the decline of home and family, an epidemic of loneliness and despair.
This is the crisis of our time.
One can see immediately how this populist rhetoric builds on what Trump and some of the more populist-leaning conservatives have been saying, but also invites other conservatives to join in. After all, one of the obvious conservative insights is that the strategy of trying to remake the average American worker into something more like a member of the upwardly mobile professions is a strategy with diminishing returns, or perverse effects. “And millions of Americans are left with the sense that the people who run this country view them with nothing but contempt and value them as nothing but consumers. These trends tear at our country’s social fabric, and they undermine our common ethic of citizenship,” Hawley said.
And after promising new ideas, Hawley started to unveil a legislative agenda. His willingness to attack Silicon Valley is — in my view — smart politics. Silicon Valley’s leaders have basically spent the last two years apologizing to the “arrogant aristocrats” that conservatives, some of them social-media users, have won elections and other democratic contests in the Western world. Their response has been a suite of political-management tools. The New Jersey man who planned to bomb Trump Tower openly bragged about his financial support of Hamas on Instagram. But populist conservatives are often banned from these platforms, just for the content of their views.
Hawley’s argument against Silicon Valley is rather sophisticated. He charges this industry with diverting talented and ambitious American minds into building socially useless, or destructive, products. It’s a version of the argument Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel has made, that we were promised technological marvels, and we got tweets instead. Maybe you don’t believe that it is Washington’s business to decide which businesses are socially harmful. I’m not sure I’m convinced. But Hawley can charge correctly that social-media companies were advantaged by regulations that treated them as open platforms — like the Internet itself — but given this advantage, social media has destroyed socially useful competitors such as local newspapers. And now, having destroyed these potential rivals for advertising dollars, the social-media companies are acting like publishers, which are subject to entirely different standards.
If Washington gave Silicon Valley this unfair advantage, of course it is right and proper to investigate whether their business models are harmful and lead to more depression and youth suicide. In that maiden speech, Hawley dismissed happy talk about the size of the economy and tried to focus on the quality of our society. “The well-off frequently note that our nation has never been richer, but the tragedy of youth suicide betrays a profound poverty of hope,” he said:
And is that really so surprising? Today’s youth must make their way in 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. . . . We must begin by acknowledging that GDP growth alone cannot be the measure of this nation’s greatness. And so, it cannot be the only aim of this nation’s policy. Because our purpose is not to make a few people wealthy, but to sustain a great democracy. And so, we need not just a bigger economy, but a better society.
Hawley also got some conservatives’ attention by blasting Michael Bogren, a Trump judicial nominee to the U.S. District Court in western Michigan. Hawley hammered him for his legal work defending East Lansing’s ban against a Catholic farmer’s participation in a public farmers’ market because the farmer announced his intention on Facebook to continue renting his orchard for weddings, but not same-sex ceremonies. As part of his legal arguments, Bogren had said there was no distinction between the Catholic family running their orchard in accordance with their faith and the Ku Klux Klan persecuting non-whites. Hawley grilled the nominee, saying that his unflattering comparison failed the test that Justice Anthony Kennedy had outlined in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, in which anti-religious animus was deemed to be at work in Colorado’s application of non-discrimination law.
Our own Ed Whelan thought that Hawley was being impolitic. But the moment went viral among religious conservatives, putting them on notice that this young senator would zealously defend not only their legal rights, but — crucially — their social reputation. Hawley demonstrated an understanding that is rare among Republicans. Many of us had complained that Kennedy’s ruling invited states to discriminate against conservative religious people, only to do it more politely. But Hawley turned that on its head, essentially saying that anyone who even privately believed that the normal moral and sacramental beliefs of Catholics were hateful was unqualified to hold a public trust. Hawley understands instinctively that Catholics and Evangelicals will lose their institutions — their hospitals, colleges, and charities — if they submit to the progressive pretense that their religion makes them indistinguishable from racist terrorists. Americans let the KKK march in their idiotic uniforms, but no one would tolerate them running a college, hospital, or home-school cooperative. Hawley’s willingness to pick a surprise fight will put other judicial nominees on notice. That’s all to the good.
Hawley staked out new territory for Republican politicians, based on some of the bleeding-edge conservative thinking on issues of tech and labor policy. For the first time in a long while, I’m excited for what’s coming next.