At age 39, Josh Hawley is the youngest person seated in the United States Senate and also the upper chamber’s most interesting — even puzzling — new member. A constitutional lawyer and conservative intellectual, as well as a populist with a paternalist streak, the Missouri GOP freshman wears many hats. On any given day, you might see him grilling a Trump judicial nominee about religious liberty at a Senate committee hearing, decrying the monopolistic power of Big Tech on Fox News, or condemning Pelagius, a fourth-century Christian heretic who denied original sin and preached that humans could attain salvation through their own merit, not God’s grace.
What, exactly, you might ask, does Pelagius have to do with American politics? At a recent commencement address at the King’s College, a small Christian school in Manhattan, Hawley identified the British monk as an early proponent of a “particular philosophy of freedom” that has come to dominate American culture and politics for decades: “It 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.”
The Pelagian vision “preaches merit” but “produces elitism,” Hawley said. “Though it proclaims liberty, it destroys the life that makes liberty possible. Replacing it and repairing the profound harm it has caused is one of the great challenges of our day.” This liberationist view is the philosophy of the wealthy and the elite, he told the students: “The people with the most choices are the most free. And that means the rich.”
Such a concept of liberty is “disconsonant” with the ideals of the Founders, Hawley tells me during an interview in his Senate office. For them, genuine liberty could exist and be understood only among independent citizens who were fulfilling their obligations to their community. “I worry about a country in which only a small little band of people has any real effective control over their lives,” says Hawley, “and everybody else lives at the mercy of others.” Hawley has an elite background (Stanford undergraduate, Yale Law, and former clerk to Chief Justice Roberts) but says he aims to revive the “great American middle.”
Many Republican politicians have awkwardly attempted to reinvent or rebrand themselves as populists in the age of Trump. What makes Hawley unusual is that his populism — whatever you might think about its merits — predates the president’s election and appears authentic. In 2008, around the time Donald Trump was donating to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Hawley published a biography titled “Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness.” In 2010, when the Tea Party and libertarianism were ascendant in the GOP, Hawley was writing favorably, in an essay for National Affairs, about the big-government “virtue politics” of Roosevelt and condemning what he described as the “epicurean liberalism” embraced by everyone from President Woodrow Wilson to Justice Anthony Kennedy to National Review’s Frank Meyer, who sought to unite libertarianism and traditionalism in the 1960s under the banner of “fusionism.”
“Instead of asking how to ensure equality (as the left usually does) or how to maximize growth (as the right usually does), the ethic of self-determination presses us to work for an economy through which the ideal of independence can be realized: that is, an economy that allows every worker to support himself by his own labor and, in so doing, improve his station in life,” Hawley wrote in 2010. “This ambition would require a new emphasis on opening the labor market to low-skilled workers, as well as new efforts to boost wages and improve social mobility.”
Hawley’s populism is less of a reaction to Trump than it is “a reaction to the forces that brought us Trump or the forces that Trump made evident,” says conservative scholar Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs. Hawley is trying to “think about where a more populist conservatism could point that is substantive, that’s policy-minded.”
The populist Progressive era at the turn of the last century “is very similar to ours, in terms of the sheer amount of change and upheaval — social, economic, global,” says Hawley. Teddy Roosevelt was asking questions about “how the people retain control of their government.” “He was asking: What does republican government need to survive and thrive in the 20th century? He got progressively worse. He fell progressively more in love with government regulation and control and became more corporatist over time.”
The Missouri senator says that the current era is “characterized by increasing concentrations of power in the American economy, but particularly the rise of Big Tech.” Asked whether he agrees with Elizabeth Warren’s plan to break up large tech companies, he replies: “I think there should be antitrust scrutiny, absolutely. How should that come out? I don’t know.” In less than six months in office, Hawley has already introduced several bills to regulate tech companies.
One bill would establish a strict “Do Not Track” list that would let users opt out of almost all online data tracking. Another would allow parents to delete data profiles of their children that companies had created. A third would ban so-called loot boxes — which allow users to pay to win — in video games that are marketed to minors. “This is gambling. These are casinos essentially getting inserted into kids’ games,” Hawley says. “And this speaks to a larger issue we ought to be talking about, which is the addiction economy.”
If Hawley is introducing legislation to protect minors from video games, doesn’t it logically follow that lawmakers should do something to protect minors from accessing hard-core pornography online? “It’s a good question. The thing that makes it particularly thorny is that the Supreme Court has weighed in on that repeatedly,” Hawley says. “There are significant First Amendment doctrinal issues there, . . . significant legal hurdles.” Would something like the law recently enacted in the United Kingdom requiring adults to prove their age in order to access hard-core pornography be constitutional in the United States? “It might be, it might be,” Hawley answers. “The Supreme Court hasn’t weighed in on that particular question, to my knowledge. . . . For better or for worse, that area of law is very fraught.”
Hawley’s most controversial contribution so far to the debate over Big Tech is his support for changing American law in a way that could effectively put social-media companies out of business if they discriminate on the basis of users’ political viewpoints. Hawley notes that Congress passed a law in 1996 (Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act) that grants platforms immunity from liability for content posted by users. If social-media companies are banning users in a politically biased manner, he contends, they are making editorial decisions and should not be granted this immunity. “Why shouldn’t they be treated like any publisher in America if they’re going to act like publishers?”
On the other hand, why shouldn’t some entrepreneur truly dedicated to free speech create a new social-media platform rather than wait for the government to tell private companies what to do? “Good luck with that,” Hawley replies. “How would you do that in the present environment? . . . People have tried that. Facebook either stifles them, buys them, shuts them down, blackballs them. Same with Google. I mean, good luck.”
Hawley isn’t content simply to complain about the political bias of social-media companies; he wants to have a deeper discussion about their value: “Are these platforms — the social-media platforms in particular — are those really good for the economy, for society, for the country? Are they really adding anything at all?”
It’s a question Hawley has been asking in an increasingly pointed manner during his brief tenure in the Senate. In a speech on May 2 at the Hoover Institution, in the shadow of Silicon Valley, Hawley portrayed social media as an addictive drug that “only works as a business model if it consumes users’ time and attention day after day after day.”
“Our attention spans have dulled. Our tempers have quickened. We reduce our friends to their public presentation in short posts. We substitute comments and ‘likes’ for phone calls and direct human interaction. And those are the benign effects,” he said, before noting that a rise in teenage suicide rates and depression rates seems correlated with the proliferation of smartphones. In a USA Today op-ed, Hawley called social-media companies “parasites” and mused that we might be better off if they simply “disappeared.”
Hawley’s diagnosis of social-media social malady seems accurate (though I am perhaps biased, working as I do in the field of journalism, which is populated by the worst kinds of Twitter addict). Less persuasive is Hawley’s argument that social-media companies are at fault for exacerbating deeply rooted social problems. A populist politician might not wish to say it, but it is largely human nature (the pride, envy, wrath, and plain old stupidity of users), not the greed of the tech titans, that makes instantaneous self-publishing technology inherently toxic.
Hawley’s broader economic agenda is still taking shape, but it is a clear break from the more business-friendly and fiscally conservative Republican party of a decade ago. He has introduced legislation with Florida senator Rick Scott that would prohibit drug companies from charging higher prices in America than they do in Canada and some European countries. Hawley dismisses the argument that this could stifle innovation: “Pharma is turning a nice healthy profit in Europe as well,” he says. He has also signed on to Arkansas senator Tom Cotton’s RAISE Act, which would cut legal-immigration numbers in half, in order to boost the wages of the working class. In his 2010 National Affairs essay, Hawley argued that the early-20th-century “immigrant boom placed acute downward pressure on wages and strained cities’ social infrastructures.” He hasn’t developed a specific tax-reform agenda but cites reinvestment and education as his top priorities in that arena. A critic of outsourcing, he wouldn’t rule out punishing companies that send jobs overseas.
From 2011 to 2015, congressional Republicans almost unanimously backed Paul Ryan’s plan to reform Medicare for Americans under the age of 55 (while keeping the program as it is for older Americans). Hawley wouldn’t say whether he supports it: “I’d have to go back and look at it.” Is entitlement reform an essential part of reining in national debt? “Where I would start with reining in the national debt is: We need to do something about Obamacare,” Hawley replies.
Asked about Hawley’s putting entitlement reform on the back burner, Yuval Levin points to the populism. One of its risks is “avoiding enormous problems because they aren’t what voters want to talk about,” he says. “Some of politics is helping voters get what they want. And some is leading voters to see problems they’re inclined to want to ignore.”
Hawley represents one possible path forward for Republicans — one vision of what a future Trumpism without Trump might look like. It’s entirely possible that the GOP after Trump, whether in two years or six, could turn toward a strain of populism that is less socially conservative than what the brightest rising star in the new class of GOP senators has to offer. It could even turn away from populism and return to Reaganism, as the House GOP’s brightest rising star, 35-year-old Texas congressman Dan Crenshaw, would like it to do.
But Hawley, as a source of intellectual and policy ferment on the right, demands attention. “It’s an exciting time in history — in American history and also in the history of the conservative movement,” he says. “The post-war period that really defined modern conservatism and the modern conservative movement, that period is over. . . . If the 2016 election makes anything clear, it’s that that world is over.” The interesting question, Hawley says, “is what comes next.”
Hawley will be free to think through that question for the next few years without any immediate electoral considerations. He won’t face his next election until 2024. The only question is which office he will be seeking.