The frustrating thing about Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), is that he so often walks right up to the edge of an excellent idea, presenting a compelling case that he’s identified a problem that demands a solution — and then suddenly offers a completely ridiculous solution or nothing at all.
Such was the case at the “National Conservatism” conference, which took place in Washington, DC last week. Railing against the impact of globalization on many American workers, Hawley attacked the goal of “a global consumer economy” intended to “provide an endless supply of cheap goods, most of them made with cheap labor overseas, and funded by American dollars.”
Too many American workers, Hawley accurately notes, are left with “flat wages, with lost jobs, with declining investment and declining opportunity.” America leaves behind workers without specialized skills. “We don’t make things here anymore—at least, not the kinds of things a normal person without a fancy degree can build with his hands.”
It’s a familiar grievance in the age of Trump. But it’s also not a frivolous one. If you want to understand why so much of America’s white working class abandoned liberal democracy and rallied behind a racist populist president, you’ll find part of the explanation in the elephant curve.
— Branko Milanovic (@BrankoMilan) May 18, 2018
Broadly speaking, the elephant curve reflects the distribution of economic growth as borders open to trade. The bargain inherent in free trade is that the entire world’s economy is lifted by the open exchange of goods, but this growth is unevenly distributed. The “global upper middle class” — that is, working class individuals in wealthy nations — take it on the chin as less skilled jobs move to poorer nations. Meanwhile, the global middle class and the very wealthy benefit tremendously.
The sensible solution for a wealthy nation is to open its borders to as much trade as possible, but to tax the beneficiaries of free trade to lift up those who lose out. Indeed, after listening to Hawley accurately diagnose the impact of a “global consumer economy” on many American workers, it’s easy to imagine him pivoting to such a solution.
But, of course, he does not.
The only fully fleshed out idea mentioned in Hawley’s speech that offers even a modicum of help to the working class is a milquetoast proposal to — in the words of a Hawley press release announcing the proposal — “allow job training, apprenticeship, and certification programs to be eligible to receive Pell Grant dollars.” It’s an echo of previous proposals that treat job training as a panacea for communities that often have no jobs to offer even highly skilled workers.
No, Hawley’s speech is less a menu of solutions for struggling workers than it is an attack on the very idea that policy is the right place to look for solutions. The enemy is not, in Hawley’s eyes, an incomplete trade policy that lifts up many winners while failing to account for the losers. The enemy is a “reigning political consensus” which “shows little interest in our shared way of life.”
The enemy is a “cosmopolitan elite” that looks “down on the common affections that once bound this nation together: things like place and national feeling and religious faith.”
Hawley describes a nation much like the dystopia imagined in the Hunger Games — where wealthy coastal elites prey on the wide swaths of Americans living in the middle. But his solution is less policy driven than it is cultural. “We must work to raise up a generation united in a common love for our distinctive achievements as a people,” the senator proclaims. “We must teach our children who we are, without apology.” and we must “honor the claims of kinship and the covenant of marriage.”
America’s enemies, in Hawley’s vision, are not external. They are a fifth column of “cosmopolitans” — he uses that word over and over again, a word that often plays a starring role in antisemitic hate speech — who “dislike the common culture left to us by our forbearers.” To thrive, America must become more chauvinistic, more insular, less open to diversity, and more tightly bound by “place and national feeling and religious faith.”
At the very least, Hawley’s vision of the ideal society is inherently segregationist — though not necessarily along racial lines so much as along religious and cultural ones. It entails a world where people stick to their own kind. “America,” Hawley claims, “is not going to become the rest of the world. And the rest of the world is not going to become America.”
Hawley’s speech, in other words, is nothing less than a direct attack on our national motto — E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one. For Josh Hawley, America’s youngest senator, our nation’s original sin is its embrace of pluralism.
The second frustrating thing about Josh Hawley is that he is a liar. As a candidate for the United States Senate, Hawley literally used his own son as a prop to deflect allegations that he wanted to strip federal protections from Americans with preexisting conditions.
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) September 24, 2018
“Earlier this year, we learned our oldest has a rare chronic disease,” Hawley says while starting directly into the camera. Adding that he supports “forcing insurance companies to cover all preexisting conditions.”
The problem with this ad is that it was a damn, dirty lie. At the time, Hawley was one of more than a dozen state attorneys general who joined a lawsuit seeking to repeal the Affordable Care Act in its entirety. If that suit ultimately prevails — and two Republican judges who heard the suit earlier this month appear determined to strike down Obamacare — nearly 20 million Americans will lose health coverage. People with preexisting conditions will be stripped of protection. And an estimated 24,000 people will die every year who otherwise would have lived.
Ask yourself what kind of human being would use their own son as a human shield to deflect truthful allegations that they are trying to take health care away from millions of their fellow Americans. Now ask yourself what other lies they might be willing to tell in order to advance their vision of the right society.
Hawley, who spent four years working for the nation’s leading Christian conservative law firm, denies over and over that his goal is a Christian supremacist nation. “It is not the role of government to promote Christianity or any religion,” the senator claims in his National Conservatism speech. Seven years earlier, in a piece published while Hawley was still a law professor, Hawley similarly denied that his vision for America means “abandoning constitutional government in favor of theocracy or using the state to convert non-believers.”
And yet, the title of that piece is “A Christian Vision for Kingdom Politics.” In it, Hawley writes that “government serves Christ’s kingdom rule; this is its purpose” and that “Christians’ purpose in politics should be to advance the kingdom of God.”
That does not, in Hawley’s vision, involve using the awesome power of the state to force every American to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. But it does involve using the state to build a society rooted in Hawley’s version of Christian values. “The mission of the state is to secure justice,” Hawley writes. But “justice” should be understood as “the social manifestation of the kingdom.”
Similarly, while Hawley speaks eloquently of the plight of working Americans left behind by our modern society, the through-line in his policy proposals is not economic uplift for the victims of modernity — just ask the millions of Americans who will lose their Medicaid benefits if Hawley’s lawsuit succeeds. Rather, the unifying theme appears to be an effort to tear down institutions Hawley views as hostile to the social manifestation of the Christian kingdom.
Consider his proposals for higher education, for example. As mentioned above, one proposal is to make Pell Grants available for things like “employer-based apprenticeships.” The other is to require “colleges and universities to pay off 50 percent of the balance of student loans accrued while attending their institution for students who default.”
Both are interesting proposals, but it is far from clear that the latter, in particular, would benefit the most marginalized students. Indeed, if anything, it is likely to make it harder for such students to attend college. If a school faces potentially crippling economic sanctions if they admit too many students whose financial future is uncertain, that school is unlikely to take risks on such students. College will become even more of a haven for the “cosmopolitan elites” that Hawley purports to disdain.
The tell is how Hawley describes his higher education proposals. “It’s time to break up the higher education monopoly,” the senator claims in his press release announcing both of these proposals.
As the National Review’s Robert Verbruggen notes, “it’s an odd definition of “monopoly” that encompasses a sector with thousands of competing options.” What Hawley’s proposals could do, however, is undercut a sector that social conservatives frequently complain about as a bastion of liberalism.
Similarly, several of his legislative proposals target the tech industry, including a bill that would effectively impose the death penalty on companies like Facebook and Twitter if a government agency determines that those companies censored conservative viewpoints — or even if they refuse to publish content by literal Nazis.
In his National Conservatism speech, Hawley proclaims that America must invest “in research and innovation in the heartland of this country, not just in San Francisco and New York.” But Hawley’s tech proposals don’t try to foster investment in the heartland. Instead, many of them would impose crippling new burdens on a sector closely associated with west coast liberalism.
This is not uplift. This is Harrison Bergeron. It’s an strange theory of economic development that seeks to lift up rural Missouri by tearing down Palo Alto.
The third frustrating thing about Josh Hawley is that it is difficult to report accurately about his views without using the kind of language that is often banished from polite political discourse — words like “theocracy” or “supremacist” or “fascistic.”
To those who maintain that these words must remain forbidden — for those who insist that America is somehow shielded from the tyranny that has, at times, overtaken other nations — I ask you to close your eyes and to entertain a thought experiment.
Imagine the person you were on January 20, 2009, the day that the United States swore in its first African American president. Now imagine that someone had told you, on that day, that eight years later the United States would swear in a explicitly racist former game show host who was caught on video bragging about the fact that he’s a serial sexual predator. Could you have imagined, in 2009, that our nation would fall so far as to place Donald Trump in the White House? Or would you have treated anyone who made such a claim as an object of ridicule?
It can happen here. The United States is no more immune to the siren song of a theocratic illiberalism than it was to slavery, Jim Crow, or Donald Trump. And we ignore our nation’s capacity for evil at extreme peril.
In a must-read piece on the National Conservatism conference, Vox’s Zack Beauchamp argues that the views expressed at that event necessarily break down into a vile form of bigotry. “The conservative sacralization of Western culture and Christian heritage,” Beauchamp writes, “inevitably results in the denigration and exclusion of those who do not share it.”
Indeed, Beauchamp even quotes one speaker at the conference, University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, who makes the argument for a white-dominated society quite explicitly. “Conservatives need a realistic approach to immigration that … preserves the United States as a Western and First World nation,” according to Wax. And the United States is “better off if we are dominated numerically … by people from the First World, from the West, than by people who are from less advanced countries.”
Hawley was less explicit when describing his own views about immigration at this same conference — but only slightly less so.
The problem with the “cosmopolitan elite,” according to Hawley, is that it “has lost touch with what binds us together as Americans.” It places “social change over tradition” and dislikes “the common culture left to us by our forbearers.” It cares too little for “things like place and national feeling and religious faith.”
If America is to address this crisis, Hawley claims, we must have an “immigration system that rewards and nourishes American labor rather than devaluing it.”
But what would such an immigration system look like? If you believe, as Hawley does, that a society must be tied together by common bonds of tradition and culture and faith, then that necessarily calls for an immigration system that excludes people from cultural and faith backgrounds that are dissimilar to those of most Americans.
It’s a vision that gives primacy to Christians, to western Europeans, and to people who share Josh Hawley’s vision of a just society. As Hawley wrote in 2012, the government does not need to forcibly convert anyone to Christianity. It merely needs to lay the groundwork for “the social manifestation of the kingdom.”
There is a precedent for this kind of immigration policy. In 1924, at the urging of the Ku Klux Klan, Congress enacted an immigration law that assigned “quotas for immigrants in proportion to the ethnicity of those already in the United States in 1890.” Like Hawley, the lawmakers who supported this legislation believed that America must have a common cultural identity.
Hawley’s “kingdom politics” are more Christian nationalist than they are explicitly racist. But the vision that animates Hawley is the same vision that animated the 1924 immigration law. It’s a vision which teaches that sameness is strength, that diversity is dangerous, and that E Pluribus Unum is an abomination.