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Josh Hawley knows exactly what he's doing

The Week logo The Week 1/25/2021 Joel Mathis
Josh Hawley wearing a suit and tie: Josh Hawley in Washington © Samuel Corum/Getty Images Josh Hawley in Washington

Josh Hawley knows better than to amplify Donald Trump's lies about losing the election. But the Republican senator from Missouri did so anyway, betting that it would raise his profile among Trump-loving conservative Republicans.

His cynical bet was right on the money.

Hawley has come under fierce criticism in recent weeks for being first out of the gate to oppose the certification of Joe Biden's presidential victory — an act that may not have incited the Capitol insurrection, but certainly didn't discourage it. (His fist-pumping salute to protesters on Jan. 6 didn't help things either.) Hawley's political mentor has disowned him, newspapers in his state have called for his resignation, he lost a book contract, and old friends are giving interviews about their disappointment.

For that, Hawley gets the cover of today's New York Post, explaining why he is the real victim of recent events — that he is being "muzzled" for having controversial views.

"I for one am not going to back down," he wrote in an "exclusive" column. "My book will be published, and I will continue to represent the people of my state without fear or favor, whatever the left or the corporations say."

Needless to say, a politician isn't being muzzled if he gets to command the front page of a Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper. (Another publisher quickly snapped up the rights to his forthcoming book.) Hawley's profile is higher than it has ever been. But if we have learned anything in the few short weeks during which he has commanded the national spotlight, it's that reality — truth — doesn't always guide his actions.

This is all very confusing to Hawley's former friends and colleagues, apparently.

"I absolutely could not have predicted that the bright, idealistic, clear-thinking young student that I knew would follow this path," said David Kennedy, a Stanford historian who served as Hawley's adviser. "What Hawley and company were doing was kind of the gentlemanly version of the pointless disruption that happened when the mob invaded the Capitol."

"I just think with his moral upbringing, why would he propagate that lie is beyond me," added Barbara Weibling, his middle school principal.

"Josh knows better," said Thomas A. Lambert, who served with Hawley on the law school faculty at the University of Missouri.

So it is well-established that Hawley knows what he is doing is wrong. But who cares?

For much of the last four years, establishment Republicans tried to have it both ways — supporting Donald Trump, and getting his support in return, while oftentimes offering off-the-record reassurances to reporters that they knew Trump was bad news, and they couldn't wait to be rid of him. There was a sense that the grown-ups were biding their time, even if the time never seemed to come. They knew better. They didn't do better. And now neither is Hawley.

For a few days after the Capitol insurrection it appeared establishment Republicans were ready to throw off Trump's shackles, if only in the interest of literal self-preservation. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) proclaimed "enough is enough." House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) acknowledged Trump's responsibility. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) even apologized to his Black constituents for undermining Black votes by supporting Trump's fraud claims.

That time has already passed. Now, Graham is helping strategize Trump's impeachment defense. McCarthy is trying to blame literally everybody in the United States for the insurrection. Arizona Republicans spent the weekend censuring high-profile members for insufficient loyalty to Trump. There are some exceptions, but the bulk of the GOP seems decided that it is down with Trumpism for the long haul.

Which means that Hawley probably made the right bet for his political future. One poll shows that his favorability among Republicans nationwide actually rose after the Capitol riots. This doesn't mean he will be the party's nominee in 2024 — Trump will probably have something to say about that, one way or another. But it does mean that for all the angry criticism he has taken, Hawley might be in better political shape today than he was at the beginning of the month. Other up-and-comers in the GOP will take note: You can't go wrong with dishonest, cynical pandering to the party's base.


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