Before U.S. senator Josh Hawley took exception to something he wrote and called him a “smug, rich liberal elitist” who expressed “open contempt for the people of the heartland and all we love,” I knew nothing about my friend Greg Sargent’s socioeconomic background. We converse pretty often via email, but somehow or other we never got around to discussing our investment portfolios, our polo ponies, our Biarritz vacation homes, or how happy we were that our private jets made it possible to attend the Sundance Festival without setting foot in flyover country.
Actually, of course, we didn’t have such conversations in part because neither of us is from a tony background. As Greg explained by way of setting Hawley straight, he’s a middle-class guy educated in public schools who happens to have grown up — yes, he pleads guilty — near a coast. And he rightly accuses Hawley of deploying a phony sort of populism to make his own narrow views seem mainstream:
[A]s Will Wilkinson notes, Hawley’s “great American middle” is in reality code, an effort to recast the minoritarian America of “nonurban whites” who fundamentally reject this country’s “multiracial, multicultural national character” as the American mainstream.
This “great American middle” apparently does not include the large majorities who hold allegedly “elite” positions such as favoring the legalization of millions of undocumented immigrants and opposing further immigration restrictions.
Now, I wouldn’t have paid much attention to the effort to smear Greg if it had emanated from some Trumpian organ-grinder or a backbench Republican in Congress. But Josh Hawley is one scary dude who could become our ruler one of these days. Much celebrated for his “populist” attacks on rich corrupters of the traditional family, Hawley is the new face of a very old (and not very American) form of reactionary culture-war politics, as I noted a while back:
Government-sanctioned culture war against private entities like those which control Hollywood and Silicon Valley is indeed a departure from traditional American conservatism. But it’s entirely consonant with a European brand of right-wing authoritarianism that drew on precapitalist strains of religion-based hostility to liberalism in economics as in culture, and contemptuously rejected modern liberal democracy while utilizing its institutions to seize power whenever possible. What makes Hawley fascinating and scary is how systematically he embraces this illiberal world view.
Beyond that, Hawley doesn’t exactly have much standing to label other people as “elitist,” as an admiring profile in National Review explains. The son of a banker, the future senator attended an elite Jesuit prep school before matriculating at those well-known heartland universities Stanford and Yale, and then rising quickly through the top crust of legal apprenticeships, including a stint as a clerk to John Roberts. His heroes were not exactly the horny-handed sons of toil:
One summer, Hawley interned at the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank. He worked for Matthew Spalding, a scholar of the Constitution. “He asked me who I most wanted to meet in Washington, D.C.,” recalls Hawley. “I said, ‘George Will.’ He told me to write a letter. So I did.” Will wrote back and the two met for lunch. They also stayed in touch.
And you know what? That’s fine with me, so long as Hawley doesn’t pretend to be some sort of prairie avenger who learned to read by candlelight. Before going after Greg, he should have reflected on the words of a certain man he is said to worship (Matthew 7:3-5, King James Version):
3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.
Beyond hypocrisy, Hawley, who is not a stupid man, is engaging in the kind of crude geographical and cultural stereotypes that ought to make him ashamed. A very wise man who represented a state adjoining Hawley’s in the U.S. Senate had this to say about that unfortunate and divisive tendency:
The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States.
All kinds of people live and work in all kinds of places, and demagogues who try to convince their constituents that Greg Sargent hates them and can’t understand them because of where he lives and works are deeply cynical. Josh Hawley isn’t what he superficially appears to be at this moment. Neither are most of us. I work for New York Magazine, live in Monterey County, California, and received an undergraduate degree from the near-Ivy private institution Emory University. Clearly, I’m a liberal coastal elitist who looks down on the sturdy heartland virtues of Josh Hawley’s Missouri. Except that I had never even met a private-school attendee before going to college on scholarships (and using savings as a janitor); speak in an accent not too far separated from Appalachia; go to church every Sunday; and spend every autumn Saturday watching college football and making barking noises when the Georgia Bulldogs are doing well. Offered a chance to take an extravagant vacation wherever I wanted on one of those big birthdays with a zero on the end, I chose the Iowa State Fair.
Like I said, people are complicated, and I hope I never judge Josh Hawley by anything other than his expressed views, which I find terrifying. But then again, Hawley is an ally and fan of the bully in the White House, the insanely rich and powerful “populist” who loves to intimidate journalists with threats that suggest roundups and reeducation camps. The junior senator from Missouri really needs to stop treating writers who disagree with him like future candidates for the knout and the rack. It’s Josh Hawley, not Greg Sargent, who holds power; he, not Greg, who’s The Man. He needs to read his Bible and learn some humility.