the national interest

Josh Hawley’s Populist Shtick Is Undermined by One Glaring Weakness

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Josh Hawley has had a pretty good year. The Republican senator from Missouri has carved out a national profile with his smooth blend of theocratic quasi-authoritarianism combined with populist-inflected rhetoric that’s substantively barren enough to avoid threatening the party’s donor base.

But Hawley has a weakness: He’s not content to simply be an oily demagogue competing for a niche role as Trump successor. As a prep-school kid with degrees from Stanford and Yale, he still craves the respect of elites, and wishes to be seen as a serious intellectual, rather than just a crafty huckster with a nose for hot-button slogans that play on Fox News.

Over the summer, Hawley warned Tucker Carlson that Joe Biden and his entire party are “in thrall” to “the Marxist left.” Monday afternoon he criticized Biden’s nomination of Janet Yellen on the grounds that “the people who he wants to be in his cabinet are all a bunch of corporate liberals and warmongers.”

The Bulwark’s Tim Miller pointed out the undeniable contradiction. Hawley could have ignored the criticism — after all, it’s not like his target audience is going to complain that he attacked the Democrats in two mutually exclusive ways. But Hawley felt compelled to show that he is not just a glib demagogue mouthing slogans, that his talking points have actual meaning:

Let’s discuss.

“Corporate liberal warmongers” is a critique one could make of the Democrats. It is a critique the left has been making of the party for decades. And it’s true Democrats have some support from corporate America, and also support some wars (though in both cases, clearly less so than Republicans).

Being in thrall to Marxists is also a critique one could make of the Democrats, though it stands on much shakier grounds. There are Marxist, or at least somewhat Marxian, radicals who have a toehold in Democratic politics. While they have nothing close to control of the party, they have introduced some extreme concepts into the debate.

But while the first argument is plausible, and the second one could generously be placed on the verge of plausibility, there is absolutely no way you can argue both. Big corporations do not like Marxists who want to discredit and destroy the system. Marxists do not support the use of the American military in most situations.

The most precious line in Hawley’s lecture to Miller is “Let me explain this to you.” As if any fool can see the obvious congruity of his two attacks on Biden. Only the elites can’t spot the obvious. Just ask any regular hardworking Missouri farmer, and he’ll explain that neoliberal corporate warlords are working hand in glove with Marxists to use critical race theory in order to advance Janet Yellen’s candidacy for Treasury secretary.

Hawley is working so hard at populism. But he cannot suppress his urge to condescend.

Josh Hawley’s Populist Shtick Has One Glaring Weakness