Josh Hawley’s lifelong quest to the presidency was initially supposed to run through elite channels of conventional Republican advancement. During the last four years, the plan suddenly changed, and Hawley fashioned himself a Trumpian populist railing against his own class. Now the blueprint has changed once again. Hawley is casting himself as a dissident, a modern Mandela or Solzhenitsyn.
His manifesto has somehow been smuggled past the censors and published on the front page of the New York Post. Its headline decries “the muzzling of America,” presenting Hawley himself as the most prominent victim of a scourge threatening every American man, woman, and child.
Hawley’s tale of his banishment is relatively spare. Until recently, he was an ordinary citizen. Then one day he affronted the powers that be by venturing an innocent view:
On behalf of the voters of my state, I raised a challenge to the presidential electors from Pennsylvania after that state conducted the election in violation of the state constitution.
His only offense was supporting an authoritarian president’s attempt to cancel a presidential election, and then reportedly goading a violent mob as it ransacked the Capitol seeking to kidnap or execute legislators who supported the election results.
For this crime, he was banished from polite society (though not, luckily enough, from his position in the United States Senate). Here, in its entirety, is Hawley’s account of the retribution he has suffered:
In my case, it started with leftist politicians demanding I resign from office for representing the views of my constituents and leading a democratic debate on the floor of the Senate.
Taking that cue, a corporate publishing house then canceled a book it had asked me to write. Ironically enough, the book is about political censorship by the most powerful corporations in America. (And will be published by an independent publishing house.) Now corporate America is cancelling my political events, because two parties are apparently one too many for their taste.
The punishments, in sum, consist of the following: His political opponents urged him to resign; some of his donors stopped giving him money; and Simon & Schuster canceled his book deal, forcing him to go to Regnery, a publisher of conservative books. Hawley attempts to weave these affronts into some kind of comprehensive network of social control.
Exactly what principles are at stake here? Certainly not the First Amendment. The constitutional protection of freedom of speech is strong but limited to acts of government. The government can’t stop your book, but a book publisher can certainly refuse to print it. The principle of freedom of association protects publishers and other private institutions from being compelled to promote views they find odious.
Now, asserting that the First Amendment merely applies to official state powers does not fully settle the matter. The norm of free speech has broader applications. Many institutions have free-speech norms, applying the same principle (that disagreement within reasonable parameters is needed to challenge orthodoxies) that inspired the First Amendment.
Exactly how we should apply this norm outside the context of government censorship is difficult to define. I’ve made the case repeatedly that many newspapers, universities, clubs, and organizations with a progressive bent have wrongly applied hair-trigger standards of offense in a way that risks turning them into airless chambers of ideological conformity.
You’d think Hawley’s elite legal training might have prepared him to grapple with the dilemmas of how to apply the free-speech norms to his own situation. And yet, even allowing for the simplifications required by the medium, his argument is a howling void of ignorance. It evinces no awareness that there is even such a thing as freedom of association, or that such a principle might protect the actions of his antagonists.
Hawley seems to believe corporate donors are repressing him by refusing to give him money, as if any free-speech principle compels a business owner to hand his money to a politician even after the politician does something odious. He likewise treats his canceled book deal as a form of censorship.
Hawley isn’t wrong to see it as a rebuke. Simon & Schuster is a prestigious mainstream imprint. Regnery churns out right-wing doggerel by the metric ton. The humiliation Hawley must feel to join a list featuring the likes of Dinesh D’Souza, Diamond and Silk, and David Limbaugh (the less talented brother of the notorious talk-radio demagogue) is surely very sincere. But he has failed to articulate any principle that Simon & Schuster has violated by deciding not to promote the views of an insurrectionist.
And his claim that he is being repressed because left-wingers called on him to resign is nothing short of parody. Does Hawley even understand what debate is? He seems to treat any impediments to his career advancement as a form of repression. Hawley likens the reactions against him to the political atmosphere in “Communist China, where government and big business monitor every citizen’s social views and statements.” I am pretty sure that Communist China does not have dissidents in a legislature, disseminating their views in newspapers and books.
The most comic touch may be Hawley’s attempt to connect his own travails to that of his audience. Today the man on the cross may be him, but tomorrow it may be you losing a lucrative source of campaign funds or being forced to accept the indignity of a Regnery book contract. The very thought must send a tremor of fear down the spines of the Post’s readers. What cheesy publishing outlets will they be consigned to if they abet the violent overthrow of the government?