Why Josh Hawley Hates Your Freedom

Josh Hawley (R-MO) was the first senator to announce he’d challenge President-elect Joe Biden's victory. He raised his fist in salute to the mob that would soon violently overrun the seat of American democracy. Later that night, with the dust barely settled from a siege that left five dead, Hawley plunged ahead with his plan to sow even more of the doubts about the election that had provoked an insurrection.

But something deeper than ambition and opportunism propelled Hawley’s support for what turned into the worst national insurrection since 1877. Hawley rejects liberalism—not the left, as the word is too often used to describe, but the principles of individual freedom and autonomy at the core of the American experiment. He's not a reality TV host or a shallow politician. He's thought deeply about liberty—and he doesn't like it. 

Hawley’s politics are driven by a social and political philosophy, now known as national conservatism. But unlike recent converts, Hawley developed his ideas long before that term was coined, and long before he joined the Senate in 2019.

Hawley’s brand of national conservatism is a rejection of the animating principle of the Declaration of Independence, the radical proposition that we have a right to the pursuit of happiness, and that what this looks like is individually chosen and protected by America’s constitutional structure. 

Hawley not only rejects the idea that “liberty is all about choosing your own ends,” but sees freedom as a destructive turn away from a purer way of life, constrained by social hierarchies and tradition. Liberty, he says, “is a philosophy of liberation from family and tradition, of escape from God and community, a philosophy of self-creation and unrestricted, unfettered free choice.” He believes liberty has led to a country that is riven by conflict, marked by distasteful cosmopolitanism, and overly welcoming to foreign people and ideas. It is an America too concerned with the outside world when we should focus on promoting a socially conservative working class protected by impenetrable borders.

But Hawley’s antipathy toward liberty runs deeper than his view of the national interest. Your freedom to choose your own happiness “denigrates the common affections and common loves that make our way of life possible.” Hawley employs the phrase “our way of life” narrowly: it’s not found in America’s bustling, multicultural cities, but rather in small towns, traditional families, strong churches, and blue collar work that are the foundation of cultural homogeneity and nationalistic unity. Hawley believes the reason all of America doesn't look like a midwestern small town is because of Hollywood, Big Tech, and foreigners importing their cultures. Thus the proper role of government, which Hawley aspires to direct, is to use social and industrial policy to undo these influences and to impose a “happiness” that isn’t freely chosen.

Since entering the Senate, Hawley’s political project has been to harness Trumpism's infatuation with an imagined “real America” into the service of a more intellectual and effective authoritarian movement.

In this context, his crusade against Facebook, Google, and Twitter isn't just an ambitious man latching onto a trendy right-wing cause. In fact, Hawley was arguably the progenitor of the Big Tech backlash on the right, which he pushed to undermine one of the chief means by which America's classically liberal culture develops and spreads. He’s been the most outspoken senator pushing to place the government in charge of moderating online speech and also introduced legislation that would force Facebook to make its product less appealing—like banning “infinite scrolling”— to save you from your misguided choice to enjoy it.

His aversion to “more immigration, more movement of capital, more trade” is, yes, to prop up American manufacturing and working class jobs—even though such policies harm both. But they’re also ways to curtail cosmopolitanism, to close the country to “foreign” people and ideas that, in Hawley’s philosophy, drive us away from an authentic way of living.

It’s no wonder then that Hawley embraced Trumpism and the white cultural anxiety that motivates it. Hawley sees our dynamic, multiracial cities not just as enemies of the rural, God-fearing way of life, but as claxons warning of America’s cultural and intellectual decline. This is why, when he says things like “We must rebuild a culture that affirms the dignity of the working man and woman, that protects their way of life and honors their central role in the life of this country,” he never means the black working class of our cities, who voted overwhelmingly against the president.

In Trumpism, Hawley saw a power that could be wielded to his philosophical ends. Hawley wants to inherit the mantle of a strongman so he can exercise his will against the “unseemly” preferences of the American majority.

Because Hawley objects to the free decisions of individuals, when they choose in ways he dislikes, he sees nothing wrong with undermining the institutions that protect their freedom. He also had no qualms with lying to conservatives about election fraud; he could channel their skepticism and anger into support of his own power. 

While Hawley didn’t expect his stunt to succeed, it likely wouldn’t have bothered him if the election were, in fact, overturned. Because, as he’s made clear, self-government is “a project bound to a particular place, practiced by citizens loyal to that place and loyal to the way of life they share together.” Because the Americans who voted for Biden weren’t loyal to Hawley’s conception of our shared way of life, their “self-government” and liberty don’t count for much. 

Josh Hawley’s distaste for liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and his contempt for the institutions protecting both, makes him a threat to the American way of life.

Join the conversation

or to participate.