Man in the arena

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As congressional coronavirus relief negotiations headed into a final December stretch, direct stimulus payments to the public looked to be on the cutting room floor. That’s when a mostly unsurprising group spoke up.

New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders both pressed for inclusion of the checks, as did the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Liberal leaders complaining a bill doesn’t spend enough? Dog bites man. But this time, the liberals were reinforced by an unlikely ally: a Republican senator. Missouri’s Josh Hawley demanded the inclusion of stimulus checks, saying he would “ gladly” work with Ocasio-Cortez on the task.

Hawley teamed up with Sanders to sponsor legislation that would provide those checks. While they couldn’t lasso the $1,200 checks they asked for, they did get $600 per adult and dependent child.

“Whenever you strike a bipartisan agreement, or form any coalition that has odd bedfellows, all you really want is to be able to count on a person’s word and trust that when they say they’ll do something or be for something, you can take it to the bank,” Faiz Shakir, an adviser to Sanders who was involved in building a relationship between the two, told me. “Sen. Hawley did exactly that in the fight for direct payments.”

The Missouri senator’s intervention in the relief bill fight may have surprised the many who have come to associate the Republican Party with the laissez-faire economics it has outwardly embraced since the Reagan era. For decades, cutting taxes, spending, and regulations has been party doctrine and prominent attention on inequality an afterthought.

But since being elected to the Senate in 2018, Hawley has worked laboriously to carve out his own populist lane, offering policy that departs from GOP orthodoxy without embracing the Left’s solutions.

Unlike Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats, he doesn’t want the government to run a national health insurance program, but he does want to ban pharmaceutical companies from charging Americans more for the same drugs sold in other industrialized countries. Sanders wants the government to cancel student debt; Hawley wants to hold colleges and universities accountable for helping accrue it, requiring them to pay off at least some of the balance of students who default.

What makes Hawley harder to place on the ideological spectrum is that he isn’t merely less doctrinaire or “more liberal” than other Republicans. When he shares common ground with far-left Democrats, it isn’t because he went looking for it on a quest for moderation for its own sake. It’s because it’s where his principles reside, the same reason he is as far from those same Democrats on other key issues such as policing and abortion. He has drawn support from religious conservatives and secular populists, making him at times both strong-willed to the point of stubbornness and a coalition builder.

Refusing to fit neatly in either side’s tent has earned him scorn from partisans. On the Left, MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan has called Hawley a “ faux populist,” while Jacobin Magazine complained that Hawley isn’t even a “ glimmer of an alternative” to the economic thinking that guides the party establishments. On the Right, George Will complained that Hawley has “ far too much faith in government,” while the powerful conservative-libertarian advocacy group FreedomWorks has charged that he is “ horribly wrong” on economics.

In his existence as a heretic to the established order on both sides of the political aisle, Hawley is in many ways like the subject of the book he wrote in 2008, when he was a clerk for Justice John Roberts. In Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness, Hawley offers not just a biography of America’s 26th president but a sociological examination of the historical and social forces that shaped Roosevelt’s political vision.

Hawley describes Roosevelt as driven by a combination of warrior republicanism and crude racialism, which at times led him to adopt autocratic racial theories and dreams of imperial conquest. “So blinded was Roosevelt by the pseudo-science of racial determinism, he argued that war between settlers and Native Americans was just,” Hawley grimly notes.

But this form of nationalism also eventually spurred Roosevelt to seek a more interventionist state.

Hawley notes that Roosevelt, much as the Republicans of today, viewed left-wing populism with deep suspicion. Democratic-Populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan was, in Roosevelt’s view, a “well-meaning demagogue”; the latter warned that “thrift, industry, and business energy are qualities which are incompatible with true Populistic feeling.”

In sounding those notes, Roosevelt would hardly be out of place with today’s Republican establishment. But, as Hawley documents, even in 1896, he was slowly departing from the orthodoxy of his colleagues. While Roosevelt warned that Bryan and the Populists would destroy “property and civilization,” he also placed blame on “the men of wealth who sacrifice everything to getting wealth.”

After his election as governor of New York, Roosevelt signed new regulations that established an eight-hour day for workers on public contracts and cracked down on sweatshops. The GOP made him William McKinley’s vice presidential running mate in 1900; an anarchist’s assassination of McKinley put Roosevelt in the White House.

At 42 years old, Roosevelt was the youngest president ever to hold the title (and still is today). He found himself presiding over a country with rising concentrations of corporate power. As Hawley writes, “A bare 1 percent of the nation’s companies came to control 42 percent of the country’s total manufacturing output.”

Despite his reputation as a trust-buster, Roosevelt was not naturally opposed to big business. “We do not wish to discourage enterprise. We do not wish to destroy corporations,” he told New York’s legislature in 1900. But he took great interest in the work of investigative journalists who were exposing corporate behavior that included mistreating workers and misleading the public at large.

Unlike the era’s socialists, he didn’t think about corporate regulation as a matter of economics. Hawley quotes Lincoln Steffens, a leading muckraker, as saying that Roosevelt “had no economics.” Roosevelt came to view corporate misbehavior as a moral issue. Americans could not be a righteous people if unsavory businesses dominated their lives.

If anything, he sought to frustrate a possible revolution, Hawley notes, quoting Roosevelt warning that “socialism, and especially its extreme form, communism, and the destruction of individual character which they would bring about, are in part achieved by the wholly unregulated competition which results in a single individual or corporation rising at the expense of all others.”

These beliefs led Roosevelt to preside over a wide range of social reforms, including cracking down on railroad monopolies and enacting food safety regulations. But Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, failed to live up to this legacy. Unable to recapture his party’s nomination in 1912, Roosevelt ran as a third-party Progressive candidate that year. Democrat Woodrow Wilson ended up winning, and the Republican Party retreated to its more classically liberal economic orientation.

In the book’s epilogue, Hawley offers his thoughts on Roosevelt’s lessons for today. There are parts of the former president’s ideology Hawley has no desire to emulate. “His political thought authorized the state to prune and perfect the nation’s racial stock in a program of eugenic breeding and sterilization not entirely dissimilar to that pursued by the German Third Reich,” he writes with disgust.

But he also concludes that Roosevelt “knew two things worth remembering that contemporary Americans have forgotten,” one being that “liberty is a fundamentally social undertaking.” In other words, a simple absence of government and other well-functioning social institutions does not produce free men. Second, politics is a “profoundly moral enterprise.” Here, Hawley concludes that “questions about what economic or social welfare policies we should adopt are really questions about what sort of people we want to become.”

Hawley is, as noted, an outlier in the modern elected GOP. Does that make him a maverick or something Teddy R. wasn’t: a leading indicator?

Many right-wing populists hoped that Donald Trump heralded a remaking of the Grand Old Party into something closer to what it almost became a century ago. But other than a shift to the left on trade issues, the party orthodoxy has held. That said, Trump’s success in the Rust Belt revealed a constituency that could hold the key to electoral success, men and women neglected by both parties before Trump, and perhaps after Trump.

The stimulus fight is instructive in this regard. When Hawley teamed up with Sanders to introduce standalone legislation for $1,200 checks, it was a senator within his own party, Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, who objected and shut him down. Even when Trump called for $2,000 checks, the congressional GOP balked.

Yet one poll commissioned in December found that over 70% of Trump voters wanted checks larger than $600. While Hawley hasn’t won over all his colleagues on the Hill, his populist inclinations are finding fertile ground among the electorate.

Rachel Bovard, a former GOP congressional staffer who today serves as the senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute, is one of the populist Right’s go-to policy and messaging experts in the nation’s capital.

“There have been people waiting in D.C. for this entire experiment to go away,” Bovard told me of the GOP establishment’s response to right-wing populism. She describes a “divergence” between “grassroots Republicans and donor Republicans. The donor Republicans tend very much to be a lot more economically right than the base.” But since the staunchly pro-business side is still largely the donor base, the emphasis is far more likely to be on “deregulation” than, say, “pro-family” economic incentives such as paid leave.

In addition to this pressure from donors, the establishment may also use the opportunity of Joe Biden’s election to snap back to Reaganism, comfortably assailing the Democrats for too much taxation, regulation, and spending.

Bovard worries that working too closely with Democrats could end up marginalizing populists within the Republican Party. “The first thing out of the gate can’t be, Hey, how am I going to work with” Biden? Hawley and his supporters “have to choose their fights very carefully. This is more a political moment for them than a policy moment,” she warned.

At the grassroots level, a younger crop of populists is preparing to fortify its position in the Republican Party. Saurabh Sharma, a Texas-based activist, posted a manifesto on WeWillNotGoBack.org, seeking to build an activist organization to argue for a more populist GOP. Sharma wants to reframe what being an economic conservative means, particularly among younger Republicans.

Despite his often gadfly position in the GOP, there are reasons for Hawley to be optimistic. An early opponent of Big Tech, he must have been smiling when the Federal Trade Commission and 48 state attorneys general recently unveiled a lawsuit against Facebook, looking to break it up in response to monopolistic practices.

Even if right-wing populists do not succeed in taking over the GOP, they are slowly changing the party’s governing calculus. Increasingly, the party is under pressure, not just from the Left but also the Right, to adopt a more aggressive economic and corporate interventionism to champion workers.

The leader of that right-wing populist faction is Hawley. Even if Trump runs again in 2024, he’d be unlikely to get the deference of an incumbent and would thus have competition from the GOP’s emerging would-be leaders seeking to fill the vacuum that appears when a party loses the presidency. Hawley could be a real threat to Trump because he combines the outgoing president’s populism with a full-spectrum conservative worldview, political experience, a perch in the Senate, and relationships with his fellow lawmakers. If Trump doesn’t run, Hawley could make a serious play for inheriting Trump’s populist mantle outright.

Hawley, like Roosevelt, arrives at his political conclusions through moral convictions. A devout Christian, Hawley laid out his vision for how Christians should view government in a little-noticed 2012 blog post. He reminded readers that Mosaic law in the Israel of the Old Testament “specifically provided for the poor, the weak and the marginalized” by forbidding usurious loans and offering support to “widows, orphans, and the destitute.”

It’s unlikely that Mitch McConnell will tap Hawley to write party leadership’s policies. But he will continue to be heard loud and clear, reminding the GOP that sometimes, it’s more important to be attentive to the prophets of old than the profits of their corporate donors.

Zaid Jilani is a freelance journalist.

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