Senator Josh Hawley in a black and white photo.
Erin Schaff / The New York Times / Redux

The Knives Come Out for Josh Hawley

The elite conservative world saw the Missouri senator as America’s next great statesman. Instead, he’s revealed uncomfortable truths about the movement.

Since Josh Hawley was a young man, powerful people have told him he was special. His teachers gave him the “Special R” award, just one feather in the Rockhurst High School valedictorian’s cap of outstandingness. Hawley’s mentor at Stanford, David Kennedy, took a shine to him just weeks into his freshman year, and came to see him as possibly the most gifted student he ever taught. At Yale Law, the dean, Harold Koh, took care to seat the young banker’s son from Missouri beside the state’s former senator John Danforth when Danforth visited. Hawley was working on a book about Theodore Roosevelt; he was fascinated by Alexis de Tocqueville’s idea that American democracy depends on regular people in local communities. It wouldn’t have been polite for Hawley to admit to ambitions such as becoming senator or president. But the glimmer of potential lingered in the air. Here, Danforth thought, is somebody who is really special.

Hawley impressed Chief Justice John Roberts, who favored polished clerks over rabid ideologues. Hawley skipped the kingmaker’s queue in Missouri politics, helped along in his 2016 race for attorney general by conservative power players he knew from his days as a D.C. religious-liberty litigator. He launched a campaign for a U.S. Senate seat nine months after winning the AG job, urged on by Danforth and a coterie of big donors the elder senator had recruited. To all of these people, Hawley represented an opportunity: to promote homegrown talent of the conservative legal movement, to elevate a statesman in the era of Trump, even to shape what conservatism should mean.

Hawley’s combination of conservative politics, news-anchor gravitas, apparent ambition, and Ivy League success made him a target of liberal hatred from the moment he arrived in the Senate. But lately, all that Hawley specialness has attracted a special kind of rage from his former allies in the conservative world, too. On January 6, a violent mob stormed the Capitol to stop the certification of Electoral College votes. Five people died, including a Capitol Police officer, Brian Sicknick. When news outlets around the world wrote the story of the riot, many illustrated it with a photo of Hawley, raising his fist to a crowd of then-peaceful protesters.

The Missouri senator became the avatar of the congressional insurrection, the one lawmakers started before the mob showed up. Conservatives and liberals alike blamed Hawley for encouraging the Capitol attackers by questioning the legitimacy of the election. Sure, seven other senators, including Alabama’s Tommy Tuberville and Kansas’s Roger Marshall, also challenged the results, as did 139 members of the House of Representatives. But Tuberville was schooled by Nick Saban, not John Roberts—the former Auburn coach wasn’t marked for political greatness. It didn’t even matter much that Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who has a similarly elite résumé, stuck it out with Hawley and disputed Arizona’s Electoral College results. “Ted is now just that annoying fly in the room—okay, we’ll swat it eventually,” a Republican campaign operative told me. “Josh is seen as so much worse.”

How did Hawley become the most hated man in Washington? Sometimes, ideological allies turn on one another because they don’t want to admit their collective sins, and they need somebody to blame.

Hawley arrived in Washington in 2019 with a claim to glory. He had defeated a Democratic incumbent, Claire McCaskill; flipped a Senate seat in a terrible election year for Republicans; and done it all before his 40th birthday. But glory doesn’t last long when you’re a junior senator. So Hawley perfected the ultimate Washington attention play: defying GOP orthodoxy.

He started by holding up Donald Trump’s nomination of Neomi Rao, an all but custom-made pick for an influential seat on the D.C. Circuit, citing worries that she supported abortion rights. Like Hawley, Rao came from the world of the Federalist Society, a network of conservative legal talent whose leaders have influenced Republican judicial nominations for decades. Prominent members of the conservative legal community, including many members of the Federalist Society, had recently helped raise millions for Hawley’s Missouri campaigns. It was a double win for Hawley. He established his conservative credibility and declared himself a judicial gatekeeper.

This became a pattern. Each time Hawley took a stand, he didn’t just earn headlines and attention—he rebelled against one of his mentors. When Roberts voted to overturn Louisiana abortion restrictions this summer, Hawley complained on Twitter. When another Supreme Court decision significantly expanded LGBTQ rights, Hawley launched a thinly veiled attack on the Federalist Society, arguing that religious conservatives had gotten screwed. Hawley even teamed up with some of Congress’s most dreaded socialists to commit heresies. He backed antitrust enforcement. He argued against free trade with China. He urged the government to subsidize workers’ wages. In December, he stood outside the Senate chambers with Bernie Sanders, conservative enemy No. 1, and told reporters that Congress needed to approve another round of $1,200 stimulus checks.

For some of Hawley’s onetime allies, these transgressions alone were enough to raise their ire. I asked David McIntosh, a co-founder of the Federalist Society and the president of the Club for Growth, Washington’s most hard-core enforcer of free-market orthodoxy, what he thought of Hawley’s decision to object to the certification of the Electoral College results. “You can come down either way on that,” he said. What was truly unforgivable is that the organization spent $3.1 million on Hawley’s 2018 Senate race, and he’s not the guy the group’s leaders thought they were electing. “We’ve at this point concluded he’s no longer the type of free-market, limited-government candidate that the Club would want to support,” McIntosh told me. He sees Hawley’s Electoral College intervention and his turn toward populist economics as outgrowths of the same “misdirected ambition.”

Despite those betrayals, Hawley remained, until the Capitol riot, part of the elite conservative guild. Even those who found his cowboy-style escapades grating believed that he was an outstanding lawyer who revered the Constitution and the rule of law. While Trump was in office, much of the conservative legal movement had been willing to tolerate the president’s contempt for the rule of law. But after he lost to Biden, the elite conservative world reached an unspoken consensus: Undermining the election results was the line not to be crossed. Even Bill Barr, Trump’s once doggedly loyal attorney general, filmed an interview where he all but said that Trump’s actions had “precipitated the riots on the Hill.”

Hawley, however, calculated that his duty was to reflect a GOP base that believes in Trump. “I have heard from people like I’ve never heard before,” he said on Fox News. “They have major, major concerns about the integrity, the fairness of this election. And they expect me to stand up and to raise those concerns.” Just before the new year, he announced that he would call on Congress to “launch a full investigation of potential fraud and election irregularities and enact election integrity measures.” The move was classic Hawley. He upstaged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had been imploring senators for weeks to stay away from Electoral College objections. He set up a hypocrisy trap, citing Democrats’ past attempts to challenge elections, including in 2016, and daring reporters to call this time different. Most telling, he acted alone, rather than joining nearly a dozen other Republican senators who announced a similar effort roughly 72 hours later. Hawley focused on the narrow legal question of whether Pennsylvania’s mail-in ballots had violated the state’s constitution. But his larger goal was clear. The Republican Party’s base believed the election had been stolen. And on January 6, he was going to be their voice in the Capitol.

Hawley’s calls for an investigation created an awkward situation for some of his allies. Conservative elites had rolled their eyes when bombastic House members such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Louie Gohmert promoted conspiracy theories and leaned into the hashtag #StoptheSteal. “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?” one anonymous Republican official told The Washington Post, referring to Trump. But when Hawley added his credibility to the false idea that the election had been stolen, that meant serious lawyers and people like McConnell suddenly had to formulate real arguments as to why #StoptheSteal wasn’t just goofy, but wrong.

January 6 did not go as Hawley had planned. Senator James Lankford was in the middle of a decorous speech questioning 2020 voting practices when the mob broke in, moving toward the Senate chamber. Hawley’s staff was shocked—his communications director was alone near the Senate floor when people started running and yelling. For hours, senators hid as their would-be attackers milled among their desks wearing red caps and carrying Trump flags.

Hawley did not call for or expect the violence. If you squint, it’s even possible to see a principled stand in what he was doing. Like many people, Hawley seems to believe it’s a bad thing that so many Americans distrust the electoral process, and he argued that it was better to debate those misgivings than ignore them. His objection was not grounded in an allegation of fraud, but a lawyerly theory about constitutional power; he found a plausible, if not very persuasive, way to question how mail-in voting had been conducted, as opposed to repeating the Trump team’s unhinged claims. But when the mob invades your debate society, it’s time to gavel the discussion to a close.

The violence was an invitation to humility that Hawley declined. After the senators had returned to their chamber and it was time for him to speak, Hawley thanked law enforcement and denounced the day’s violence, then plowed ahead with his arguments about Pennsylvania’s constitution. He ended up objecting to certifying the results in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

Condemnation was swift and nearly universal. Predictably, Democrats were quick to call for Hawley’s resignation—one Democratic representative suggested that he should be added to the terrorist no-fly list, and Biden compared him to Joseph Goebbels. Loews Hotels canceled a Hawley fundraiser. McConnell slapped him down on the floor of the Senate. In Missouri, the disavowals were even more brutal. Danforth wrote an email to another wealthy Hawley supporter, Sam Fox, to apologize for having recruited him to Hawley’s cause. “Everybody makes mistakes,” Fox replied.

People in Hawley’s elite conservative legal world were the most aggrieved. They couldn’t believe he would aid Trump’s bizarre attempt to overturn the election. “The Federalist Society must take a stand to remove anyone from leadership and to take away the legitimacy of our public forums to anyone who participated in this attack on the rule of law and our Constitution. If we cannot take that stand, then what have we been fighting for all of these years?” wrote Jeremy Rosen, a Federalist Society member and failed Trump judicial nominee, in an email to the organization’s top leaders. Oren Cass, a conservative policy wonk who has tried to develop a theory of populist economics that conservatives can champion post-Trump, wrote that Hawley’s and Cruz’s Electoral College objections were “obnoxious and self-serving, undermined vital norms, and played with a fire that in fact raged out of control.” But he still extended a hand to his ideological ally, arguing that if Hawley apologizes, he should be welcomed back into the intellectual fold. Hawley’s staff rejected Cass’s counsel. Several people in Hawley’s office publicly disaffiliated themselves from Cass’s project, the American Compass.

In another world, perhaps a different Hawley would be the person conservative leaders chose as their rising star: Josh’s wife, Erin. She, too, came to Washington full of promise; she and her husband met during their shared term as Roberts clerks. Their résumés are almost identical, and their connections are equally impressive; she has worked closely with Paul Clement, the nearest thing conservative Washington has to a celebrity lawyer. But when a dozen or so activists showed up with bullhorns and homemade posters at the Hawleys’ home in Virginia, shouting that the senator doesn’t “give a rat’s ass about the American people,” Erin was home with Abigail, the couple’s newborn, and her husband was traveling, as the demands of his work require. In a video the protesters made, Erin peers through a window near their front door, past bushes covered in Christmas lights, then steps out and politely asks the agitators to leave. The thought of their family taking on a Senate run had “made me sick to my stomach. Literally,” she wrote in her recent book about the spirituality of motherhood. Instead of leaning into the chaos, Erin prayed that the Lord would somehow turn all of the attention into something good for her two small boys. But these days in Washington are made for brawlers—“antifa scumbags,” Josh Hawley called the protesters. His instinct to run toward conflict is one reason he inspires presidential jitters in all who meet him. It’s why he’s at the center of the Electoral College drama. And despite the backlash, that instinct may end up boosting his political career.

The past few weeks have only strengthened Hawley’s appeal to some admirers—and financial backers. “The junior senator from Missouri’s decision to object to the election results showed tremendous courage,” read an email from the Senate Conservatives Fund, a PAC created by the former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, sent just one week after the attack on the Capitol. “Conservatives should stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him in defending our cherished values.”

“He did the hard thing that conservatives were asking him to do,” Rachel Bovard, the senior director of policy at the Conservative Partnership Institute, another DeMint shop, told me. “Everyone makes this about [Hawley’s] own self-interest—and maybe [it is], I don’t know. But at the end of the day, this is what the grassroots wanted. And he stood up, and he did it, and they won’t forget that.”

Americans believe the election was stolen in part because that’s what their leaders told them. For all the time that he’s spent arguing over his right to air concerns, Hawley has generally avoided publicly acknowledging that Biden is the legitimately elected president of this country. (A spokesperson told me that he does believe Biden won.) But it’s also possible to see Hawley’s challenge to the 2020 election results as an act of representation, a truer reflection of Trump’s conservative movement than any speech about norms. Perhaps this is why his former allies are so mad. By lending his voice to the conspiracist base, Hawley exposed the lie that sustains the elite conservative world: that those with the right training and pedigree are inherently trustworthy stewards of the rule of law.

Hawley’s former allies have turned on him because he represents truths they do not wish to see. Most conservative voters like Trump-style politics. Many think the election was stolen. The GOP electorate is becoming more working-class and ever so slightly more racially diverse, and populist economics may appeal to these voters more than free-market orthodoxy. Hawley had once offered a redemptive fantasy to a certain kind of conservative—all the benefits of Trump with the polish of a statesman. He was supposed to save elite conservatism from Trump’s crass embrace of conspiracism, trade skepticism, and thuggish assaults on the rule of law, not mimic it. Trump 2.0 is not what Hawley’s backers thought all that specialness was for.

In the days since the attack on the Capitol, Danforth has been performing public penance. “‘Disappointed’ would be an understatement. I feel responsible,” he told me. The former senator did not seem to hate Hawley so much as grieve what he has become. “I feel that he had so much to offer. He could have been a terrific senator, and a terrific leader. Maybe presidential, who knows?” he said. Hawley had potential, intellect, and ability—a conservative version of Pat Moynihan, Danforth likes to say. “But instead of being positive and constructive, he turned out to be destructive.”

Just a few months after he became a senator, Hawley wrote a searching essay about the theologian Pelagius, a fourth-century ascetic who preached about individual achievement, our inherent perfection, and the virtue of choosing our own way. Hawley delivered the essay as a commencement speech at the King’s College, an evangelical liberal-arts school in New York City. Of all the things he could have spoken to a crowd of young, talented Christians about, he chose Pelagius’s arrogance: “It is not the privileged but the common man or woman, not the elite but the everyday person, who moves the destinies of the world,” he told the graduates. The theologian misunderstood human nature, Hawley argued: “We are fragile. We are fallible. We suffer weakness and need. And we all stand in need of God’s grace.” By forgetting their obligations to their communities, Hawley suggested, even the most accomplished individuals can lose their way.