It’s performative because while it’s vivid and dramatic, it has almost no policy content. Hawley doesn’t actually want to do much of anything that might hurt the interests of the wealthy and boost the fortunes of ordinary people; what he wants instead is to encourage seething resentment of the “elite” that he can ride to greater political fortune, a new culture war for the post-Trump era.
Consider this recent Twitter exchange:
Hawley knows perfectly well how nonsensical and incoherent it is to claim that his opponents are simultaneously corporate tools and radical Marxists. But that incoherence is a feature, not a bug.
This is a standard refrain from Hawley, that any Democrat he wants to criticize is a “condescending corporate liberal” looking down their nose at reg’lar folks while they do the bidding of big business (the “sneering” he references in this tweet is the key). As he said in a 2019 speech full of laughable distortions of history (the Framers, he claimed, “built a new republic governed not by a select elite, as in the days of old, but by the common man and woman”), the “cosmopolitan elite” that runs things leaves Americans feeling “unheard, disempowered and disrespected.”
And the mention of “critical race theory” — which approximately one in a thousand Americans actually understands — is another tell. It’s a way of saying that those elitist White liberals don’t care about you because they’re too busy caring about Black people.
This is what political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson call “plutocratic populism,” a stylistic anti-elitism that wins popular support for an agenda that serves only the wealthy and corporations. Nearly every prominent Republican demonstrates it in one way or another, but Hawley offers us one of its clearest incarnations.
Hawley himself is as elite as they come. The son of a banker, he attended prep school before Stanford and Yale Law, where his term as president of the school’s Federalist Society chapter no doubt helped propel him all the way to a Supreme Court clerkship with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. His escalator to the top required no bootstrap-pulling.
Yet posing as a down-home populist has been one of the keys to Hawley’s rise. One example: During his 2018 run for Senate, he faced a serious liability in the lawsuit that he and other Republican attorneys general filed to nullify the Affordable Care Act, which would have yanked protections for preexisting conditions away from all Americans. So he aired an ad claiming to be the guardian of those protections for families like his own: “We’ve got two perfect little boys. Just ask their momma.”
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with politicians who come from wealth promoting the interests of the downtrodden; we have a long history of such figures, most notably Franklin Roosevelt. But the plutocratic populists like Hawley offer regular people only the spiritual succor of outrage: I may be working to increase inequality in America, but elect me because I hate the people you hate.
This is the shared strategy of Hawley and Trump: They’re both products of the American elite riding forth on anti-elite resentment. The difference is that Trump was driven by a sincere envy of the elite and a desperate desire to be accepted by them. He was always the kid from Queens whose (largely inherited) money couldn’t buy him a welcome into Manhattan society; no matter how many buildings he bought or how many times he was mentioned on Page Six, the old-money swells wouldn’t consider him one of their own, which caused him no end of whiny bitterness.
But Hawley is too smart to put himself in the story of grievance he tells; without a force of personality anything like Trump’s, he can only be a vehicle for others’ resentment. He’ll claim to be an enemy of corporations, rail against nonexistent “religious bigotry” and tell the Republican base over and over: You’re the victims. Get mad.
In this effort — indeed, in today’s GOP as a whole — dishonesty, hypocrisy and self-contradiction aren’t sins, they’re virtues, so long as they’re deployed to irritate the libs. Hawley understands as well as anyone that his is a party of trolls, particularly the activist base that will be so important in determining who gets the 2024 nomination; no quality is held in higher esteem among them than the ability to make the left angry.
And in that, Hawley is well on his way. The liberals who pay enough attention to politics to be familiar with him already consider him utterly loathsome.
It may be partly because they understand that while he isn’t exactly a dynamo on the stump, he could have some real appeal to Republicans, particularly when compared with some of the duds lining up to run in 2024, black holes of charisma such as Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Hawley is every bit as phony as any of them, but he’s much less likely to make voters recoil. Which makes him all the more dangerous.