Joshua David Hawley would like you to know he is very smart. The senator from Missouri is determined to be the next Republican president of the United States, and a huge part of the argument he is making for himself is that he is more mentally agile than the Republicans who have led the party since a similarly intelligent and similarly conniving Richard Nixon was ushered out of the Oval Office in 1974. Hawley’s official biography does not merely note that he is a graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School; it brags, “Senator Hawley is recognized as one of the nation’s leading constitutional lawyers.” His campaign team—and Hawley is always campaigning—has, since he jumped on the political fast track in 2016, portrayed the youngest member of the Senate as a conservative intellectual who co-authored a book about Teddy Roosevelt, discourses on fourth century theologian Pelagius, and regularly outwits liberal agendas with daring legal and legislative strategies.
There is no question that Hawley is a brighter light in the GOP firmament than dim bulbs such as Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, the Ayn Rand–worshiping conspiracy theorist who can always be counted on to play the fool for President Trump.
However, when it comes to the 2020 election, Hawley has positioned himself as a more articulate, and ambitious, version of Johnson. In hopes of securing Trump’s favor—and that of the rally-going loyalists who will decide which Republican ultimately takes up the mantle from the 45th president—the all-but-declared 2024 (or, perhaps, 2028) presidential candidate is applying a tortured veneer of constitutional and historical references to the conspiratorial nonsense that Trump’s most dimwitted allies have been peddling in an attempt to discredit President-elect Joe Biden’s clear victory.
Rejecting facts and logic, Hawley has been amplifying the president’s complaints about “voter fraud” and a supposedly “rigged” election since the polls closed on November 3. He describes the process that gave the presidency to Biden as “a debacle”—despite the fact that Chris Krebs, the lifelong Republican who oversaw election security at Trump’s behest, has dispelled complaints about manipulation and declared, “The 2020 election was the most secure in U.S. history. This success should be celebrated by all Americans, not undermined in the service of a profoundly un-American goal.”
On December 30, Hawley took things to extremes with an announcement that:
I cannot vote to certify the electoral college results on January 6 without raising the fact that some states, particularly Pennsylvania, failed to follow their own state election laws. And I cannot vote to certify without pointing out the unprecedented effort of mega corporations, including Facebook and Twitter, to interfere in this election, in support of Joe Biden. At the very least, Congress should investigate allegations of voter fraud and adopt measures to secure the integrity of our elections. But Congress has so far failed to act.
Hawley’s carefully timed declaration drew precisely the “Thanks, Josh!” praise he was seeking from Trump—who had been struggling to get a Republican senator to join House Republicans in objecting. Under the arcane rules for accepting Electoral College votes from the states, at least one member of the House and one senator must challenge the results in order to force the two chambers to debate and then vote on whether to respect the will of the people.
When Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell sought to head off the pointless exercise—creating a rift with Trump that led to a flurry of holiday vetoes and threats—the president was in a tough spot. In his search for an objector, he was reduced to pleading with the Senate Republican Caucus’s weakest links, such as Johnson and newly elected Alabama Republican Tommy Tuberville.
Then, suddenly, Trump got a boost from the party’s savviest rising star. When that happened, the floodgates opened: Texas Senator Ted Cruz (another presidential prospect) and 10 more Trump-aligned senators announced that they would join Hawley in objecting to the certification of Biden’s victory on the basis of their (false) claims that the 2020 election “featured unprecedented allegations of voter fraud, violations and lax enforcement of election law, and other voting irregularities.” The senators will join a majority of House Republicans, and street protesters urged on by Trump, in making Wednesday one of the darker days in the tortured history of American democracy. Vice President Mike Pence has signaled that he will, as president of the Senate, facilitate the charade.
Ultimately, Biden will be sworn in as president on January 20. He’s won the post by more than 7 million ballots and with a higher percentage of the popular vote than any challenger to a sitting president since Franklin Roosevelt beat Herbert Hoover in 1932. Biden’s Electoral College win has been vetted by the courts and by the states, and it will be certified by majorities in the Democratic-led House and the Republican-led Senate—where GOP stalwarts such as Utah’s Mitt Romney and Nebraska’s Ben Sasse have signaled they will side with the Democrats.
So why is someone as smart, and as self-conscious, as Hawley fighting a losing battle? The answer has everything to do with the cynical calculus of a 41-year-old politician whose ambition trumps any sense of duty to his party or to his country. Hawley, like most of the other prominent Republicans who are siding with Trump in this crude attack on both democracy and common sense, recognizes that the Republican Party is beyond redemption. It is not going to become a more credible, more honorable, or more intellectually honest institution. Trump has remade the Grand Old Party in his own image, and it will serve him until he relinquishes control.
What that means is that, if Trump chooses to run in 2024, he will very likely be the GOP nominee. To think otherwise is to engage in the same wishful thinking that “Never Trump” fabulists have embraced since 2015. But when Trump finally does hand off the nomination to another Republican, be it in 2024 or 2028, Hawley will be waiting.