Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., is a young man in a big hurry, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Abraham Lincoln’s law partner and biographer William Herndon said of the 16th president, “His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.” Winston Churchill sighed to his mother, after an early setback, “I do not believe that the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.” One close observer of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins, marveled to another, Frances Perkins: “There’s something that he’s got. It seems unreasonable at times, but he falls back on something that gives him complete assurance that everything is going to be all right.” The engine of ambition, the inflated sense of self, the extreme confidence — these can be ingredients of political success, and sometimes even greatness.
The piece often missing in bright young things, however, is strategic patience. Hawley (at 41 the youngest U.S. senator) could have used some when he made the rash mistake of stepping forward to carry the Trump banner into the ceremonial tally of electoral college votes on Wednesday. It’s unclear whether he will pay a cost for the error, but he certainly has nothing to gain from it. And when you are part of a new generation of politicians all scrambling up the same pole, it is important to choose spotlight moments that offer some upside.
Hawley believes that there exists in America a “Trump vote” somehow distinct from President Donald Trump himself. But Trumpism is not a philosophical torch that can be passed from one runner to the next; Trumpism is nothing more or less than the star power of Trump. The senator compounds that mistake by failing to see that Trump’s star draws much of its power from the humiliation of people exactly like Josh Hawley.
Trump’s political brand was built on the serial destruction of ambitious men and women with distinguished résumés, flattering suits and neat haircuts. Perhaps you remember (Hawley may be too young) “Low-energy” Jeb Bush, “L’il” Marco Rubio, “Lyin’ ” Ted Cruz. In office, Trump has remained relentlessly on-brand. He belittled military leaders by calling them “my generals.” He destroyed Cabinet members too numerous to list. No one survives Trump; they are either made ridiculously servile to him — a la Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — or they are defenestrated, such as former attorney general Jeff Sessions, who surely rues the day he stepped forward as a senator to give candidate Trump his first major endorsement.
Hawley may think that he’s impressing the Trump voters. But all he is doing is entertaining them; they are delighted to see Trump’s power over another hotshot product of America’s elite credentials factory and whatever delicious debasement Trump has in store for his next victim.
If he is smart — and, by all conventional measures, he is — Hawley may have recognized his mistake the moment Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, swept in with a covey of minor colleagues to join him at the ramparts. Cruz is Hawley 1.0, nine years older and obsolete. They are both talented constitutional lawyers (meaning they ought to know better); they both clerked for a Supreme Court chief justice; they both did some advocacy in the appellate courts on their way to elected office; they both excelled at irritating their colleagues as rookies on Capitol Hill.
The ambitious Texan has been trying to find traction with Trump voters ever since his 2016 humiliation, when Trump slurred Cruz’s father, made fun of Cruz’s wife and falsely accused Cruz of stealing the Iowa caucuses. Yet Cruz is nothing to those voters but another simpering pledge who grits his teeth into a fake smile and says to Trump: “Thank you, sir — may I have another?”
Hawley has the worst of all worlds. He’s on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the facts, the dangerous side of Trump and the losing side of the issue. And he’s not even standing bravely alone. He’s surrounded by the GOP’s Apple Dumpling Gang.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is another young man in a big hurry — but not so fast that he didn’t wait, strategically, to see how this drama would take shape. The conservative darling watched as Hawley dashed off the cliff and Cruz & Co. went chasing after him. Then Cotton issued a principled statement concerning the constitutional authority of individual states to conduct their own elections. Cotton has kept a safe distance between himself and the squawking lame duck.
There is only one star of the Trump Show. Trump is poison to any ambitions but his own. Unless Josh Hawley wants to be the star’s next foil, he’d better start being more cautious.
David Von Drehle is the author “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year” and “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.”