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Teddy Roosevelt and Josh Hawley's History Lessons

Senator Josh Hawley knew he would be entering history when he catapulted himself into national prominence by declaring he would challenge the January 6 certification of Biden electors, transforming a pro forma event into an attempted coup. He is, after all, a historian, having written a serious biography of our 26th President: Teddy Roosevelt, Preacher of Righteousness.

Perhaps he even had TR in mind, imagining himself emulating the strategic insight and bold action that had propelled the 26th president onto the national stage in 1898. Then, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt had encouraged war with Spain, and when war commenced, resigned, formed the Rough Riders, then led the charge up San Juan Hill that made him a national hero and prospective President.

Whatever Hawley had gleaned from that episode, it was clear on January 6 that he was no TR.  As Congress began the debate Hawley had demanded, President Trump dispatched his rally crowd to storm the Capitol. That afternoon, a Kansas City Star editorial headline offered an early glimpse of history’s verdict on the state’s junior Senator: “Assault on Democracy: Sen. Josh Hawley has blood on his hands in Capitol coup attempt.” In the Washington Post that same day, George Will proposed that from that day forward, Hawley, along with Trump and Cruz, “will each wear the scarlet ‘S’ of a seditionist.”

That yawning gap between TR’s and Hawley’s bold leaps into fame raises a question: Had Hawley learned nothing from his extended contemplation of the 26th President?  How could someone drawn to study a President who loved our democracy decide to attack it? And how—having written about TR’s crusades against corruption and hatred of liars—did Hawley become a slavish devotee of Donald Trump?  The book’s epilogue (available on the book’s Amazon webpage) is a detailed appraisal of TR’s beliefs and legacy, and it reveals an almost schizophrenic gap between the professed values of the author and the treacherous actions of the Senator.  It is worth considering the light it sheds on Hawley’s entry into American history.

It turns out that Hawley’s words of praise for Roosevelt, published in 2008, today read like calls to action against Trump, and that Hawley’s sharp criticisms of TR now sound like damning attacks on the current President. Here are a few examples of that confusing picture, which prompt a further effort to unlock the Senator’s current motives.

Hawley begins with lavish praise for TR, as a man who stirred his countrymen “with his calls to focus anew on the meaning and practice of democratic liberty.” He credits Roosevelt with pondering “afresh the moral and intellectual requirements of democratic citizenship; to ask after the best institutional arrangements to sustain free life…”  In those words, one can almost hear TR calling out from the grave to condemn our current President’s attack on those very institutional arrangements.  As for Hawley’s leadership of the January 6th assault on “the meaning and practice of democratic liberty,” the author’s words all but amount to a confession of the Senator’s own guilt.

The book’s epilogue then turns to sharp criticism of TR.  Here, Hawley goes beyond a predictable conservative critique of Roosevelt’s progressive economic policies, and aims at two aspects of TR’s character: his racism and his obsession with power. It is reassuring to read author Hawley’s forceful denunciation of Roosevelt’s white nationalism, until one remembers that Senator Hawley condones Trump’s resurrection of racist presidential rhetoric—six decades after the civil rights movement had made denunciation of such views a minimal standard of decency. But it is Hawley’s critique of TR’s alleged obsession with power that best illuminates the schizophrenic gap between the author and the Senator.

A relatively minor example is the disconnect between author Hawley’s condemnation of Roosevelt’s tendency “to treat the most powerful as the most virtuous,” and Senator Hawley’s silence on Trump’s attraction to murderous despots like Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman, and Kim Jung Un. But it is Hawley’s attack on TR’s own love of power that is most striking in this regard: “By locating the source of human purpose in human volition or will, Roosevelt ominously suggested that there is no ethical structure or moral law imbedded in the universe, discernible through well-formed reason and reflection. His life philosophy thus provided no internal restraint on the exercise of the will, and no guide for the proper use of power.”  How can Senator Hawley fail to detect that same dangerous defect in Trump? That blindness appears even more striking when one notes Hawley’s important caveat to his charge against TR’s elevation of power over ethics, as he praises TR’s insistence that “one should fight honorably, and slow fairness and even compassion in life’s battle.” If the author somehow regained control over the mind of the Senator, Hawley would be raging against a President whose will to power knows no such limits.

Since Hawley appears to have renounced all of the values underlying both his praise and his condemnations of TR, one is left to wonder what drives him now. From portions of the epilogue, along with a more recent article, one might detect signs of an internal struggle, in which loyalty to the actual American democracy, whose secular and progressive tendencies appall him, succumbed to his vision of a more righteous democracy marked by Hawley’s brand of cultural conservatism, in which any Democratic presidential candidate would be doomed to defeat.  

In that vein, Hawley maintains that TR’s progressive nationalism, once shorn of that President’s insistence on Christian virtues, set the stage for America’s descent into a “banal project of economic management.” In a 2019 publication (in Christianity Today) that similarly reflects that dark view, Hawley condemns a wealthy elite that has deprived “the great middle of America” of their “God-given ability to govern themselves.” There is a Steve Bannon-like quality to this aspect of author Hawley: a confused effort to fuse working class aspirations, Christian conservatism, and a need, as Bannon depicts it, to “deconstruct the administrative state.” But it is hard to decipher what drove Hawley to cross the line from hoping that a majority would embrace his view, to a willingness to disenfranchise the actual majority that rejects it. Readers can judge Hawley’s personal ideology for themselves, but it remains the case that the author’s clear judgments of TR read like ringing rejections of the Senator’s effort to overturn a presidential election.

What is there left to find, as one seeks to understand a despicable act by a man who knew better?  What, in the end, made Teddy Roosevelt the man Hawley most wanted to learn about?  Here, and despite the chasm between organizing a cavalry to charge up San Juan Hill and instigating a mob to charge up the Capitol steps, it isn’t hard to imagine Hawley believing that he somehow embodies the spirit of that brilliant, heroic man of destiny. 

In that inflated self-conception, Hawley would have regarded himself as armed by a sense of profound, unique insight into an unfolding national crisis, with January 6, 2021 looming as the put up or shut up day for a Senator to take a truly bold stance, and acutely aware of TR’s conviction that “nine-tenths of wisdom is being is being wise in time.” Following this line of speculation, one can even picture Hawley reciting to himself TR’s most famous speech:

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds…  and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

Of course, in the wrong hands, those sentiments are nothing but a rationale for sheer opportunism, and Hawley—like his current favorite President—has well demonstrated how dangerous an opportunist can be. In Hawley’s confused mind, perhaps, he boldly and brilliantly beat his pro-Trump Senatorial colleagues to the punch, endeared himself to Trump and his base, and paved the way for a presidential run in 2024. Thanks to his Rough Rider instincts, courage, and will, he may have told himself, someone, someday, might be writing President Hawley: Preacher of Righteousness.

Sorry, Senator Hawley, if that was your reasoning, it contained a fatal flaw.  You forgot that TR fused the self-righteousness of his will to power with a commitment to be a guardian of American democracy, and to lead with an unwavering commitment to honesty.  Here are a few pertinent TR quotes, not found in author Hawley’s epilogue, that the Senator would do well to revisit:

“We cannot afford, as citizens of this republic, to tolerate the successful scoundrel any more than the unsuccessful scoundrel.”

“A man should no more be excused for lying on the stump than for lying off the stump.”

“This country has nothing to fear from the crooked man who fails. We put him in jail. It is the crooked man who succeeds who is a threat to this country.”

“Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country… it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.”

Whatever his motives, Hawley has left his serious assessment of Teddy Roosevelt far behind, from his praise of Roosevelt’s commitment to democratic institutions, to his complaint that TR felt “no internal restraint on the exercise of the will, and no guide for the proper use of power.” Instead, he embraced his January 6 rendezvous with destiny, greeting the arriving mob with a clenched fist of support. Nor did he waver as the mayhem unfolded:  the smashed doors and windows, his colleagues fleeing in fear, the insurrectionists racing through the halls waving Confederate and Trump flags, the police beaten with metal clubs, the woman shot dead. His own face, unmarred by the dust and blood on the Capitol’s floors, was ready to reappear on tv.

When the building was cleared and the alphabetical reading of state names commenced, Hawley stood his ground and challenged the electoral college vote of Pennsylvania, forcing the separation of Senate and House into a post-midnight debate. He would now repeat charges scathingly rejected by judges, verdicts which the Supreme Court declined to reconsider. The point was to amplify doubts about Trump’s defeat, to delegitimize America’s elections, and to threaten its 240-year-old democracy, all to advance his own ambitions.  As TR would have said, and his now comatose biographer would have agreed—Senator Hawley had become an unpatriotic scoundrel.

If Josh Hawley, as a student of TR, has received a failing grade, is there anything that genuine defenders of the American experiment might learn from that pivotal, flawed historic figure, who took on big business to stabilize American democracy, and who unapologetically pursued the expansion of American power?  How might Roosevelt have appraised the behavior of the Democrats over the past four years?

Here, one can imagine TR asking: How did you arrive at a moment when a demagogue could send a mob into the halls of Congress in a bid to reverse his defeat, when the salvation of the Republic had hinged on decisions by a handful of judges, state legislators, and election administrators?  At the start, why didn’t President Obama forcefully confront Russia’s 2016 subversion of the election, when defenders of the Republic still held the high ground of the White House, and before the patriots investigating Putin’s attack became presidential prey? Throughout, why did you engage traitors with respectful dialogue, as if the arena remained a marketplace of ideas rather than of raw combat against relentless liars?  If one looks to TR’s own words for an example of that sentiment, the following might have offered a useful corrective to the Democrats’ propensity to bring debating points to a knife fight: “A milk-and-water righteousness unbacked by force is to the full as wicked as and even more mischievous than force divorced from righteousness.”

Democracy has survived, but it was too close a call. On January 20, a decent President will again occupy the presidential high ground surrendered in 2016, backed by narrow majorities in Congress.  To avoid squandering this fortunate second chance, liberal yearnings for national healing must be balanced by a stronger dose of a Rooseveltian will to power. The rule of law must be forcefully applied wherever Trump’s pardons allow, white nationalist militias must be crushed, and free speech advocates must confront the now undeniable lethality of the big lie technique.

Teddy Roosevelt, like his distant presidential relative Franklin, was often accused, thanks to supporting a better deal for ordinary workers, of being a traitor to his class. He never earned judgment, as Senator Josh Hawley now has, as traitor to his country. Along with the other instigators of the January 6 act of sedition, he must wear that scarlet “S” until he leaves the political arena in defeat, as he will, inescapably, wear it into history.