Senator Josh Hawley openly longs to be the 21st century’s Theodore Roosevelt—even though TR’s “Square Deal” policies could not be further removed from the Missouri senator’s right-wing agenda, which is directly at odds with the interests of workers, consumers and democracy itself.
But the one thing Hawley does actually share with Roosevelt is his racist nativism.
Last week, Hawley, who is about to publish a book about overcoming the “tyranny of big tech,” endorsed a bill to nullify Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption. Hawley says "monopolies" are at odds with democracy, and contends the nation must embark on a new era of trust-busting, purportedly modeled on Teddy Roosevelt’s of more than a century ago.
Roosevelt, a Republican, was the nation’s first progressive president. He used the Sherman Antitrust Act to break up railroad and other monopolies as part of his Square Deal, which had three major prongs: conserving the nation’s natural resources, protecting consumers and workers, and bringing plutocratic corporate interests to heel.
But while Roosevelt’s antitrust campaign was directed at companies that did demonstrable harm to their customers, workers and competitors, Hawley has chosen a peculiar target for this proposed trust-busting: supposedly "woke" corporations.
Hawley's signal example of that danger is Major League Baseball, which was granted an exemption from the antitrust laws by the Supreme Court in 1921. Critics have long argued that the exemption should be eliminated because the fact license team owners have to act collectively eliminates free competition.
But Hawley’s concern with the MLB has nothing to do with promoting market competition. Rather, Hawley wants to punish the big leagues because they are trying to promote civil rights.
According to Hawley, who has never been heard objecting to large corporations funneling money into his own campaign coffers, it is “egregious” that MLB chose to move the All-Star Game to Colorado after Republicans in Georgia pushed through a law transparently intended to suppress Democratic and minority voter turnout. Hawley has also suggested that the “100 CEOs of the largest corporations in the world” are a threat to “democracy”—because many of them have also opposed the Georgia law.
Of course, the idea that corporate leaders taking a position in defense of voting rights somehow harms democracy is ridiculous. What’s more, Hawley’s position ignores the longstanding rule that petitioning the government falls largely outside the scope of the antitrust law. That is why corporations can collectively advocate for things like tax cuts and against environmental regulations, even though such matters directly relate to their business activities. This exception, called the Noerr-Pennington doctrine, exists to protect free speech rights.
It is nonsensical to argue that corporations should have free rein to collectively lobby and seek to influence the government regarding their own commercial interests while contending, as Hawley does, that it is somehow legally or constitutionally suspect for those same companies to join together to petition the government in opposition to voter suppression laws.
Hawley’s purported interest in reinvigorated antitrust enforcement is not just a sham but a transparent threat to employ governmental legislative, and possibly law enforcement, authority to coerce corporate leaders to remain silent in the face of GOP efforts to undermine democracy.
Plainly, Hawley is not concerned with the risk that the concentrated power of "woke" corporations will impair democracy, but rather with the risk that such companies will amplify the voices of their consumers and employees, who are—in many cases—overwhelmingly opposed to the GOP's attacks on democracy.
That’s at odds not only with Roosevelt’s genuine effort to attack what he called “bad trusts,” but also with other elements of TR’s progressive governance.
One of Roosevelt’s signal achievements was establishing an arbitration panel that served as the catalyst for resolving the 1902 coal miners’ strike, setting the stage both for eventual recognition of the trade unions in coal and other industries, as well as future governmental regulations of workplace safety and of wages and hours. Hawley, by contrast, opposed raising Missouri’s minimum wage when he was that state’s attorney general (although he recently supported raising the federal minimum wage solely for employees of “big” businesses)—and his AG campaign was funded by millions of dollars in contributions from a businessperson who advocated for a “right-to-work” law that was rejected by Missouri voters.
Roosevelt was also a founder of what became the environmental movement, and created the nation’s first national parks. As a state AG, Hawley eliminated his office’s environmental enforcement division, which focused on major violations of environmental laws; as a senator, he cheered on Donald Trump’s efforts to gut hosts of environmental regulations.
Hawley’s trust-busting rhetoric is a joke, and should be treated as such. It is directed at serving his ideological agenda, not making markets more competitive or fair to consumers, as Teddy Roosevelt sought to do..
But the 41-year-old senator does share a couple of attributes with Roosevelt, who was just 42 when he was elected president: racism and nativism.
Teddy Roosevelt was a social Darwinist and advocate for eugenics and favored a form of nationalism that became overtly racist. In his 2008 book, Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness, Hawley criticized the former president’s racism, although since then he has adopted many of the same pernicious views.
In 2019, Hawley gave a speech that contained many of the same nativist themes reflected in the “America First” platform Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green was forced to back away from last week. In his speech, Hawley attacked what he called the global “cosmopolitan elite,” a term that has, since the time of Hitler’s chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels, been used as a synonym for an insidious Jewish world conspiracy.
Hawley warned that the purported “cosmopolitan class” looks “down on the common affections that once bound this nation together—things like place and national feeling and religious faith,” a transparent reference to what fascists described as “rootless” Jews scheming to undermine the nation. Leaving no ambiguity about the nature of his appeal, Hawley also contended that the “cosmopolitans” in our midst may “live in the United States,” but are not loyal to it; rather, according to Hawley, their “primary loyalty is to the global community.”
And, in the wake of the 2020 election, Hawley became one of the most vigorous advocates for Donald Trump’s frontal attack on democracy and his efforts to void the outcome of the election. Hawley’s fist bump expressing solidarity with the soon-to-be insurrectionists, given before he entered the Senate chamber to vote in favor of nullifying the outcome of the election, is one of the more indelible—and chilling—images from Jan. 6.
Hawley purports to offer hope to those who have been left behind economically, but his rhetoric of standing on the side of workers and the downtrodden is directly at odds with the policies he advocates. Instead of offering opportunity or real hope to people facing hardship in a changing world, Hawley offers only resentment and prejudice toward other Americans.