Just hours after giddy pro-Trump rioters walked out of the ransacked, blood-spattered U.S. Capitol, Sen. Josh Hawley emerged from hiding and found a microphone on the Senate floor.
The 41-year-old had been aiming at this moment for days. Alarming even members of his own party with his grandstanding, Hawley had been the first senator to announce he would object to certifying the results of the presidential election. He is a slippery weasel, so he couched his complaints in a convoluted argument about "irregularities" in Pennsylvania's voting process. He knew that his target audience — people who had been conned into thinking the election had been stolen — would hear "massive voter fraud" without him actually saying the lie himself.
It was classic Hawley. He has spent his political career feeding and prodding a monster, baiting our country's ugly elements of racism, distrust, division and paranoia. It is a risky game, but he has shown confidence in his ability to dance away ahead of the carnage.
But that day in the Capitol, the monster had broken free. Conspiracy-addled men and women whom Hawley had saluted with a raised fist on his way into the building had later overrun the barricades and swarmed the halls of Congress. After years of fantasizing online about a violent insurgency, they attempted to carry it out in real life.
On the Senate floor the night of the attempted coup, Hawley was a short walk from where a woman had been shot dead by Capitol Police during the mayhem hours before and where the intruders had beaten police officers, one so badly he later died. Another woman in the MAGA group was reportedly trampled in the chaos. A man had a fatal heart attack, and two others died of what authorities described as medical emergencies.
It seemed for a moment that Hawley, standing at that microphone in the midst of such wreckage, might finally reckon with the consequences of stoking insanity to its predictable explosion. He appeared a shade paler, his voice a touch shaky. But after a brief tsk-tsking of the violence, Hawley reached into his soul and found only a gooey ball of pomade and tooth whitener.
"A word about Pennsylvania, which is a state that I have been focused on, objected to, as an example of why people are concerned, millions of Americans concerned about our election integrity," he said.
A word about Pennsylvania? A state — and not the state of Missouri — you have been focused on? During his five-minute speech, Hawley traced a twisty path away from the bloodshed to an argument that he had been right all along to play wingman to Trump's dangerous conspiracy theories.
Hawley had an opportunity that night to show the world what he so desperately wanted us to see — a leader, a man of consequence, a man who has the mix of intellect, gravitas and compassion to be president. Instead, we saw only a man who desperately wants to be president.
We deserve better than him. And we deserve better than all the other Missouri politicians who made the same decision to put ambition over service.
Embarrassingly, tragically, our state has played an outsized role in driving forward mind-melting false narratives. Hawley, through his position and skill at self-promotion, became the leading man of the farce, but there were plenty of other actors. Remember that Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft spent the lead-up to the election in an underhanded fight to kneecap efforts that would have made it easier to vote by mail during the pandemic. At the same time, he amplified the idea that sending ballots through the mail was inherently risky — a key tenet of Trump's lies about mass voter fraud.
The result was a ridiculously confusing system for sorting out who could vote when, where and how. It undoubtedly kept people, particularly in traditionally disenfranchised communities, from casting ballots. For Trump and his followers, that was always the point.
After the election, we saw state Attorney General Eric Schmitt bragging about filing legal briefs in support of two crackpot lawsuits intended to overturn the election results in battleground states won by President-elect Joe Biden.
"The integrity of our elections is of critical importance to maintaining our republic, both today and in future elections," Schmitt said in one of his press releases. "The stakes of protecting our Constitution, defending our liberty and ensuring that all votes are counted fairly couldn't be higher. With this brief, we are joining the fight."
Seventeen other states' attorneys general joined Schmitt in one of his headline-seeking briefs, and nine joined the other.
No, Missouri was not one of those battleground states being challenged. And no, neither Schmitt nor any of the other attorneys general who signed on had any evidence of mass voter fraud in the election. The only fair conclusion is that Schmitt did it for the attention.
Maybe it seemed to him like a harmless stunt, given that the cases had zero chance of actually overturning the election. But insinuating that the integrity of our elections, our Constitution and our liberty are in peril added weight to a lie. If the attorney general is concerned that votes have been compromised, there has to be something to it, right? The payoff for Schmitt was political points with Trump's base, a group that is of obvious value if he does as expected and runs for governor. The cost to our state and our country was to further unmoor people who have grown dangerously paranoid.
We saw how that played out on January 6, and every politician who humored their constituents' QAnon affinities and goaded them further away from reality bears responsibility.
Josh Hawley and his fellow dressed-up traffickers in madness, such as Schmitt and Ashcroft, tend to work the line of plausible deniability. They avoid saying outright that there was massive voter fraud. Instead, they employ cowardly passive rhetoric.
They are "concerned." They have "questions" about our election process. They are just doing their duty to investigate their constituents' doubts, they assure us.
They conveniently omit that one of the main reasons their constituents harbor these doubts is that their elected representatives are fine with scaring them for profit.
Others are less subtle. U.S. Rep. Jason Smith prefers full-on Trump fanboy. On January 5, the day before rioters rushed into the Capitol, he posted "STOP THE STEAL" on Facebook atop a graphic that included false claims of fraud in the presidential election.
"Donate here to FIGHT back and PROTECT our constitution!" the post said, along with a link to an online fundraiser for Smith, which added, "We must defend the Constitution and protect fair and free elections."
The day after his fundraising post, he was there when rioters breached the Capitol and raced around like raging pirates.
Smith later wrote an account of being on the floor of the House when the mayhem began. He describes hearing gunfire and the killing of Ashli Babbitt, the Air Force vet and Trump supporter who was shot by Capitol Police as she and a mob of intruders tried to smash their way into a secure hallway.
"I had to walk past her body as brave officers worked frantically to get innocent people to safety," Smith wrote.
If you're curious if Smith felt any responsibility for what happened at the Capitol, you need only read the introduction to his account.
"Over the past year, we have seen violent protests spread throughout our country, and over and over, those who committed violence were not held accountable. In fact, when the statue of Christopher Columbus was torn down this past summer in Baltimore, Speaker Nancy Pelosi shrugged it off as 'people will do what they do,'" Smith wrote. "This lack of accountability undoubtedly contributed to the shameful display this week in the United States Capitol building."
It is worth noting that the rioters, a mob that had rallied around a gallows erected just outside the Capitol, were heard shouting for Pelosi to be delivered into their hands. But sure, it was Pelosi's fault, and if you agree, you can donate $5 or $10 or $20 ... or $500 to Jason Smith for Congress. Or more if you're a real patriot. The link was still up as of this writing.
Smith and Hawley were among six Missouri Republicans — Reps. Vicky Hartzler, Billy Long, Sam Graves and Blaine Luetkemeyer were the others — who voted to object to the election results, even after white supremacists wearing shirts that celebrated the Holocaust went office by office looking for politicians. They voted against a free and fair election hours after thugs beat police officers with the poles of American flags and paraded the Confederate flag through the halls.
And if they had a duty to be there as our federal representatives, the same can't be said for state Rep. Justin Hill (R-Lake St. Louis) who infamously skipped his own swearing-in ceremony to join the rally of deniers in Washington, D.C. In a January 5 Facebook post explaining his decision, he described it as "one of the most important days of my life."
Hill had previously tried to pass a resolution in our state legislature to say Missouri's elected representatives "have no faith in the validity" of the presidential election results in battleground states that Trump lost. In a letter introducing the stunt, he wrote that "our constituents have voiced concerns over the integrity of our national elections" and that it was his duty and the duty of his fellow lawmakers to demand investigations in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
"If we fail to act and fraudulent votes change the outcome of the Presidential election, Missourians are harmed," Hill wrote. "We are the Show-Me State. Let us demand other states show Missouri that fraud did NOT change the outcome."
The word "if" is doing some Olympic-level lifting in that statement, given that Hill had no evidence of mass fraud, nothing that credibly suggested secretaries of state, attorneys general, election officials and even judges appointed by Trump were wrong in dismissing claims of fraud. But through Hill's efforts, our state held a hearing. Ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani even beamed in by video as part of his ongoing campaign of misinformation.
Sixty-six Republican lawmakers signed on, but the resolution ultimately fizzled when it failed to reach the full House for a vote. So whydoes it matter if a state rep wants to go through a charade like that? It matters because it becomes part of the political and cultural vortex. Trump stirs the atmosphere, and politicians such as Hill begin to swirl. The constituents whom Hill claims to care so much about find themselves bombarded from all sides with bad information. They lose their bearings in the spinning. And before long, all they can hear is the roar of a man-made twister of lies about voter fraud, stolen elections and a country under attack.
Hill says he attended Trump's speech in Washington, D.C. Our old friend Giuliani was there, calling for "trial by combat," and Donald Trump Jr. warned any Republican Congressmen thinking of going against the president to expect to be challenged in their primaries: "We're coming for you."
The president had previously told his supporters to go to the rally. "Be there. Will be wild." Onstage January 6, he repeated a lot of those same lies Missouri lawmakers have backed. He praised Hawley by name and told the thousands in the crowd to march on the Capitol.
"We're going to walk down to the Capitol, and we're going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women, and we're probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them, because you'll never take back our country with weakness," Trump said. "You have to show strength, and you have to be strong."
Despite promises to join the group at the Capitol, Trump returned to the safety of the White House.
In a Facebook post condemning the violence that followed, Hill says he also peeled away from the crowd, heading off for lunch before the march began. He says he was still eating when he heard the sirens.
"It truly is sad that such a peaceful event can turn bad so quickly," he later wrote. "Resorting to violent measures takes away from those that want to see honest debate, investigation, and deliberation regarding election integrity. It is also quite obvious to me that bad actors will take advantage of any protest to throw fuel on a fire."
On Saturday in St. Louis, there was another rally. Hundreds of people filled North Broadway in front of the Old Courthouse to call for Josh Hawley's resignation.
"Resign, Hawley!" they chanted from far out of earshot of their senator's new home in Virginia. "Resign, Hawley. You don't even live here!"
They too were angry and frightened about the future of our country. They too are constituents of our elected officials, but Hawley is not listening to them. Eric Schmitt is not going to issue a mea culpa for supporting baseless claims. Jay Ashcroft is not going to admit it was wrong to hamstring access to voting during a deadly pandemic. Jason Smith isn't going to exchange "Stop the Steal" for "Black Lives Matter." And Justin Hill is not going to put everything on hold to travel here to protect the "integrity of our elections."
The politicians who gave credence to the lies that launched a violent mob through the shattered windows of our nation's Capitol like to retreat into "the customer's always right'' shield for their worst behavior. They like to say they are just carrying out the will of their constituents when they demand investigations they know are baseless. They are only asking questions posed by the people of their districts.
If their constituents believe a batshit conspiracy they learned about in Hour Three of a YouTube binge, who are these humble servants to intervene, right?
Hawley retreated into this familiar safehold on the night of January 6 when he and his colleagues returned to the Senate floor. All through the building, the scattered papers of trashed offices, the bootprints of murderous white supremacists and the blood of the dead served as fresh reminders of what rhetoric without principle had wrought. There was literal human feces on the walls of the Capitol left by people who cheered Hawley's raised fist that morning.
"For those who have concerns about the integrity of our elections, those who have concerns about what happened in November, this is the appropriate means, this is the lawful place where those objections and concerns should be heard," Hawley said, pretending to claim the moral high ground.
Behind him, ruining the visuals of Hawley's moment in front of the camera, sat an exasperated Sen. Mitt Romney, glaring at the back of Missouri's junior senator's head.
Romney is the kind of guy who has found himself on the outside of Trump's Republican Party. As Hawley's star has risen in the emerging galaxy of fanaticism, Romney's has cratered for the sin of occasionally opposing the president. That night, when it was his turn in front of the microphone, he explained to the country what politicians such as Hawley are too cowardly, too "ambitious" to admit.
"For any who remain insistent on an audit in order to satisfy the many people who believe that the election was stolen, I'd offer this perspective: No congressional audit is ever going to convince these voters, particularly when the president will continue to say the election was stolen," Romney said, his voice rising toward his point. "The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth."
Hawley will not do that. So he should listen when his constituents take it upon themselves to tell him the truth. He should listen when they say they don't want his brand of politics anymore. Or maybe he should just read it. They left him a note, painted in giant yellow letters there in front of the Old Courthouse. It read: "RESIGN HAWLEY."
Doyle Murphy is the editor in chief of the Riverfront Times.