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.