The heat and light given off by the nuclear grind between President Trump and his antagonists have blinded Washington’s chroniclers to something important happening right before their eyes. The fusion of populism and conservatism as a workable and ideological political movement is emerging in the actions of two newly elected senators: Josh Hawley and Rick Scott.
It took a political hijacker like Trump to elevate Republicans out of the losing rut in which our old, Goldwater-ish GOP had become mired. But from a policy perspective, Trump has worked out to be more like a Viking conqueror than English colonizer.
Trumpism has proven to be a formidable foe to the new left’s dominant ideology of cosmopolitan elitism—within the bounds of the daily news cycle. But if the realignment that Trump’s win validated is going to be a structural victory for Republicans, it needs more than daily combat. It needs policy pioneers and settlers, and longer-term battles that deliver material results for voters beyond merely thwarting harmful liberal impulses. That’s where first-termers Hawley and Scott enter.
Scott, a self-made health-care CEO who built the nation’s largest hospital corporation, has zeroed in on the crisis of drug pricing. His proposal to outlaw any U.S. drug price that is higher than the price for the same medicine overseas fuses the twin populist urges of corporate accountability and nationalism. The novelty of Scott’s proposal is that it uses the profit motive to achieve an end Democrats have sought only through socialistic means.
Scott would require drug companies that do not want to give up the massive and affluent domestic market—which is all of them—to either sacrifice their foreign sales or wring more price concessions from price-fixing foreign governments. No longer would American consumers be forced to subsidize the market-riggers in Brussels. Rather than mimic the European meddlers, Scott seeks to use the allure of the U.S. market to prod multi-national pharmaceutical powerhouses into demanding more equitable capitalism across the globe.
Scott’s proposal has been quickly written off by conservative D.C. think tanks and organizations long pickled by the cocktails poured liberally at corporate fundraising receptions. But it will be an enduring home run among the Trumpist majority in today’s GOP—a group that is every bit as skeptical of corporate oligopoly and multi-national monopolists as it is of domestic government overreach.
Hawley, the youngest member of the Senate, is waging a similar battle against conservatives’ neglect of Big Tech. The generation of political Republicans already in office before the development of the smartphone still requires their grandchildren’s assistance to toggle between the satellite dish and the DVR, so it’s no wonder those old pachyderms have had no coherent policy approach to the rise of Silicon Valley’s abusive power.
Hawley, the only senator in his 30s, is wired differently and unafraid to confront the complexity of our societal addiction to technological masters. Reconciling the best interests of society with the ruthless realities of algorithmic crack peddlers will be long-haul work, but Hawley, unlike the septuagenarians in the Senate, has the time, and he has eagerly gotten started.
Last week while the press corps was fixated on whether Trump or Speaker Nancy Pelosi initiated the latest round of name-calling, Hawley was penning a national column suggesting our largest tech giants are “parasites” and might need to be broken up. As an even younger man, Hawley wrote a biography of another Republican trust-buster, Teddy Roosevelt. His notion of modern-day trust-busting in the vertical Valley might be a big long-term mission for a conservative movement that needs one.
If older conservatives are scared by what they don’t understand about Big Tech, and Democrats too indebted to the Valley’s chieftains on unrelated cultural matters like gay legal preferences, then it will be left to young populists like Hawley to drag Washington to the oversight role that consumers demand. It’s a niche he seems eager to fill, and one he began in his first days as Missouri’s attorney general before Washington knew anything about him.
In the same week Hawley ripped into Big Tech in his thoughtful op-ed, he also excoriated a nominee for a district judgeship, put up by Trump as a concession to Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). A former religious liberty lawyer, Hawley has in a matter of months emerged as the only Republican willing to grill Republican nominees on the depth of their commitment to the First Amendment’s protections for people of faith, who are increasingly outgunned in the public square. If Justice Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation provided the needed bulwark to stop the erosion of religious liberty on the Supreme Court, it will be battles fought by the likes of Hawley that ensure lower courts adhere.
Hawley’s tenacity in vetting judicial nominees has earned him the enmity of the corporate club that runs the swamp. He’s been excoriated not just by the left but by the blinder-wearing editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, which has no doubt checked Hawley’s age and realized he might exercise this unbowed scrutiny from a Judiciary Committee perch for decades. Hawley’s willingness to draw new battle trenches is as notable as his refusal to unflinchingly accept the old partisan fault lines.
Hawley is one of only two Republican senators to have started his political career after the defeat of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, a ticket that embodied the old-wool pin-stripe GOP. As a result, Hawley, like Trump, carries little baggage from his party’s legacy brand. His questioning in a recent commencement speech of the libertine underpinnings of that brand of conservatism proves it.
“For decades now our politics and culture have been dominated by a particular philosophy of freedom,” Hawley said. “It is a philosophy of liberation from family and tradition; of escape from God and community; a philosophy of self-creation and unrestricted, unfettered free choice….But here is the irony. Though the Pelagian vision celebrates the individual, it leads to hierarchy. Though it preaches merit, it produces elitism. Though it proclaims liberty, it destroys the life that makes liberty possible.”
Hawley is asking the GOP to re-examine its cultural frame in much the way Scott seems interested in prompting increased scrutiny for globally-rigged economic elitism. That kind of tough self-reflection is necessary if Republicans are going to forge a thoughtful populism that can be more than a protest speed bump in the road to permanent minority status in a world too dominated by corporate and cultural globalists.
Hawley and Scott began their political careers as self-starting outsiders who stomped the Republican establishments in their home states to win unexpected primaries for state office. Their common thread with each other and Trump is the underdog’s genetic lack of deference, an essential trait to jostle the groupthink that has long ossified the captive conservative minority in Washington.
As senators elected—and mandated—by the populism that now leavens the conservative voting bloc, Hawley and Scott make natural leaders for a new Republican policy approach that is just as critical of concentrated power in the crony-rigged corners of the private sector as it is of the gray muddle of government.
Eventually, in 2021 or 2025, Trump will exit the stage and the curtain will rise on the next chapter of the GOP. To the chagrin of Washington’s cocktail class, it will not resemble the pre-Trump party that proved no match for the rising cosmopolitan and oligopolistic tides of Obama-ism. That party flamed out with Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign.
The post-Trump GOP will not preach laissez-faire economics then benignly accept distorted D.C. deal-making. This next-generation populism will be shaped by its paradigm-disrupting defenses of the aspirational, and faithful, individual—whether those defenses rankle power centers in government or Manhattan C-suites.
Professional Republicans have been wondering what our world will look like after Donald Trump. In Hawley and Scott, we can get a glimpse.