Josh Hawley, who tried to derail Biden's presidency, now champions 'the rule of the people'

Let's be very clear about what Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., actually tried to do on Jan. 6 of this year.

Then-President Donald Trump had been arguing for weeks that his 2020 re-election loss was a function of rampant voter fraud, a claim for which neither he nor his allies ever presented any credible evidence. As the weeks passed and the inexorable process of transitioning power to Joe Biden pressed forward, Trump grasped at any claim he saw in his Twitter feed and embraced any theory of how he could retain power that was whispered in his ear.

At some point, he seized on the idea that the formal counting of the electoral votes in Congress on Jan. 6 presented one final chance to block Biden's victory. He insisted that his vice president, Mike Pence, could simply reject the electoral votes states had sent in, which he couldn't. He also encouraged Republicans in Congress to formally object to submitted votes, which they could - with the hope that somehow he could cobble together enough votes in the House and Senate to actually block some of Biden's electoral votes.

House Republicans scrambled over one another to back Trump's plan, hoping to get a pat-on-the-head tweet for their efforts. But in the Senate, things were trickier. Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., demanded that his caucus not play along. For a while, he kept his team in line.

But then Hawley, who clearly suffers from no shortage of confidence in his own cleverness, came up with a way to both deliver for Trump - and Trump's tightly wound base of support - while not explicitly endorsing Trump's obviously false claims about fraud.

On Dec. 30, Hawley's office put out a news release announcing that he would object to the electoral vote totals submitted by the state of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania was significant since it was that state's slowly counted votes that ultimately led to Biden's victory becoming clear. But Hawley wasn't objecting on the basis that he thought fraud had occurred. He was objecting because Pennsylvania "failed to follow their own state election laws."

His complaint was that Pennsylvania changed its law, allowing more people to vote by mail, and that this change was a violation of the state's Constitution. This was a bad argument for several reasons, including that the change had been made by the Republican legislature in 2019 and that a judge had already declared that the votes cast under the law would stand. But Hawley had found a loophole allowing him to both appease Trump and retain deniability, so he went with it.

Trump approved, praising Hawley in speeches and retweeting this Hawley tweet - "It's time to STAND UP" - with praise.

If your interpretation of that tweet is that Hawley was saying it was time to STAND UP against possibly problematic expansions of voting access that wouldn't affect the outcome of the 2020 election, you are probably in the minority. Hawley knew that he was playing along with Trump's ploy and Hawley was relishing the response. On his way into the Capitol on Jan. 6, he famously gave the crowd already assembled nearby a supportive fist pump, a bit of power-to-the-people symbology that the people would soon take very much to heart.

After Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, leading to five deaths, Hawley went forward with his objection anyway - an objection aimed at specifically the same outcome as that sought by the rioters who'd stood on the Senate floor hours earlier.

That's what happened. One can certainly argue that Hawley was being cynical in exploiting Trump's claims to raise his own profile and build his own support nationally, but it is nonetheless the case that he sought to exploit it.

On Friday, Hawley gave a keynote speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida. And according to that speech, the senator who sought to block the will of Pennsylvania voters from being counted in the 2020 election is now a champion of restoring the voice of the people in American politics.

He began by disparaging the power of big technology companies, as he had in his Dec. 30 news release.

"We can have a republic where the people rule or we can have an oligarchy where big tech and the liberals rule," Hawley said. "And that is the choice, that is the challenge that we face today. It's a perilous moment."

It's worth noting the dichotomy he draws here. Either "the people" can rule or "the liberals" can - as though liberals aren't Americans who have a voice in government. The reason "the liberals" have power in Washington at the moment is that more Americans voted for Democrats in the 2020 election.

But Hawley still insists somehow that the opposite is happening.

"That's the fight of our time: to make the rule of the people an actual thing again, to restore the sovereignty of the American people," he said a bit later.

The rule of the people is "an actual thing," since the efforts of Hawley and his allies to block the people's voice fell short. The American people have sovereignty, because Hawley's cynical decision to pander to Trump supporters failed.

The implication from Hawley's speech is that, at least in part, the system doesn't accurately reflect the popular will. He insists that tech companies shape and obstruct that will, which he's welcome to claim. But this is also again a tacit endorsement of Trump's wildly false claims about the legitimacy of the election.

As you might expect, Hawley also explicitly defended his actions Jan. 6.

"On January the 6th, I objected during the electoral college certification. Maybe you heard about it," Hawley said.

The crowd, heavily populated with fervent Trump supporters, offered him an extended round of applause. Which, of course, is why he offered his objection Jan. 6 in the first place.

"I did," he continued, over the cheers. "I stood up - I stood up and I said - I said we ought to have a debate about election integrity. I said it is the right of the people to be heard, and my constituents in Missouri want to be heard on this issue."

There was no question about the "integrity" of the vote in Pennsylvania, as that judge made clear. But it all blends together into this big political soup from which Hawley picks out whatever ingredients he wants to use at any given moment. Here, he wanted to get applause for doing the thing for which he's spent more than a month taking heat. Here, he wanted to continue to advance the idea that the will of the people was submarined despite his efforts, instead of by them.

"What are we fighting for? It's the same thing our Founding Fathers fought for," he said at another point. "We're fighting for the rule of the people. We're fighting to be able to have our own say. We're fighting to be able to run our own government. We're fighting to have real self-government in America. And that's what we're about."

This is precisely the rhetoric that was used among the rioters Jan. 6. They saw themselves as fighting a second American revolution, enforcing democracy after it had been stolen by fraud that they knew happened because their president and his allies told them it had.

Hawley's objection that day was predicated on savvy legal footnoting that would allow him to go on "Meet the Press" and claim to be simply giving judicious consideration to the all-important rules. But what Hawley did Jan. 6 he did so that he could give speeches like the one Friday, written through with the same rhetoric Trump used to build the same loyalty and fervency among Trump's supporters.

Hawley used his effort to undercut democracy to proclaim how he would defend the democratic voice of those who agree with him. It doesn't get much more cynical.