The U.S. Senate campaign that Republican Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley launched this week is exactly the campaign we don’t need. “The liberal elites who call themselves our leaders refer to us as flyover country,” Hawley said in his kick-off speech. “They deride not just our location but our whole way of living.”
He went on like that, missing none of the familiar us-versus-them talking points in his right-off-the-rack plumping up of resentments that need no encouragement. It’s an approach intended to exploit divides that are already hurting us all. It usually works, though. So well, in fact, that running this way is standard GOP campaign advice. But that Hawley is smart, thoughtful and knows better makes me even sorrier to see him stoking acrimony.
And is someone educated at Rockhurst, Stanford and Yale Law before clerking for Chief Justice John Roberts and working for Hogan Lovells in Washington, D.C., really the best heaver of stones at “the elites on the coasts”? Though nobody will out-country his Democratic opponent, Sen. Claire McCaskill, she is vulnerable in conservative Missouri. Hawley is no Todd Akin, her opponent in 2012. This year’s likely GOP nominee is a well-spoken professor of constitutional law, and he could compete on the issues in a state that favors his positions over hers.
Yet I can’t remember the last time I heard a Republican candidate focus on making the case for limited government instead of on stoking bitterness. Not that those on the other side of the political divide are blameless in our national non-dialogue. Hillary Clinton did no one any favors by self-indulgently telling an audience in India that in 2016, “I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.” While Donald Trump’s “whole campaign, ‘Make America Great Again,’ was looking backwards. You know, you didn’t like black people getting rights, you don’t like women, you know, getting jobs.” Asked about Clinton’s remarks, McCaskill told reporters, “You’re killing me here.”
If Clinton can convince herself that more than half of America doesn’t “like women getting jobs,” or “like black people getting rights,” then she doesn’t have to wonder how so many Americans picked Trump over her. That she may really think what she said about the “basket of deplorables” explains why some of them did.
Though racism and sexism remain a lot more vibrant than I wish they were, Clinton’s description of Trump Country is not just unhelpful, but incorrect. Back-to-the-kitchen and back-to-the-back-of-the-bus views are no more the norm in red America than talk of “flyover country” is common on the coasts. In my decades out East, the only place I ever heard that phrase was on Fox News.
Yet both there and here in the Midwest, where I grew up, blue and red bubbles are harder to penetrate because any news we don’t want to hear, we increasingly choose not to.
The result? Three Hawley supporters I talked to at his campaign launch in Springfield volunteered — yes, even now — that Barack Obama wasn’t born in this country. I was also apprised that “80 percent” of those serving in Congress couldn’t pass a background check, that former POW John McCain somehow got off easy in Vietnam as the son of an admiral, and that all sexual assault allegations against Trump have been proven to be Democratic fabrications.
After repeatedly hearing McCaskill described as far-left, I asked some Hawley family friends what they make of Democratic complaints that she’s too moderate. What? No! They laughed and said they’d certainly never heard that.
Near the end of Hawley’s remarks, he said, “we can do better” by rejecting cynicism. I’d love to see him do that by challenging us to move beyond our bubbles instead of reinforcing the misconceptions that keep us there.
Whoever is telling him that’s the way to win isn’t wrong, exactly; that’s a way to win. But it’s a way that’s hurting our country, and eroding the very “way of life” he’s talking about.