Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) raises his fist toward a crowd of supporters of President Donald Trump gathered outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Photo: Francis Chung / E&E News and Politico via AP Images)

Josh Hawley Throws a Challenge at Big Tech--and at the Left

In his new book, The Tyranny of Big Tech, the right-wing senator hijacks the radical story of America.

My assignment: read and critique The Tyranny of Big Tech, the new book by Missouri's Republican junior U.S. Senator Josh Hawley.

I really looked forward to the fun of making sense of a radically titled work by a conservative, no, a reactionary, who not only decries the powers and profits of Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, and Apple, but also proposes breaking them up.

I figured the only hard part would be to fit in all the pieces: Hawley's rightwing politics, his well-known political ambitions, his outrageous efforts to bolster Trump's coup attempt, his book's publishing story, and of course, what he had to say.

I was wrong. It was not fun, it was unnerving. Not simply because I kept encountering sympathetic historical references to strikes and campaigns that I never anticipated in a book by a rightwing politician, but even more so because in Hawley's penultimate chapter I ran right into--boom--paragraphs that truly threw me for a loop. Three paragraphs that rendered both a narrative of America's democratic promise, imperative, and struggles and a call for democratic action which I could readily imagine having written myself.

He writes of a radical-democratic class-struggle narrative that politicians such as socialist Bernie Sanders and progressive Elizabeth Warren, indeed, every self-professed progressive Democrat, should have been articulating and cultivating for years, but, to my persistent exasperation and the left's persistent failings, had not. And yet, hell, here was Josh Hawley doing so.

Consider the paragraphs. Read them aloud as if they were the words of a campaign speech (which they may end up becoming):

Big Tech looms as large as any corporate power in American history, as large as the railroads from a century back, as large as the steel trust and the oil trust and the money trust from the height of the Gilded Age. Its sway is prodigious; its reach is wide. And yet, like those earlier monopolies, Big Tech's power is ultimately precarious, because Americans are never long contented to be ruled over by barons. They agitate, they protest. They rebel against it. That is what is happening now. And that is why there is cause for hope...

It is possible to imagine a future beyond corporate liberalism. That political economy has dominated American life for a century now..., but it has not served America well. It has steadily eroded the power and standing of the working class. It has steadily widened our class divisions and installed a professional elite at the prow of society, an elite that grows further removed from the lives and aspirations of working people with every passing year.

Corporate liberalism turns out to be a political economy of aristocracy, very much of the kind the founders feared and warned against, of the kind Populists remonstrated against and Theodore Roosevelt resisted, and it has been with us now for a century too long. The battle to end the tyranny of Big Tech is ultimately a battle to break the hold of corporate liberalism.

Those words are engaging, even encouraging--right? But what are we to make of the fact that Josh Hawley wrote them? That question obsessed me, and I only finally came to see what they portended when I turned away from current events and thought about them in terms of the past forty-five years of corporate and conservative class-war and culture-war campaigns.

Hawley is smart. Indeed, dangerous. He may act like Trump's apprentice. But I have come to realize that his real inspiration probably is Ronald Reagan: The Reagan who recognized that American working people, for all their fears and frustrations in the face of the manifold crises of the late 1970s, continued to believe in the nation's promise, to feel the imperative that it engendered, and to yearn for action.

This is the Reagan who fashioned a strange-bedfellows "New Right" coalition of corporate executives, Main Street businessmen, Christian evangelicals, conservative, neoconservative, and free-market intellectuals, and single-interest groups such as the NRA to win the Republican nomination. The Reagan who shocked conservatives when he accepted the nomination by quoting the words of popular heroes of the left and working people--Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt.

The Reagan who hijacked the Founders, the Stars and Stripes, and (don't flinch) the idea of American exceptionalism, stripped them of their revolutionary and radical lives, histories, and meanings, and refashioned them as the champions, symbol, and vision of limited government, private enterprise, and a faith-based nation. The Reagan who called on Americans to join him in a "crusade to Make America Great Again (yes, he said it before Trump), and went on to win the presidency in 1980 by defeating the unpopular neoliberal Democratic president, Jimmy Carter.

You get where I'm going?

Senator Hawley wants to be president. In fact, by most accounts he was looking forward to succeeding Trump in the White House--though who knew his vision-quest was so powerful it would lead him to do whatever it might take to try to guarantee that Trump himself would be handing over the keys to him.

Seriously, who could imagine that Hawley would embrace the "Big Lie" that Trump, not Joe Biden, actually won in November, turn out in Congress on January 6 to formally challenge the Electoral College ballot count, and help to turn the crowd massing outside the Capitol into an angry, destructive, murderous mob? Remember his encouraging fist pump as he headed into the building? Not long after, he joined 34 fellow Republicans to block a bill launching a Congressional investigation into the terrible events of that day. Still, given that the GOP has become a party of reactionaries, it is impossible to say whether he has disqualified himself from a presidential bid.

Hawley evidently wrote The Tyranny of Big Tech to prepare the groundwork for an eventual run. And his book makes clear that, despite his banker parentage and elite education at Stanford and Yale Law School, he is determined to distinguish himself as the populist among Republicans. (Even at this distance from DC, I can hear Thomas Frank shouting "There is no such thing as a rightwing populist!").

Originally contracted by Simon & Schuster (which happens to be one of my own publishers), Hawley's book ended up at the conservative publishing house Regnery after Simon & Schuster cancelled the contract in reaction to Hawley's actions on January 6. Unfortunately, this served Hawley well, for it helped turn the book into a national bestseller and bolstered his own efforts to portray himself as a champion of the people versus the powers-that-be, corporate or political.

The preface is usually the last thing an author writes. Hawley opens his with, "This is a book the corporate monopolies did not want you to read. Corporate America tried to cancel it, just as they have tried to cancel me and to cancel or control the speech, the communication, even the ideas of millions of Americans.

In Part One of his book, Hawley starts by resurrecting the Founders' anti-aristocratic vision of a Republic governed by the "common man and woman." He then moves on to recall the diverse campaigns and initiatives of populists, labor unionists, and progressives--most notably "Trust-Buster" Theodore Roosevelt--to sustain that vision against the expanding power, wealth, and ambitions of the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age. Finally, he recounts how President Woodrow Wilson (supposedly) rescued the corporate titans from TR's trust-busting politics by transferring anti-trust questions to a new Federal Trade Commission, "corporatizing" government itself "along the lines of the modern and progressive corporation," and creating an elite of experts who would not just regulate business to assure prosperity for all, but liberate citizens from their democratic labors of self-government in favor of them pursuing self-empowerment through consumption.

In Part Two, Hawley critically surveys and damningly decries the powers, practices, and profits of today's corporate trusts--Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, and Apple--and their "robber baron" bosses' (Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Jeff Bezos most readily come to mind) voracious ambitions to "control everything" from politics and ideas to personal behavior. These chapters are not exactly original, but they do present a powerful indictment of not only Big Tech's corporate operations, but also the role of Republican and Democratic politicians in licensing them.

In Part Three, propelled by the Founders' vision and the threat to it that the Big Tech corporations represent, Hawley proposes breaking up those corporate trusts and aggressively regulating the new smaller companies.

The book clearly distinguishes Hawley from his fellow Republicans. And yet, as much as his references and proposals smack of populism and progressivism, they do not, in the end, make him a populist, progressive, or radical. Note his historical assertions and omissions: While the Founders crafted world-historic revolutionary documents projecting an unprecedented republic, they hardly envisioned one--as Lincoln would put it decades later--of, by, and for the People. Just as our rulers and governors today do, they feared the democratic spirit and energy of the common people in all their diversity that Thomas Paine's Common Sense unleashed. They accepted slavery and marginalized women. They also set up significant federal and state constitutional barriers to contain the democratic aspirations of white workingmen.

Hawley fails to mention that the Populists' envisioned plans to end the robber barons included nationalizing the railroads, creating a cooperative financial system, and ultimately transforming the United States into a cooperative commonwealth. He also makes no reference whatsoever to Eugene Debs, whose Socialist Party at the time arguably was the party most committed to the vision of an American republic of, by, and for the common people. Finally, he celebrates Teddy Roosevelt for busting some trusts, but neglects to mention that TR protected others. And though I hate to defend Woodrow Wilson, I must note that Wilson addressed the problem of trusts and monopolies, too, by signing into law the Clayton Antitrust Act and, yes, creating the Federal Trade Commission in 1914.

Conveniently, Hawley cuts off his historical narrative in 1920. I suspect he does so to avoid acknowledging how Franklin Roosevelt and the New Dealers not only subjected capital to democratic supervision and regulation, but also democratically empowered farmers and workers to stand up to corporate bosses.

Ironically enough, however, when Hawley points to an example of how Congress might legislatively block Big Tech from pursuing, say, "conglomerate mergers" that enable companies to "reach-[their]-tentacles-into-every-conceivable-market," he cites the Glass-Steagall Act. That's the law enacted by FDR and the Democrats early in the New Deal to protect account holders by dividing commercial from investment banking (Bill Clinton signed an end to it in 1999, paving the way for the financial crisis and Great Recession of 2008). But most of Hawley's enthusiasts and boosters such as Tucker Carlson and J.D. Vance could probably care less about the details of his work.

To be sure, Hawley's book may seem radical. But for all his supposed concern about the erosion of "the power and standing of the working class" and America's "widening class division," he doesn't even give a nod to the possibility of taxing the billionaires (presumably soon to be trillionaires) out of existence, empowering labor to organize and fight back against the corporate bosses and turning the Big Tech behemoths into truly public enterprises.

That said, in The Tyranny of Big Tech Hawley has definitely thrown down the gauntlet to Big Tech and, in fact, to his fellow Republican presidential aspirants, as well. Perhaps even more critically and broadly speaking, in hijacking America's radical-democratic story as he has, Hawley also has thrown down the gauntlet to politicians, activists, and intellectuals of the left.

Will we pick it up? Will we take up the challenge of articulating and cultivating an historical narrative that enables working people to understand the anxieties, impulses, and yearnings that they experience--a narrative that engages their hopes, aspirations, and energies, encouraging truly radical democratic action?

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