I like The Bulwark because the writers are talented and very anti-Trump. But some of them sometimes seem like they’re attacking Trump for not being a true conservative; they don’t see conservatism as a gateway ideology to authoritarianism and fascism. A lot of them— all the ones I follow— are Republicans. Jim Swift is— or was— a Republican operative who has worked for Geoff Davis (R-KY) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ), as well as for the Bush reelection campaign and as an editor of the far right Weekly Standard. Yesterday he made the case against Republican Senator Josh Hawley and for progressive challenger Lucas Kunce. Good on him— and a perceptive piece— but hard to figure out exactly where Swift himself is coming from.
“Kunce,” he wrote, “is quick to draw contrasts between his own upbringing and life choices and those of the senator he is challenging. Josh Hawley grew up with a ‘banker daddy,’ as Kunce pit it in an ad [above]. Then, Kunce tells me, Hawley ‘went to the fanciest high school in the state,’ and later, ‘when he graduated law school— you can tell a lot about somebody when they graduate school— where did they go, right? The dude went to the fanciest corporate elite corporate lobbyist law firm in D.C.’ Kunce draws a further contrast in his experience of the war in Iraq versus the more remote experience of his opponent. ‘My experience in Iraq was running a police training team through towns like Habbaniyah, Fallujah, and Ramadi, trying to bring everybody home safe and watch, you know, and train the local police,’ Kunce says. Hawley did not serve in the military, and so his experience of the war, Kunce noted (referring to a 2021 Guardian article), ‘was that he popped a bunch of popcorn and thought that it was just this fun little game that he could watch on TV’ at the British boarding school where he was teaching for a year. Kunce is blunt: Hawley saw the war ‘as entertainment... while many of his peers were dying.’”
Lucas Kunce strikes me as a populist from another era. A populist Democrat with a wonkish appetite for economic policy, he looks up to Harry Truman, Missouri’s only president. (Kunce actually lives two blocks from Truman’s house in Independence, now a historic site. He tells me he can even see it from his bathroom window.) Before Truman was dragooned by FDR into becoming vice president, he was an irascible senator best known, as Kunce notes, for having “held hearings against corrupt defense contractors.” Given Kunce’s experiences as an arms control negotiator in the Pentagon, that particular Truman anecdote is particularly resonant.
“He did so many great things, integrated the military, even though he knew it was gonna cost in the South, and tried to get real healthcare for everyday Americans,” Kunce says. He also admires Paul Wellstone, the late Minnesota senator and staunch liberal, but at the end of the day, “I wanna just be my own guy.”
That means taking positions that might not already enjoy majority support or even visibility in the chamber today. Antitrust is one such priority for Kunce. He points out that breaking up monopolies wasn’t yet registering as a major issue for voters or politicians when he joined the American Economic Liberties Project, the nonprofit focused on trust-busting. (The New York Times describes its founder, Sarah Miller, as someone who “wants to break up everything.”)
Kunce says that if he were elected to the Senate, he would welcome the challenge of forming partnerships with whoever is willing to collaborate with him. “I would just try to find people who work with me on any of the important issues. I see people on both sides who are interested in antitrust now, which wasn’t the case” just a few years ago.
In addition to antitrust and competition, Kunce cares about agriculture and foreign ownership— which, while not quite a marquee issue on the national level, is certainly a hot topic in Missouri. He tells me he admires the work of the Democratic senator from Montana, Jon Tester, on this issue; Tester recently introduced a bipartisan bill that would restrict foreign powers like China from purchasing American agricultural land. In Missouri, the state House just passed a similar ban on Chinese ownership of farmland; that legislation ended a roughly decade-long period when the state’s longstanding restrictions on foreign ownership were relaxed. Busch landed some early hits on Schmitt in their Senate race last year on this issue— he had voted in 2013 to permit Chinese ownership of agricultural land— but he came around. Hawley did, too, but his about-face has been somewhat less convincing.
One area where Hawley and Kunce agree— albeit for wildly different reasons— is Big Tech. I asked Kunce how his approach differs from his opponent’s.
Hawley recently introduced a bill that would prevent those under 16 years old from using social media without parental consent. (Under current federal law, the threshold is 13.) Kunce argues that a much wider lens is necessary to properly understand and address the problem young users are actually facing on social media apps.
What [Hawley is] doing is he’s targeting the very people who are being victimized, and he considers that a solution... The way I approach things is certain corporations have too much power. We shouldn’t have monopoly power in this country. We need to enforce our antitrust laws. We need to mend them where we can. We need to stop putting judges on the bench who come from the same corporate law firms that he worked at.
Kunce argues that Hawley’s approach is not only irrelevant to the problems at hand but also cynical.
He claims he’s a populist, he wants to do something about this. He votes for every fancy white-shoe, corporate law firm judge that’s been… put in front of him.
He just wants some attention for saying that conservatives are being targeted, whether that’s true or not, and he doesn’t actually want to do anything that empowers individuals against the system. And so, you know, for me, that’s, that’s fake populism.
Hawley’s “fake populism” is perhaps nowhere clearer than in his actions on January 6th. That day began with the young senator infamously raising his fist in support of MAGA crowds; by the afternoon, he was fearfully scuttling through the halls of the Capitol to escape the mob.
Tucker Carlson has made a disingenuous attempt to exonerate Hawley. The Fox News host appears to take the problem to have been merely Hawley running, which many politicians were doing, rather than Hawley running from the mob he had encouraged not only by his raised fist but by his prominent support for Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.
The senator’s hypocritical actions on January 6th have offended his aspiring challenger. Here’s Kunce:
He had an opportunity to actually stand up for America in that situation, go to the crowd that he’d helped incite and try to redirect them. But, you know, again, we’re talking about a guy with no service, no history of sticking his neck out for anyone but himself.
And he didn’t do that. He ran away. He showed supreme cowardice. And I tell you right now, if in the Marines, in Iraq or Afghanistan, anybody, any of us had shown cowardice like that, we’d have been court-martialed. Right? It’s pretty crazy. Yeah. And I think that it’s the real contrast here… He thinks it’s gonna get him power. He thinks it’s gonna [give him a] shortcut . . . [to the] Republican presidential nomination or whatever.
Everywhere Kunce looks, he finds another angle of attack on Hawley’s man-of-the-people act. Much more amusing and less alarming than Hawley’s January 6th actions are his longstanding problems with residency. He appears to live primarily in Northern Virginia these days; when asked to pick a favorite BBQ place as part of a bet between senators during the Super Bowl, Hawley named one in Kansas rather than Missouri. (Kunce is himself partial to A Little BBQ Joint in Independence, for those keeping score at home.)
“Everyone who’s a normal Missourian… understands how everyday Missourians live,” Kunce says after regaling me with the BBQ story. Hawley has “got no clue about that.”
Kunce signs off by inviting me out to see him on the campaign trail sometime. Journalists have found him in places that don’t put up a lot of votes in an election— places like Hayti Heights in the state’s bootheel along the Arkansas border, where sewage has to be pumped using a generator setup operated by the mayor. That’s everyday life for at least a few normal Missourians. Kunce told the American Prospect the scenario reminded him of nothing so much as things he’d seen in war-devastated Iraq.
Missouri grows a deeper red with each election; the state’s Democrats are in disarray, divided between cities on opposite sides of the state. But if Kunce keeps showing up where Josh Hawley hasn’t, perhaps he can grow a coalition to topple him. Representing the people’s interests— I’ve heard that’s what authentic populism is all about.
Yesterday, Woody Guthrie's family, noting that Hawley is an insurrectionist, demanded he stop using Guthrie's song, This Land Is Your Land. The Kansas City Star reported that "Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter, said it’s not uncommon for politicians to make use of "This Land Is Your Land" because the song advocates for democratic representation. She said she didn’t mind the song being used politically, as long as it aligns with the song’s values. 'In this particular case, the co-opting or parodying of the lyric by those not aligned with Woody’s lyrics - i.e. misrepresentation by autocrats, racists, white nationalists, anti-labor, insurrectionists, etc.-- is not condoned,' Guthrie wrote in an email. 'We do not consider Josh Hawley in any way a representative of Woody’s values therefore we would never endorse or approve of his reference to Woody’s lyrics.'" When The Star reached out to Hawley for a comment he attacked the newspaper: "The Kansas City Star is where journalism goes to die."
Hard right Republicans like Hawley, who caused the collapse of 3 banks with their mania for deregulation-- and corporate campaign contributions-- are defending themselves by claiming the banks went under because of "woke banking" and Hawley referred to the efforts to shore up the banks as "a woke bailout." Hawley's biggest sector of contributors are-- you guessed it-- the banksters. He's taken about $2.2 million from Wall Street, real estate, banks and insurance. Please consider helping Lucas' campaign here. He'd be a lot better senator than Hawley-- and a lot better than most of the other 99 senators as well.