As the mob that would storm Congress began to assemble, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley—a former editor of the Yale Law Journal and supreme court law clerk—saluted them with a raised fist. Inside the Capitol, Texas Senator Ted Cruz—a former editor of the Harvard Law Review and supreme court law clerk—argued against certifying the election results in Arizona.
Cruz and Hawley scare me in a way Donald Trump doesn’t. They scare me because they are neither ignoramuses nor pathological liars. They are more like the rest of us. Trump is a sociopath, utterly unable to care about anyone or anything but himself. Hawley and Cruz are less exotic. In other circumstances—if Jeb Bush had become president in 2016, for instance—they would right now merely be very conservative Republicans. Trump has long broadcast his hatred of democracy. By contrast, had you told Hawley and Cruz earlier in their careers that they would one day support a coup d’etat, I suspect they would have recoiled in horror. They did not set out to become what they now are.
My guess is that they viewed the Trump era a little like Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy—who were both ambitious young senators in the early 1950s—viewed the era of Joseph McCarthy. Nixon and Kennedy were both smart enough to know that McCarthy was a dangerous lunatic. But McCarthy enjoyed strong pockets of support both in Nixon’s Republican Party and among Kennedy’s Irish-Catholic base. (Robert Kennedy briefly worked for McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. JFK skipped the 1954 Senate vote censuring McCarthy, which later led Eleanor Roosevelt—in a play on the title of Kennedy’s book—to say she wished the Massachusetts Senator “had a little less profile and a little more courage.”)
Nixon and Kennedy saw McCarthyism not as a test but as a sideshow, a temporary unpleasantness that they must survive—with their political viability intact—so they could one day take their moment on history’s stage. Luckily for them, McCarthyism did subside, and each man ascended to the presidency, as they had hoped. As a result, when children read textbooks about Nixon and Kennedy, they read about the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs, Civil Rights, Vietnam, the opening to China, and yes, Watergate—but not the two men’s cowardice in the face of a demagogue who threatened the rule of law.
Hawley and Cruz appear to have approached the Trump era in much the same way. Cruz certainly had no illusions about the character of the man who called his wife ugly and his father an accomplice to JFK’s assassination. In 2016, he called Trump “utterly amoral” and “a narcissist at a level I don’t think this country’s ever seen.” But Cruz and Hawley realized that Trump—like McCarthy in the early 1950s—had forged a visceral connection to the voters whose support they had to have. And so both men began making moral concessions in order to not alienate Trump and his base—so that once the Trumpist interlude ended they could seek the presidency themselves, and achieve the great deeds for which history would remember them.
That now looks like a bad bet. To stay on Trump’s good side, Cruz and Hawley had to commit greater and greater offenses against democracy and the Constitution. The deep revulsion—even among many conservatives—over Wednesday’s mob attack on Congress may cripple their future presidential prospects. It’s likely that their complicity in Trump’s effort to overturn the election will prove the defining event of their political careers.
For me, the terrifying part of the story is that, on a smaller scale, many of us are susceptible to this same kind of moral failure. You wake up on a given morning determined to accomplish a set of tasks that you consider crucial to your personal or professional success. And then, out of nowhere, at the worst possible time, a problem comes into view. Maybe you learn that a friend or family member is in trouble. Maybe you discover that the path to glory you’ve charted out for yourself contains an ethical glitch. There’s a tremendous urge to downplay or evade this terrible inconvenience—to do whatever is necessary to push it to the side so you can return to the path you were on. Sometimes, as with Kennedy and Nixon in the 1950s, you get away with it. The problem turns out not to be that significant, and quickly goes away. But sometimes the challenge you refuse to face just grows bigger and bigger, until it explodes and causes irrevocable harm. And you realize that the sideshow was actually the main event, that in life we don’t get always get to choose which tests define us and when.
“Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” It’s a cliché because it’s true. I don’t think Cruz and Hawley were destined to become history’s villains. I think that, for some reason, they were unable to put aside their ambition—their grand plan for themselves—and recognize that Trump was the challenge they were meant to face. In the Book of Esther, Mordechai asks the eponymous heroine a question: “Who knows but that you have come to your position for such a time as this?” All of us have moments in life like that. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are reminders of what can happen when we fail.
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