January 6 was supposed to be a good day for Josh Hawley. I can imagine him waking up with a spring in his step, carefully selecting his dark blue suit, his white shirt, and his red tie—an amalgamation of the flag itself. The selection, like so much else the senator from Missouri does, was deliberate; here was the aspirational aesthetic of the MAGA-sexual—sharp, suave, and yet committed to a white nationalist, even theocratic, political overhaul of the United States. An unforgettable image shows him that morning raising his fist to the crowd then gathering around the Capitol. By the end of that riotous day, it was not such a good look.
Hawley’s version of the MAGA aesthetic landed him in the pages of Vogue this January, but his was not the most memorable outfit of the day. That honor went to a man sporting horns and pelts. If Hawley had decided that a sharp suit and gelled hair made for the best “let’s overturn the election” look, Jacob Chansley, a.k.a., Jake Angeli, the self-proclaimed QAnon shaman, had gone for the opposite, choosing to be horned and bare-chested. Two visions of MAGA manhood collided, each representing some aesthetic truth of the way MAGA men see themselves.
If Josh Hawley had really dressed his truth that day, he would not have worn a suit, a la his banished leader Donald Trump. Like Chansley, who sought to evoke some primitive pre-modern virility, Hawley would have chosen to represent some greater, inward truth turned outwards. For him, this would likely have been a disciple-like long tunic and a sash. To truly capture the fashion sense of the times of Jesus, he may have added a staff and sandals, one more useful than the other while commandeering a mob.
Imagining Hawley as a tunic-wearing apostle is not just the stuff of conjecture. A perusal of his early writings show a man intent on getting evangelical Christians, his home constituency, to Christianize the American political system. In a 2012 essay, “A Christian Vision for Kingdom Politics,” Hawley tells evangelicals that they have got it all wrong in seeking to get recognition and reaffirmation of Christian values from government and in politics. Instead, the young Hawley preaches, “The New Testament teaches that this long-looked-for kingdom has dawned now, in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Christ has become king and, as Scripture says, presently rules over the world and over earthly government.” In Hawley’s view, scripture teaches that political government is mandated by God, which in turn requires that “Christians’ purpose in politics should be to advance the kingdom of God—to make it more real, more tangible, more present.”
This 2012 version of Hawley—he was then an associate professor of law at the University of Missouri law school—shows a reluctance to embrace a militant “Christian dominionism” stance. “Advancing God’s kingdom,” he writes, “does not mean abandoning constitutional government in favor of theocracy or using the state to convert non-believers.” And yet, this worldview nonetheless sets up secularism as the enemy and endorses theocratic government. Christians, in Hawley’s view, shouldn’t be politely waiting for acknowledgement from government, a secular entity; they should work for a “kingdom agenda” inspired by Mosaic law that models the Kingdom of God. This quest, to make government serve “Christ’s kingdom rule,” is necessary if the end times are to be made immanent and the prescriptions of Christian scripture are to be fulfilled.
Hawley’s words are frightening because of their ability to justify everything that happened on January 6. When metaphysics and religious dogma become the basis of human action, they can galvanize and justify like no other force. Unlike political agendas that rely on the success or failure of ideological goals made palpable, those driven by God never expect to see success, which is conveniently set aside for the afterlife. In the living world, this can justify everything from suicide bombings to institutional destruction to targeted killing.
Like Hawley, Sayyid Qutb was a man who sought to be a transformational figure, with the same project of ensuring that religion came first and man-made laws would be subordinate to religious laws.
The truth of this can be seen in the work of other Hawleys, born in other lands. One particularly apt comparison is the infamous Sayyid Qutb, a major architect and strategist of the contemporary Sunni revival. Qutb, like Hawley, spent his early career teaching. But he made a life-changing turn when he left then-secular Egypt in 1948 to pursue a Masters degree in education in the United States. Disgusted by the West and particularly by secularism, he returned to Egypt in the early 1950s, resigned his position with the Ministry of Education, and joined the Sunni revivalist group the Muslim Brotherhood. He would become one of its intellectual vanguards, and remained influential even after his execution in 1966 by the Egyptian government.
Like Hawley, Qutb was a man who sought to be a transformational figure, with the same project of ensuring that religion came first and man-made laws would be subordinate to religious laws, seeing Islam as “the Divine imperative that must assume power to regulate all aspects of life.” Qutb viewed modernity as the negation of Islam, which he saw as a dynamic force that should be the basis of political doctrine. His writings were emotional and urgent, and scholars have argued that it was his emotionalism that helped forge, as Leonard Binder wrote in Islamic Liberalism, a new fundamentalism “in the form of a popular movement that is neither vulnerable to state control nor subservient to traditional and parochial elites.”
A similar grievance-laden anti-elitism is interwoven in the rhetoric and aesthetic of Hawley and his followers. It is a lovely gloss because it allows them to appeal to a broad swath of men who are guided less by any actual gripes against all elites (the irony of Trump as leader precludes this) and more by the emotionalism of not feeling like they are the elite, even as they feel entitled to such dominance. Centering the emotion of feeling wronged creates legions who can envelop both Hawley, a Midwestern small-town boy made good, and a QAnon shaman wearing horns. Both are searching for an imaginary world that justifies and ensures their dominance.
The West in general, and the United States in particular, are used to the Orientalist mode of thinking that imagines everything happening in the Middle East as mapped onto the Western past. The West is incorrectly assumed as always being first. But the insurgent hankering for an anti-elite theocracy is yet another example of the reverse being true. In the politics of men like Sayyid Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood are crucial clues about one future of American politics. The Capitol Hill rioters made sure to pray in the Senate chamber after they stormed the building; they erected a wooden cross; some carried a Christian flag and waved their Bibles. After the attack was over, white evangelical leaders refused to condemn it and continued to support Trump’s remarks. So too did Josh Hawley. Even as others in the United States Senate were cowed by the shocking turn of events on January 6, Hawley hewed to the Trumpist line and attitude: “I will never apologize” he said in a statement after the riot, for “giving voice” to those who believed Trump’s claims about a stolen election.
The future of MAGA and a character like Josh Hawley may well be in the development of a Christian-Brotherhood-type movement, one that overtly places religious dogma above democratic politics, and Christianity (as they define it) over the Constitution. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, this emergent political force in the United States will rely on the familiar language of faith to undo institutional and constitutional norms. To do this, they will deploy the clean-cut MAGA-sexuals like Hawley to debate in the Senate and the horn-wearing, pelt-waving Chansleys, or the combat-ready fatigue-wearing militia members, to terrify and taunt everyone who does not support them. The combination of the two is a startling development—the expansion and collusion of two kinds of angry men into one movement. Fancy talk is left to those in respectable uniforms while the weaponization of protest is left to the others. Alone, each would be impotent and easily quashed; together (as the Muslim Brotherhood realized), they are less so. If the comparison is apt, then this is only the beginning, and the American Christian Brotherhood, or some form of it, is here to stay.