Josh Hawley was one of the leaders of a Republican attempt to block the certification of the presidential election results © Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty

When Josh Hawley ran for public office for the first time in 2016, the future US senator with TV looks and an impressive conservative pedigree put out an ad vowing not to be the kind of politician who used victory as a catapult to higher things.

“[Missouri] is full of career politicians just climbing the ladder, using one office to get another,” Mr Hawley said. “You deserve better.”

Less than a year later, after a successful run for Missouri attorney-general, Mr Hawley was gunning for his next job as a senator. After winning that contest in 2019, he emerged as a potential Republican presidential candidate for 2024.

Then, his ladder skidded.

As one of the leaders of the Republican attempt to block the certification of the November 2020 election results — which morphed into an attack on the US Capitol — Mr Hawley has faced widespread recrimination from some of his biggest supporters and financial backers.

Mr Hawley’s longtime mentor, the former Missouri Republican senator John Danforth, said that championing Mr Hawley’s rise was “the worst decision I’ve ever made in my life”. Two of his top donors have renounced him.

Hallmark, the greetings card company based in Mr Hawley’s state, has asked his campaign to return donations from its employees, while his hometown newspaper declared in an editorial that the junior senator had “blood on his hands”.

Carlos Curbelo, the former Republican congressman, suggested in an interview that Mitch McConnell, the top-ranking Republican in the Senate, might even strip Mr Hawley of his committee assignments or censure him, along with Ted Cruz, the other senator behind the campaign against certification.

Mr Curbelo said Mr McConnell knew “these types of attitudes have to be purged from his conference” and that both senators were “extremely vulnerable”.

Friends of Mr Hawley said they had watched in horror as events unfolded.

“I’ve thought a lot about Macbeth: when you’re halfway through the river, you might as well go to the other side,” said one friend, referring to the Scottish general’s monologue in Act III when he describes being so deep in “the river of blood” that he is unable to turn back.

“Am I surprised by what happened?” asked David Kennedy, the Stanford history professor who mentored Mr Hawley as an undergraduate and has stayed in close touch with him over the years. “Yes. Am I disappointed? Yes.”

Professor Kennedy said he was perplexed by Mr Hawley’s decision not to use the “off ramp” taken by his Republican colleagues, who abandoned the challenge after the riot in the Capitol.

The senator’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.

Despite his populist leanings, Mr Hawley had the kind of opportunities that most Americans can only dream of. The son of a banker who grew up in small-town Lexington, Missouri, Mr Hawley was educated at a private Catholic boys school and then attended Stanford, where Prof Kennedy recalled him as among the “most gifted” undergraduates he had ever taught.

Under Prof Kennedy’s tutelage, Mr Hawley’s senior thesis on Theodore Roosevelt was eventually published as a biography on the 26th president when its author was just 28.

Mr Hawley enrolled at Yale Law School. A prestigious clerkship under Chief Justice John Roberts at the Supreme Court followed. Mr Hawley’s future wife, Erin Morrow, was a fellow clerk.

A life-long conservative who was a member of the Federalist Society at Yale, Mr Hawley joined a conservative charity in Washington, then taught constitutional law at the University of Missouri before his election as the state attorney-general.

In the Senate, Mr Hawley made a name for himself as a populist conservative, becoming one of the biggest GOP critics against Big Tech, an issue that some friends linked back to his interest in the trustbusting Roosevelt.

He advocated for a second round of $2,000 relief cheques for Americans during the pandemic, a stance that aligned him with the likes of Bernie Sanders and eventually secured the backing of President Donald Trump.

Prof Kennedy, who contributed to Mr Hawley’s first campaign and attended his inauguration as state attorney-general, said he was dismayed when he saw Mr Hawley starting to align himself closely with Mr Trump during his Senate run, a trend that only accelerated. “He seems to not only have drunk the Kool-Aid but swam in it,” he said.

Josh Hawley has become a lightning rod for anger over the attack on the US Capitol, as evidenced by this placard at the old courthouse in St Louis, Missouri © Lawrence Bryant/Reuters

In interviews, some friends of Mr Hawley’s from Yale Law School and the Supreme Court recalled Mr Hawley not as a political climber but as an affable, mild-mannered conservative who was polite about his deeply held beliefs.

“I can name 10 conservative douchebags from his time at Yale Law, and he wasn’t on the list,” said one classmate, who donated to Mr Hawley’s first campaign.

But others have less favourable recollections of Mr Hawley. They remember him as condescending to those he deemed to be below his station or of little use on his path to success.

“I got glimpses of his Senate floor personality when we were in law school,” said one, who described Mr Hawley as “ideologically pure” but “personally unlikeable”.

In the days since he was photographed walking into the US Capitol on January 6 — giving a fist pump to the Trump protesters outside — Mr Hawley has defended his decision to object, arguing that “democratic debate is not mob violence”.

And he has lashed out at Simon & Schuster, which announced it was cancelling his forthcoming book in the wake of the riot, accusing the publisher of making a “direct assault on the First Amendment”.

But as a legal scholar, Mr Hawley will know that while the First Amendment protects free speech, it does not prevent private companies from deciding what to publish.

One law school classmate said he did not think Mr Hawley really believed the election was stolen. “He’s a smart person . . . articulating a [false] idea to curry favour with a certain part of the population.”

He added: “Everyone knew it was a dangerous, destabilising idea, and he was the first one to . . . throw caution to the wind because of political expediency.”

Get alerts on US politics & policy when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article