Since appearing on the national political scene in 2019, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley has built a brand as a populist (sort of), a critic of Big Tech, and a prominent supporter of Donald Trump and his Big Lie. Now he’s trying something new: podcasting. I have a track record of subjecting myself to questionable podcasts for science and so I, dutifully, have listened to This Is Living, Josh and his wife Erin Hawley’s newish advice pod, which has a 4.1-star rating on iTunes. There are currently seven episodes, plus a “best of” clip show, issued (incredibly) after the show was just five episodes deep into its run. The cover art features the two lawyers smiling blondly, superimposed over a baby-blue gradated background that looks a little like a sky.
It may not shock you to learn that this blandness seeps into the audio, which is packed full of repeated truisms hyped up as novelties, and awkward moments of “camaraderie.” To be sure, the show is not really “for me”—it’s very, very Christian, for one thing—but it’s also just repetitive, full of boring and obvious stories, and not at all lively. Josh and Erin are “husband and wife, but also best friends.” Josh makes a lot of “jokes” about how Erin is stuck with him, how she’s so much better than him at studying, and so on. They want to make sure you know that although they may appear successful (a senator! a “Supreme Court lawyer,” currently practicing part time!), achievement and promotions are not the end goal of life; family is. In fact, Erin decided to step back from her job after she got some advice from her mom. That advice, so novel that we must hear about it on a podcast? “Your children are only little once.”
The Hawleys are also relentlessly positive about their marriage, in which Erin does most of the home stuff, freeing Josh to be out and about, encouraging subversion of the 2020 election results. (“Josh gets a lot of criticism, but that’s part of being in politics,” Erin says at one point.) The two talk a lot about how tired Erin is, with two boys in elementary school and a 1-year-old girl, but, she says, bringing it back to religion, “God could have made this a lot easier. He could have made babies who sleep through the night. In that dependence there’s sweetness.” And Josh is always there for bedtime, though, as he puts it, he’s the one who takes the “first pass”—then Erin comes in to “seal the deal.” (Those in the know may mutter that “sealing the deal” is usually the part that demands parental firmness, mental focus, and time!) But there are many things, the Hawleys agree, that wives must think differently about, in order to be happier with their lot. Women, for example, should learn not to take it personally when men, who are working during the day, come home cranky. They also need to “focus on their husbands,” not on their kids, even when they are so tired, and it seems like the kids are the ones having constant dire emergencies.
Episode 5, “Bringing Up Boys,” is where you can really see how this podcast is doing political work for Hawley, despite its hand-waving to the contrary. An earlier episode, “How to Parent With Purpose,” does have mentions of how important it is not to keep kids “safe from every bit of pain or offense” (ding, ding! dog whistle detected), but “Bringing Up Boys,” about “the challenge of raising boys to men in today’s culture,” is directly connected to Hawley’s recent keynote speech to the National Conservatism Conference on the supposed crisis of masculinity in America. The speech blames “the Left” for “defin[ing] traditional masculinity as toxic,” a project that has supposedly “had alarming success,” resulting in lower levels of employment, lower rates of marriage and fatherhood, and more anxiety, depression, and substance abuse among men. In vain might one point to the country’s embrace of Donald “Grab Them by the … ” Trump, the continuing cultural dominance of masculine heroism in television and movies, and politicians’ dogged deference to traditional tough-guy trades like coal mining in constructing policy as evidence that this supposedly hegemonic climate of anti-masculinity is a mirage.
And, as Liza Featherstone argued in the New York Times last week, even if it is true that men are living shorter lives and attending college less often than women and dying of opioid use disorder more often, these problems will not be solved by Hawley’s anti-woke-ism. The entire argument for the origins of this problem rests on shaky foundations. Looking at the higher rates of diagnosis of ADHD and of school suspensions for boys, for example, Hawley blames—whom? In that keynote speech, it’s “the Left” that has created a climate of judgment of boyishness and masculinity. On the podcast, toning down his rhetoric a bit, Hawley is extremely vague about why boys are having a hard time. He tries not to seem like he’s blaming teachers. But the implication is that boys are spending too much time with (presumably mostly female) teachers and school personnel who don’t understand them, and with mothers who won’t let them climb trees.
This is a misogynistic fear of female pollution of supposedly pure boyhood that is as old as the hills. To me, it seems clear that these problems are not to be fixed by female teachers loosening up on their censorship of disruptive dramatic play, or female parents allowing more physical risk-taking. Do teachers disallow this kind of play because they personally dislike it, or rather because it cannot fit into school, the way school is currently constituted? Maybe they don’t have the facilities to safely contain kids who want to bounce and jounce, the small class sizes that allow them to sufficiently supervise this kind of risk-taking, or the outdoor time in the daily schedule for this dynamic of exuberant play to develop as it should?
For every story the Hawleys tell about how their boys Elijah and Blaise act, pegging their attitude of exuberance to boyishness, I can think of a parallel story about how my own daughter—not a boy!—navigates the world. The boys don’t “sit and observe the flowers” (Hawley’s words) at recess, but rather run and jump and climb? I think about how J., age 4.5, reports playing “tackle monster tag” with her friends during playground time. The boys have a “zest for life, a drive”? That’s just called “being a kid,” and I suspect all parents are afraid, as Erin is for her boys, of that quality getting “taken away” as they get older. The boys don’t like “wasting time”—a characteristic illustrated by a story in which one of the Hawley boys says he doesn’t want to take a shower because he’d rather be throwing a football? J. has said almost the same thing at bath time, only substitute “building Lego” for “throwing a football.” I have to wonder what will happen when Abigail, their 1-year-old—whom Josh refers to on two separate occasions, in that begrudging way some parents have when describing their smaller children’s exertions of will, as “the princess of our house”—gets older. If she turns out to have these qualities, how will they get recast as particularly “female”?
Reading more about Hawley’s masculinist turn and hearing how it plays out on this podcast have at long last, soured me on a historical fandom I’ve harbored for years, since visiting Teddy Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill home on Long Island with my family in elementary school. In college, Hawley was a precocious Roosevelt scholar—he even wrote a book about the guy (more on which in a moment). Perhaps, like me, Hawley was attracted to the man’s swaggering nature, coupled with his intense nerdiness. There are so many good T.R. stories (from the dead seal, to “The light has gone out of my life,” to the thwarted assassination attempt, to the River of Doubt). Ever since reading historian Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization, about Roosevelt and the larger culture that sprang up around redefining manhood in the Progressive Era, I have thought that era’s fixation on masculinity was—if not something I’d at all want to resurrect, given all the racism and eugenics that went along with it—a fun object of analysis. That rotten political core generated all these cultural developments that were so interesting: The rise of fitness gurus! The establishment of national parks! All that weird shit around neurasthenia!
Watching Josh Hawley, who knows way more about Teddy Roosevelt’s mind than I do, take these old ideas about how modernity collides with masculinity and resurrect them in 2021 to use as a cudgel for some indistinct idea of “the Left” has completely cured me of my T.R. infatuation. Of course, I see now, this stuff was ripe for repurposing. It sounded so much more interesting when Roosevelt wrote about it, but that would not have made a difference to those unmanly others Roosevelt argued needed the firm hand of the American government to help them along.
Hawley’s book, based on an (undergrad!) honors thesis advised by David M. Kennedy at Stanford, was published by Yale University Press in 2008 with the title Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness. Kennedy wrote the introduction, which was glowing. In 2021, after Hawley raised his fist in support of the Capitol rioters, Kennedy told Politico that he was shocked: “I absolutely could not have predicted that the bright, idealistic, clear-thinking young student that I knew would follow this path.”
I read this book as I was listening to the podcast. (Sometimes I read it to procrastinate, so that I could put off listening to more of this podcast.) It’s very good: smoothly written, narratively engaging, brilliantly thought out. Like Kennedy and the other people who knew him at Stanford and spoke to Politico about him, I can’t really understand what happened to Josh Hawley. But whatever he wants to do next, I’m not sure This Is Living is going to get him there. As of the writing of this post, the podcast was nowhere to be found in the iTunes top 200 list for its category, Religion & Spirituality.