The January 6 Committee has mostly presented itself as a serious, solemn effort to hold President Donald Trump accountable for his effort to orchestrate the unconstitutional overthrow of a free and fair election. There have been few moments of levity, and few attacks on Republicans who are not Trump. Most witnesses have been GOP White House staffers and Trump appointees who have spoken of the former president’s crimes in sorrow and anger, but not, predictably, with much humor.
That all changed dramatically during last night’s primetime hearings, when the committee suddenly took its focus off Trump to turn Missouri Senator Josh Hawley into a laughingstock.
Like his colleagues, Hawley was at the Capitol on January 6 for the joint session of Congress called to do its Constitutional duty and certify the Electoral College vote. The Senator walked across the East Front, where many of Trump’s riot-ready supporters were gathered. There he raised his fist, wearing a solemn expression, as if he were contemplating the storied rise of Mussolini.
According to a Capitol police officer the committee spoke to, the gesture “riled up the crowd”. The officer was upset at the spectacle; Hawley was playing at violence behind the barriers as well as behind police officers who were all too literally, as it turned out, risking their lives for him.
Hawley fundraised off the picture of himself raising his fist. He obviously hoped it would buttress his image as a populist fighter and authoritarian hero. He was the first Senator to vote against certifying the Electoral College results per Trump’s coup plot.
Hawley’s courage was short-lived, though. “Later that day, Senator Hawley fled after those protesters he helped to rile up stormed the Capitol. See for yourself,” Senator Lurie said during this week’s hearing. She then showed a clip of Hawley running across a hallway past security, clutching some papers, minutes after he’d taken a power stance in front of the rioters now bursting into the building.
Online, “hypocrite coward Hawley” quickly became a meme. One enterprising social media genius set Hawley running to a range of music from the Chariots of Fire soundtrack to the Sir Robin theme from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Illinois Republican House member Adam Kinzinger, who serves on the January 6th committee, called Hawley “Fistpump McRunpants” on Twitter. When Hawley, trying to counter, tweeted a picture of his fistpump on a mug, Daily Beast contributor Erin Ryan responded, “Perfect for coffee that gives you the runs.”
The January 6 committee exposed Hawley’s hypocrisy and in doing so, made him look ridiculous through humor. That was certainly the intention. The committee had to know that the clip of Hawley sprinting for safety past a bunch of stationary guards would go viral.
That’s important, because so far most Republicans have paid a very limited price for openly aiding the coup attempt. The political danger seems to be all on the other side; those who oppose Trump are being purged. Liz Cheney, who serves on the January 6 committee and openly condemns the coup, is on her way to a brutal loss in her Wyoming Republican primary. Adam Kinzinger isn’t running for reelection.
In contrast, representatives who, evidence suggests, actively conspired with Trump to organize the coup attempt have faced few consequences. The committee has testimony that Rep. Jim Jordan, for example, was closely involved in Trump’s plan to defy the Constitution. He was among those who talked to White House officials about pardons according to staffer Casey Hutchinson. But Jordan’s seat isn’t competitive. His Democratic challenger, Tamie Wilson, is going to struggle to unseat him.
Meanwhile, Hawley isn’t up for reelection until 2024, and while he lost donors and a book deal for his role in the coup, he retains a good deal of support. Still, the January 6 Committee is letting him, and others like him, know that it can do some damage. That footage of Hawley scampering is a free gift to the campaign ads of his next electoral opponent.
Hawley figured he could run through the halls of Congress unobserved, and that no one would ever know of his cowardice and hypocrisy. Presumably, he didn’t realize he was on camera when he betrayed his very real fear of the rioters he’d been happy to encourage. But the commission got the tape and knew what to do with it. Hopefully there are other villains and plotters from that day who are sweatily listening to the laughter and looking for places to run.