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Facebook had seen enough. The social media company long resisted pressure to take action against a sitting U.S. president, but in the aftermath of the 2020 election, after months of fictitious claims about stolen votes and massive fraud that culminated in the MAGA faithful storming the U.S. Capitol, it finally decided to suspend President Donald Trump’s account — a decision upheld May 5 by the company’s “oversight board.”
Part Supreme Court, part Star Chamber, the oversight board chastised Facebook for its contingent, “indefinite” ban and gave the company six months to make a permanent decision. But whether you welcomed the ban as a long-overdue corrective to a pandemic of misinformation or a chilling suppression of political expression, the whole ruckus highlighted the inescapable power and ubiquity of Big Tech.
Enter Sen. Josh Hawley (R‑Mo.), who has made it his mission to break up this loose agglomeration of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and Apple that has transformed our once variegated and anarchic internet into a series of walled gardens. These corporations are due a reckoning, Hawley reasons, and in his new book, The Tyranny of Big Tech, he makes the case that he is the man for the job.
Following the events of January 6, a pantomime of insurrection that began with shocking violence before dissipating in confusion and recrimination, Hawley found himself on the outs with many of the people who enabled his rise. The junior senator from Missouri had been one of the earliest (and loudest) members of Congress to boost a series of bogus claims that had animated the would-be putsch to restore the outgoing president to power. And just before the mob attacked the Capitol, Hawley was photographed pumping his first in their direction, egging them on.
David Kennedy, the Stanford professor who wrote the foreword to Hawley’s first book, Theodore Roosevelt: Preacher of Righteousness, now professes befuddlement that one of his best students could go so astray. John Danforth, the former Missouri senator who recruited Hawley to run for his seat, has called the decision “the worst mistake I’ve ever made in my life.” George Will, whom Hawley emulated as a young conservative columnist and who supported Hawley’s senatorial bid, has called for Hawley to wear “a scarlet ‘S’ as a seditionist.” All of these po-faced reassessments are at once comical and tragically ironic — the howls of towering egotists suddenly realizing that the fellow who’d been kissing their asses all these years was doing so for his own damn benefit.
Hawley is not as intelligent as his elite mentors seem to think he is, but he is undoubtedly a skilled opportunist. Before the Capitol riot dimmed his star somewhat, he had even begun to make inroads as a Trumpist that Democrats on the corporate-skeptical Left might be able to work with. Although his votes often belied his real loyalties — Hawley supported Trump’s tax cuts, for example — he was a reliable rhetorical ally for a growing coalition of writers, iconoclastic economists and politicians clustered under the broad umbrella of anti-monopoly advocacy.
The Tyranny of Big Tech is less a book than it is a pamphlet. (Like so many hastily published conservative titles, its 200 pages are padded out with notes — mostly links — and a slim index.) While Hawley wrote the book prior to the events of January 6, his act of incitement prompted Simon & Schuster to cancel its release, and the senator threatened to sue the publisher, calling its decision “Orwellian.” The conservative Regnery Publishing then stepped into the breach and published the book instead. (In a delicious twist that speaks to our age of corporate consolidation, Regnery’s books are distributed by none other than Simon & Schuster.)
The book is divided into three sections: a hilariously potted history of American political economy and monopoly; a middle section detailing the many abuses, real and imagined, of the Big Tech firms; and a brief conclusion that includes a chapter titled “What Each of Us Can Do.” (Not much, apparently.)
The first section, a mix of conservative mythmaking and middle school civics, is by far the most bracing. In Hawley’s telling, America was a nation composed entirely of rock-ribbed yeomen until John Pierpont Morgan invented monopolies and ushered in the Gilded Age. Teddy Roosevelt fought valiantly to bust the country’s trusts but was ultimately unable to solve the infernal problem of capital concentration. Then the great villain of this tale, Woodrow Wilson, came into office and created a system that Hawley calls “corporate liberalism.” The term is hazily defined but roughly analogous to what neo-reactionaries and the alt-right used to call “The Cathedral” — a nefarious cabal of university presidents, corporate personnel departments and unelected government experts.
Hawley doesn’t seem to care that the 28th president of the United States can’t reasonably be cast as a “rootless cosmopolitan,” or that Wilson pursued his own antitrust measures in the form of the Clayton Antitrust Act and the creation of a Federal Trade Commission. For the Missouri senator, Wilson was the final nail in the coffin of the Republic, and The Tyranny of Big Tech draws a straight and uninterrupted historical line from his administration to Mark Zuckerberg.
The middle portion of the book is largely, though not entirely, unobjectionable. Hawley’s policy proscriptions — curtailing the tracking of individuals and their online activities by tech firms, establishing stricter rules for access to social media by children and adolescents, banning infinite scrolling mechanisms, dividing up Big Tech firms and heavily scrutinizing acquisitions in the sector — are reasonable. And while he predictably conflates the right to speak with the right to have a platform, private firms now control so much of what we consider the public square that Hawley’s complaints about free speech have some merit, oleaginous though they may be.
Like many conservatives, however, Hawley also wants to repeal “Section 230” of the Communications Decency Act, which he mistakenly believes has incentivized “woke” tech companies to censor conservative voices. In fact, Section 230’s broad liability exclusions for platforms protects controversial expression, and the moment these companies become responsible for what users post on their sites and networks, they will almost certainly begin to censor, ban and police content much more aggressively than they do already.
Anti-monopolism is enjoying a certain faddish resurgence in American political discourse. (Somewhat amusingly, it is particularly popular online.) Idiosyncratic pundit Matt Stoller and the American Prospect’s David Dayen, for example, have both recently published infinitely more rigorous studies of monopoly in America — although, like Hawley, both may evince a somewhat naïve faith in the power of market competition to deliver just results to workers and consumers. (Stoller has been deservedly criticized for his silence on Hawley after enthusiastically embracing the senator prior to January 6.) Democrats, at least on the left flank of the party, are increasingly and vocally displeased with Big Tech.
Does this mean there’s an opening for a bipartisan alliance to rein in these corporations? In a word, no. Hawley gestures at the imbalance between “labor and capital,” but actual workers hardly appear in the book, and the book’s discussion of labor unions is confined to a single footnote. Hawley claims that capital pays too small a share of taxes but neglects to mention that he has supported legislation that reduced that tax burden or that he has publicly called for a complete elimination of the inheritance tax — another means of addressing accumulated capital.
“Corporate liberalism” may be the bogeyman of The Tyranny of Big Tech, but Hawley seems much more concerned about “liberalism” than actual corporations. Indeed, his anti-corporate posture is unconvincing in part because he is only willing to target tech, and not any of the other equally disastrous concentrations of corporate power in Big Pharma, Big Ag and numerous other sectors.
Toward the end of his book, Hawley writes that the “Founders knew that aristocracy is a political decision, a decision by the upwardly mobile of society to rearrange things for their benefit.” The Founders, of course, knew no such thing, and the notion that being “upwardly mobile” is compatible with aristocracy reflects a silly misunderstanding of the term. For all his stentorian trumpeting of the “common man,” a phrase that other reviewers have noted appears more than 30 times in the book, it is plain that Hawley is not concerned with social hierarchy or democracy. He’s mad that the wrong people have power and social influence.
Hawley hopes you will blame the liberal gatekeepers when your tweets go un-liked and your kids don’t respond to your conservative memes on Facebook. Mostly, though, he hopes you will feel as flattered by his fawning attention as his now-regretful mentors once did and support the only guy in America who really cares: Josh Hawley.
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Jacob Bacharach is a novelist and critic. He lives in Pittsburgh, Pa. and Blacksburg, Va.