Welcome to the Show-Me Hate
On Jan. 6, 2021, as Missouri’s bicentennial year was just getting started, Josh Hawley thrust the state into the spotlight with a fist pump.
We all remember that afternoon. A conspiracy-fueled crowd gathered outside of the U.S Capitol in Washington D.C., convinced of Donald Trump’s bogus claim that the presidential election of a couple of months earlier had been stolen from him.
Hawley, Missouri’s junior senator, drew a cheer as he walked by on his way to work. A few days earlier, he had announced he would challenge the certification of legitimate Electoral College results that awarded the presidency to Joe Biden. Trump’s followers—with their QAnon symbols, Confederate flags, and Nazi symbols—saluted Hawley for that.
Hawley saluted them back with that raised fist. A news photographer captured the moment and within an hour the image was everywhere.
In the days following the Capitol insurrection, I received a lot of messages from people who live in other places. The common thread was, “What is wrong with your senator?” It was as though people couldn’t understand how a state famed as the birthplace of plainspoken Harry Truman and very recently represented by a Democratic senator, Claire McCaskill, suddenly birthed this frightening aberration.
But Missouri has always served as a cradle for right-wing extremism.
Missouri is the state where a bust of Rush Limbaugh occupies a place of honor in the state capitol.
It is the base from which Phyllis Schlafly mobilized brigades of conservative women in the 1970s to slam the brakes on passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
It is the home of Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who became instant right-wing celebrities last year for brandishing firearms at Black Lives Matter protesters who were marching past the McCloskey’s St. Louis home.
It’s unfair, of course, to define a state by its outliers. Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, and Walter Cronkite also heralded from Missouri, to name just a few.
But, two centuries after its founding, Missouri is increasingly embracing its reactionary personality.
Every day the headlines serve up some new outrage: A new law claims to invalidate federal gun legislation. The governor frets about an imaginary scenario in which federal agents knock on people’s doors and browbeat them into getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Having all but paused abortions in the state, some lawmakers are now crusading against birth control.
McCaskill, who was senator for 12 years before losing to Hawley in 2018, says she saw the craziness coming in the runup to the 2016 Presidential election.
“I had a front row seat, watching what was happening in our state,” McCaskill says. “The culture wars, along with tapping the vein of grievance, is such a powerful combination outside of the urban areas.”
No one knows better how to monopolize grievances than Trump. He won Missouri by a 19-point margin in 2016, and stands as the titan of its Republican party today.
“Trump masterfully knew to market himself as someone who got their angst, got their grievances,” says McCaskill. “Screw all the politicians, screw Washington. I’m the one who’s going to be your savior. And, by gosh, in rural Missouri, that’s what he was to people.”
But Missouri—once known as the nation’s bellwether—has been an aggrieved, alienated kind of place almost from its birth in August of 1821.
In the years leading up to and during the Civil War, it harbored pro-slavery guerrilla fighters who resisted Union occupation and battled with anti-slavery fighters in Kansas. Union commanders retaliated by forcibly displacing fighters and their families and confiscating their property.
“They wouldn’t just come to arrest them and take them to jail,” says Don Haider-Markel, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who studies extremism. “They would burn their house down, so their family had no place to live. And that’s what helped radicalize the right. It really dates back that far.”
A deep distrust of the federal government slices through Missouri’s history.
In the 1950s, racist, anti-Communist preachers with Missouri ties—like Bill Beeny and Billy James Hargis—beamed incendiary propaganda over the airwaves, alleging Communist infiltration of universities, civil rights groups, and the federal government.
“Basically they were saying not only that the Soviet Union is going to infiltrate the U.S., but that they’re infiltrating the U.S. government,” Haider-Markel says, “and we can no longer trust our government, our democracy, to do the right thing, and we’re going to have to take things into our own hands.”
That message, carried to its extreme, has manifested in a long record of militia, cult, and hate group activities.
In the 1960s, Robert DePugh, a pet vitamin entrepreneur from Norborne, Missouri, channeled his hatred of Communists and government into the violent survivalist movement remembered as the Minutemen.
Don Gayman, a pastor who espoused a theory that Jewish people descended from a union between Adam and Satan, established his base in Schell City, Missouri, in the 1970s. He became an inspiration for the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, a sprawling white supremacist cult based in Arkansas and Missouri through the mid-1980s.
Seven years ago, a dissipated former Ku Klux Klan leader, Frazier Glenn Miller, crawled out of a small town in southwest Missouri, drove to Overland Park, Kansas, and fatally shot three people whom he wrongly assumed were Jewish people.
“The far right generally agrees on one thing: We hate the federal government,” says Haider-Markel. “The reasons why they hate the federal government are different depending on the strain of far-right extremism, but they all hate the federal government.”
Reflexive abhorrence of the federal government drives a lot of the insanity we see in Missouri today, like the attempted nullification of federal gun laws.
“That runs deep in Missouri,” says McCaskill. “This idea that the government can’t tell me what to do, that I have the right to my gun and I have the right to shoot people on my property, and I have the right to tell the government to go pound sand. Those are the green shoots of extremism.”
For a glimpse of extremism in full bloom, look no further than the race for the U.S. Senate seat that long-time Republican office holder Roy Blunt is vacating after this year.
One of the announced candidates is former Gov. Eric Greitens, who got elected in 2016 partly by running TV ads showing himself in military gear blowing things up, and then blew himself up with a sex scandal and campaign finance irregularities.
Another is state Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who spends most of his time and tons of taxpayer money launching quixotic lawsuits against the Biden administration and the federal government.
A third contender is the aforementioned Mark McCloskey. Because nothing defines “leader” in the 200th year of Missouri’s statehood like a belligerent, camera-loving lawyer who “defended” his property from the threat of peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters.
And Sen. Hawley? He whined about his book deal being “cancelled” by a major publisher after his role in the Capitol insurrection. Some of his benefactors deserted him and expressed remorse for their role in his meteoric rise to national office.
But Hawley is unlikely to pay much of a political price for his salute to the faces of insurrection. Because, in ways that matter, he is a true son of Missouri. He exemplifies its defiance and its corroded populism. He understands that extremism can reap political rewards.
Missouri in 2021 is reeling from one of the nation’s highest COVID-19 infection rates, unceasing gun violence, decreasing life expectancy, and a stagnated economy. Its legislature and governor have denied health insurance to low-income workers, even though voters called for them to expand Medicaid eligibility.
But we have our guns and our glory and we are keeping the federal government at bay.
Happy 200th Birthday, Missouri. Bring on the fireworks.