Madison Cawthorn’s Insurrection – The New Yorker


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Representative Madison Cawthorn, the bombastic North Carolina Republican, doesn’t care that the state’s conservative establishment is uniting against him. As the youngest member of Congress, at twenty-six, and one of the most headline-grabbing, Cawthorn contends that weak Republican leaders are responsible for leaving the United States nearly thirty trillion dollars in debt. He told me, “That’s thanks to people who have been kind of ignorant and slow, not realizing that the Democratic Party is filled with socialists who are so organized, so vicious, and so strong that we have got to start fighting back.”It might come as a surprise that increasingly radical Republicans—who control twenty-six governorships and a Supreme Court majority, and are favored to take back both the Senate and the House—are not putting up a fight against Democrats, or that the national debt is the legacy of Democrats alone. But that is Cawthorn’s story, and he is harnessing it to challenge entrenched Republican authority in North Carolina and around the country. After a leader of the conservative John Locke Foundation called him “a callow and appallingly ignorant young man who regularly embarrasses conservatives and Republicans, whether they admit it or not,” Cawthorn was unmoved. He told me, “If I have to call somebody out, and call the Republican Party of old spineless and capitulatory, then I’m more than happy to do that. You’ve destroyed my country.”An enthusiastic promoter of a second Donald Trump Presidency, with his own sights set on becoming governor, Cawthorn said that he aims to help set the agenda for the moment when Republicans return to power in Congress—and to wrench the Party further to the right. He has the backing of Trump, and he is building alliances with the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and insurgents in North Carolina. Last month, he poked another stick at North Carolina’s Republican establishment when he darted into a freshly drawn congressional district, widely believed to have been carved out for the state’s influential House speaker, Tim Moore. Rather than face Cawthorn, who has raised more than two million dollars this campaign cycle, Moore announced that he would be running for reëlection instead.Three weeks later, Cawthorn visited Trump at Mar-a-Lago, where he shared a list of endorsements called “Congressman Cawthorn’s Plan for North Carolina.” When I asked him about the list, which included incumbents and unorthodox contenders for Democratic and open seats, he said that they are “great America First candidates.” The Republican targets of his rhetoric, he told me, are the ones “who’ve got the pleated pants and the tassel loafers, and they just want to see their name in the paper every other week. And that’s exactly what seventy per cent of Congress people are.”Cawthorn’s rise has been swift. Raised in Hendersonville, North Carolina, where he was homeschooled by his family, he was involved in a severe car crash when he was eighteen, which left him reliant on a wheelchair. He enrolled in Patrick Henry College, but dropped out after one semester. In early 2020, he was just twenty-four, not yet old enough to take a seat in Congress but unafraid to challenge older and more experienced candidates. He worked his way through a crowded field, competing for the Eleventh District seat vacated by Mark Meadows, a Freedom Caucus founder who resigned to become Trump’s chief of staff. Cawthorn finished in second place in the primary, beating a seasoned state senator by barely a thousand votes and earning a spot in a June runoff against Lynda Bennett, a Meadows family friend who trumpeted her endorsement by Trump and otherwise kept a low profile.A few days before the runoff, I drove to Cawthorn’s final rally, held in a showroom connected to a gun store in his home town of Hendersonville. There, over a barbecue dinner, he shared his vision of a country facing multiplying threats. He criticized “the mainstream media and the far-left lefties,” who, he said, were trying to sow “discord.” He worried that the children he hopes to have one day will grow up in a country “with an eighty-per-cent tax rate, so they can give free stuff to all kinds of people all over the world.” He lamented an American welfare system that is “basically incentivizing young women, especially minority women, to not get married, and have more children, because they get more welfare checks because of that.” In the runoff, he trounced Bennett, and he went on to a comfortable win over Moe Davis, an Asheville-based Democrat, in the November election. His first tweet on the night of his victory: “Cry more, lib.”Cawthorn made news days after being sworn in by speaking at Trump’s January 6th Stop the Steal rally, where Cawthorn spread unfounded allegations of election fraud and called Republican colleagues “cowards.” He later falsely blamed the day’s violence not on Trump supporters but on “agitators” from the left. In August, he called the Trump supporters who targeted police officers and invaded the Capitol “political prisoners.” Recently, Cawthorn accused Joe Biden of “intentionally trying to destroy this country.” I asked whether he really believes that. He answered that the President is a “tyrant,” but also senile. “Perhaps I did misspeak,” he said. “I don’t believe that Joe Biden is actually in command of anything. I mean, we all see his cognitive decline on full display.” He added, as if to settle the question, “At the end of the day, it’s the Joe Biden regime, so whoever’s behind the curtain.”Cawthorn is a skilled dispenser of acid comments, but his longer statements can be harder to follow, as he roams through disconnected talking points. I asked him to name a few conservative values. He started by saying “the ability to be a free thinker.” Another is “not being addicted to the serotonin high that you get when you’re outraged” and “letting those cooler heads prevail.” He then spoke of honoring the nuclear family and “taking care of every American.” Young men and women, he said, need to be surrounded with beauty and “things that inspire them to be the greatest they can possibly be, instead of saying, ‘Hey, you’re so mitigated and you’re so attacked. And the patriarchy is destroying you. And it’s because of white supremacy. And it’s because, well, you know, Asians always score higher, so we need to make it more difficult for them to be able to get into college, with affirmative action.’ That’s just all bullshit. I mean, I’m telling you, if you turn off your news and you turn off your social media for a few days, and you go outside, you’ll look around and, hey, everything’s actually pretty O.K. That’s inherently a conservative value.”So far, Cawthorn’s pontification has outshone his legislative activity. He has said, in fact, that he built his congressional staff for communications, not legislation. Beyond several efforts to improve benefits and opportunities for military veterans, he introduced a small-bore measure, grounded in the free market, to expand rural broadband, but he voted against the Democratic-led infrastructure bill that includes sixty-five billion dollars for broadband. He asked his staff to send me a sheet labelled “Congressman Cawthorn Legislative Accomplishments.” The list includes a proposal to block enforcement of federal vaccine mandates and a bill to prevent the U.S. Department of Education from spending taxpayer dollars “to fund its radical, anti-American critical-race-theory priorities.”I had noticed how much more assertive Cawthorn has become since taking office—and how much more vitriolic, telling a Faith and Freedom Coalition event, for example, about “looking Nancy Pelosi in her eye, every single day at work, and seeing how much she hates this nation.” But I hadn’t seen him in person since last year’s Hendersonville rally. And so, in October, I made my way to Cullowhee, where he was giving a speech to the Turning Point USA chapter at Western Carolina University. Cawthorn sat in his wheelchair near a tall sign that read “Big Government Sucks,” and railed against Pelosi, Biden, and critical race theory. He mimicked Kamala Harris’s laugh and said that journalists are “literally coming just shy of spitting on me” in the halls of Congress. “I look around and I see, ‘O.K., you’re socialists and you work for a fake-news company that’s trying to profiteer off creating division and hatred.” As dozens of young people lined up to take selfies with Cawthorn, Tristin Goode, an eighteen-year-old student, said that he was thrilled by the performance. He and his friends find many politicians dull, but he admires how Cawthorn “really brings out the passion in people, really ignites people.”Despite Cawthorn’s national profile and connections to Trump, some prominent North Carolina Republicans are trying to defeat him this fall, based on concerns about his character and his role in the uprising on January 6th. In last year’s Republican primary, Cawthorn owed a significant debt to George H. Erwin, Jr., a retired Hendersonville sheriff who commended him to sheriffs and politicians scattered across the district’s seventeen counties. Erwin considered him “an amazing young man,” eloquent on the stump and inspiring. Then came January 6th. “When I saw his speech to the crowd in Washington, I thought this is not good. I saw no calming words and people died and were injured,” Erwin wrote on Facebook, offering an apology for having “misled” law officers, politicians, friends, and family. “Man, I spent forty years in law enforcement. I should’ve known better,” he told me. “This hate and vitriol, that’s not me.” Last year, three political newcomers announced that they would challenge Cawthorn in the Republican primary. “He can’t buy maturity, experience, and knowledge,” Rod Honeycutt, a retired Army colonel and one of the three candidates, told me when we met in Asheville. He spoke of his own military leadership, his international-affairs experience, and his church connections, and pledged to pay closer attention to voters in the district. On policy issues, Honeycutt believes that they are closely aligned, but he does not pretend that Trump won the election. Other challenges have emerged from Wendy Nevarez, a Navy veteran, and Bruce O’Connell, a businessman, plus a raft of Democrats, one of whom, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, has raised nearly a million dollars in a district that leans Republican.Cawthorn’s opponents have been aided by questions about his personal history that emerged during the 2020 campaign. Two assertions, central to his political profile and later shown to be false, are connected to the car crash that left him partially paralyzed. He was asleep in the passenger seat of a BMW X3, his feet on the dashboard, when the driver, Bradley Ledford, dozed off. The car sped off the road and smashed into a concrete barrier. Cawthorn told fellow-students at Patrick Henry that Ledford had left him “to die in a fiery tomb. He runs to safety deep in the woods and just leaves me in a burning car as the flames start to lick my legs.” But Cawthorn’s father and Ledford himself have said that it was Ledford who pulled Cawthorn from the wreckage. When questioned during a deposition related to the accident, Cawthorn admitted that he had no recollection of the crash or its immediate aftermath. Cawthorn has also claimed that the crash spoiled his plans to enroll at the Naval Academy. But in the deposition, taken more than two years before he began his campaign, he acknowledged that he had been rejected by the Naval Academy before the crash.As Cawthorn runs for reëlection, one opposition group, run by Democrats, is pushing local authorities to file charges against him for trying to carry a gun onto a commercial flight at Asheville’s airport, and for repeatedly carrying a hunting knife onto school and educational property, in defiance of state law. Another group, the conservative Sentinel PAC, is striking closer to Cawthorn’s image as a churchgoing, homeschooled Christian. Multiple women have delivered credible allegations that Cawthorn forcibly kissed or touched them, which the congressman denies. In the fall of 2020, more than a hundred and seventy alumni of Patrick Henry College, which markets itself as having an “Unwavering Biblical Worldview,” signed an open letter that called him “a wolf in sheep’s clothing who made our small, close-knit community his personal playground of debauchery.” The alumni accused Cawthorn of “sexually predatory behavior” and said that he misrepresented his past. “We should have better people than Madison, people who are honest, people who aren’t sexual predators, people who are who they say they are,” Rachael Warf, a Sentinel PAC spokesperson, told me.
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