A few years ago, The Onion, a satirical news website whose satire sometimes has trouble outpacing reality, published a video titled “Report: Every Potential 2040 President Already Unelectable Due To Facebook.” This was all the way back in 2012, but the gist of the joke was already apparent to those of younger generations: Having grown up with far more of our lives documented, shared, and captured on social media than preceding generations, our social-media histories would almost certainly become liabilities for us in some way going forward.
Some are trying to make this day come early for Madison Cawthorn. Cawthorn is the 25-year-old who now seeks to represent North Carolina’s 11th congressional district after a surprise victory in its Republican primary (defeating a Republican endorsed by Mark Meadows, its previous representative — and Cawthorn’s high-school debate coach and former boss). A Jezebel article critical of Cawthorn seeks to deflate his supposedly deceptively impressive aura (a car accident left him with limited use of his legs). In doing so, it notes, among other things, an Instagram post from 2017 in which Cawthorn noted his visit to the Eagles’ Nest, Adolf Hitler’s World War II retreat. The full caption of the post reads:
The vacation house of the Fuhrer. Seeing the Eagles Nest has been on my bucket list for awhile, it did not disappoint. Strange to hear so many laughs and share such a good time with my brother where only 79 years ago a supreme evil shared laughs and good times with his compatriots.
This post and other “evidence” — a Betsy Ross flag, fondness for the phrase SPQR, his . . . haircut — seem to have caught on somewhat in the media and for his opponent as corroboration that Cawthorn is a racist.
For all the novelty of Cawthorn’s youth and of Instagram itself, this tactic is actually quite old. In 1964, CBS reporter Daniel Schorr described a trip by Senator Barry Goldwater (a World War II pilot) to Germany as a visit to “Hitler’s one-time stomping ground” and an attempt to “join up” with right-wing elements in Germany. And, of course, Bonzo went to Bitburg, as the Ramones famously put it: In 1985, President Reagan visited a German military cemetery where many SS soldiers were buried. The visit was meant to honor the victims of Nazi atrocities, but the optics were bad; it is seen in hindsight as a minor fiasco, even among Reaganites. But the man who, among other things, performed military service during World War II (though poor eyesight precluded active overseas duty) and famously honored “the boys of Pointe du Hoc” was obviously not a Nazi.
Where, on the Schorr-Bitburg scale, does this attempt to impugn Cawthorn land? Somewhere in the middle, I think. As Robby Soave notes, the post is somewhat awkward, though its point is still apparent except perhaps to the truly uncharitable. Visiting real historical locations, whether sites of good or evil — and let’s not neglect that the alleged Nazi sympathizer called Hitler a “supreme evil” — can bring the weight of history down on visitors quite concretely. In America, I myself feel something along these lines when visiting Civil War battlefields, once charnel houses where the fate of this country was decided in blood but now for the most part open fields. This does not make me a Confederate sympathizer. (For the record: I’m not.) In the case of the Eagle’s Nest, it is truly amazing, and a testament to hard-won victories, that a place of such evil has now become a harmless tourist attraction.
Cawthorn’s critics find it further suspect, however, that visiting such a site was on his “bucket list,” in his words. Why might this be? To them, it is because he’s a Nazi. A more plausible explanation: Cawthorn, who hoped to join the military in some capacity before his paralysis, wished to witness and to have reinforced for himself some of the most definitive proof of American military superiority: the conquest of one of its most fearsome enemies’ former headquarters. Perhaps he sought to emulate the Allied soldiers famously pictured engaging in their own revelries there just after the end of World War II, as he recently indicated on Twitter. It’s also worth noting that there is something to be said for Cawthorn’s even knowing enough about World War II to have any interest in significant sites pertaining to it. General interest in history, another more anodyne trait that could have inspired Cawthorn’s interest in the Eagle’s Nest (his campaign website suggests knowledge of, and pride in, his own ancestors), is usually a commendable trait. Certainly not all of his peers share it. A recent survey found, for example, that two-thirds of American Millennials don’t know what Auschwitz was.
Madison Cawthorn and I are of the same generation, though he is a few years younger; his election would make him by far the youngest member of the House, and one of the youngest-ever members of Congress. But this generational affinity does not, I hope, warp my objectivity concerning him. It seems unlikely that he will be proven a Nazi sympathizer, and certainly not from the current evidence. Perhaps some other defect or foible will emerge, whether on Instagram or elsewhere; he is in the fray now, his age notwithstanding, and he should expect nothing less. Such instances may or may not rise to the level requiring evaluation; among those, some or perhaps just one may merit the strangling in the crib of his public life that his critics seem to seek. I will consider each in turn as it emerges. Having considered this one, however, I deem it unworthy of concern.