U.S.

Madison Cawthorn Is a Disappointment

Rep Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) speaks as supporters of President Donald Trump gather ahead of Trump’s speech to contest the certification by the Congress of the results of the 2020 presidential election in Washington, D.C., January 6, 2021. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)
With his first act in Congress, a self-styled leader of a ‘new generation’ demonstrated striking irresponsibility.

‘My first act as a member of Congress will be to object to the Electoral College certification of the 2020 election.” So said Madison Cawthorn, the new representative for North Carolina’s eleventh congressional district and, at 25, the youngest member of the House, on December 31. With that promise alone, Cawthorn demonstrated a questionable level of judgment. Subsequent events only proved this further, and, when considered alongside earlier missteps, make it quite possible that he is already unworthy of the office he now holds.

Consider first the timeline of January 6. Early that day, Cawthorn joined eight Republican senators and more than 50 House Republicans in objecting to certification of Arizona’s electoral results. The business of certification was forced to a premature end after attendees of a “Stop the Steal” rally, who had been urged to march on the Capitol by President Trump, mobbed the building, forcing members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence to evacuate. Congress reconvened later that day, and into the night. When the roll reached Pennsylvania, Cawthorn joined 138 Republicans in objecting to the certification.

These facts in themselves call Cawthorn’s judgment into question. Before the Capitol mobbing, Cawthorn already had declined to appeal to his constituents’ better angels, instead letting the most passionate and least rational voices carry the day concerning the legitimacy of the 2020 election. He did so despite saying, in an interview with Jewish Insider just after being elected, that victory for President Trump “seems an unlikely scenario.” As our Dan McLaughlin has written and as Mitch McConnell said before the day’s gruesome intermission, “nothing before us proves illegality anywhere near the massive scale . . . that would have tipped the entire election.” Nor, as McConnell added, “can public doubt alone justify a radical break” — one that would have entailed an unprecedented step — “when the doubt itself was incited without any evidence.” Cawthorn at least had the good sense to condemn the rioters. But he lacked the good sense to change his mind. Several senators (though not all) planning objections to certification did so after the day’s intervening events.

They deserve only the tiniest bit of credit for this, putting them at least above their ignominious colleagues such as Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, who did not change their minds. The interruption of a violent mob provided the clarity needed to prove that some actually had been merely posturing the whole time. Even beforehand, McConnell argued against such a vote in objection, identifying how most of the people making it likely considered it. “And I will not pretend such a vote would be a harmless protest gesture while relying on others to do the right thing,” he said. Such a vote proved more than harmless. But, again, Cawthorn did not change his mind. That may have been because he had an elevated degree of investment in the proposition. The day before, he tweeted that he would put the Republican establishment on his shoulders and “drag them kicking and screaming back to the Constitution.” And he actually spoke at the rally on the National Mall from which the Capitol rioters emerged. He called for its attendees to “chant so loudly that the cowards in Washington, D.C., that I serve with can hear you,” beginning his career in Congress by, at the very least, insulting many of his fellow members of Congress (already implicitly insulting many of them by considering their elections illegitimate, as his colleague Chip Roy pointed out). And he did so in the process of performing instead of governing, a blight of our age. Whether his motivations were cynical or earnest, they were disturbing regardless, and the actions that followed were irresponsible.

It’s true that Cawthorn can cite the fact that he was not alone in his objections. It is a worrisome fact, one that requires a certain reckoning on the right, that so many joined in these objections. But in Cawthorn’s very first official act as a member of Congress, he could have done something quite different. One might have expected as much: He ran explicitly as a leader for a “new generation.” But instead of breaking boldly from his colleagues and on behalf of America’s institutions — an act for which he would have had noble company, such as Millennial Wisconsin representative Mike Gallagher — he conformed to the former. Instead of separating from the politics of the past, in an election year that saw him gain elected office while Trump lost it, he yoked his fortunes to a president who has now thoroughly discredited himself. If Cawthorn is what a new generation of leaders looks like, we should at most expect it to be no different from the old generations — if it is not worse outright.

Perhaps we could have seen this coming. When Cawthorn won his election, he celebrated by tweeting, “Cry more, lib,” an invocation of a popular online conservative meme of mockery. It was a sign of immaturity from someone who should be seeking to reassure others of stature beyond his years, not silliness beneath them. Cawthorn admitted this, in a way. He claimed that, “in the heat of victory,” he had gone too far. And by the way, his tweet was directed at “cancel culture,” not at his opponent. Still, it was a poor but, as it turned out, portentous start to his actual political career. Other signs came earlier than that: obfuscation about his seemingly admirable background, describing himself as essentially set to attend the Naval Academy before an accident left him paralyzed (which was, at the very least, my interpretation of his early campaign materials), when in fact he had merely been nominated and not yet accepted (as he later clarified). All of this suggests someone who does not yet have the character requisite for public office.

It is early, and Cawthorn is still young: at 25, even younger than I (27). Soon, Trump will be out of office, whether Cawthorn was ever serious about the possibility that it might be otherwise or was merely hoping to take political advantage of posturing as though it could be. He will thereafter get the opportunity to prove whether his first official act as a member of Congress was an aberration, or, instead, the template from which his public persona will largely derive. Last August, I defended him from spurious allegations of racism. In doing so, I wrote this:

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.

Well, Cawthorn’s behavior in public office so far has been quite worthy of concern. Unless he changes course quickly, his time in office won’t deserve to be very long. If he can’t do better, then surely the voters of North Carolina can do better than him.