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Republicans have only themselves to blame for Madison Cawthorn

Opinion by Dana Milbank


It was quite a month for young Madison Cawthorn.

The 26-year-old Republican congressman from North Carolina was caught bringing a loaded gun through airport security, his second such incident. Police released footage of him getting pulled over for driving with expired tags and being told to surrender his revoked license. The Washington Examiner reported allegations against him of insider trading. Politico published photos of him partying while wearing women’s lingerie. And a former congressional aide filed a workplace complaint against him.

Most public figures would call a stretch like that good reason to resign. Cawthorn might just call it “April.”

Earlier this year, Cawthorn called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug” and his government “incredibly evil.” He alleged that his congressional colleagues engage in coke-fueled orgies. He committed the latest of many driving offenses (three court dates are pending). Earlier, four women accused him of sexual misconduct, in a BuzzFeed article; Cawthorn denied the allegations.

It has belatedly occurred to fellow Republicans that Cawthorn might be a liability. A GOP super PAC launched an ad last week saying Cawthorn tells “lies for the limelight.”

But Cawthorn is a monster of Republicans’ own creation. His character flaws were fully displayed when he first ran for Congress in 2020: nods to white supremacists, extravagant lies, accusations of sexually predatory behavior, overt racism and a long list of driving offenses. Craven Republican leaders knew all that — and embraced him unreservedly.

Ousting Cawthorn in his May primary won’t cure this Republican illness; the North Carolina congressman is just a symptom. More than 50 QAnon believers have run for Congress as Republicans in 2022, the liberal watchdog Media Matters reports. Several who participated in the events of Jan. 6, 2021, have run for Congress. If Republicans succeed in taking the House in November, the new majority could make the current Congress — with Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Paul Gosar, Lauren Boebert and the rest — look like Periclean Athens.

Cawthorn and the many rising oddballs and extremists are the inevitable result of Republican leaders’ choices: drawing increasingly uncompetitive districts, blessing unlimited dark money, exercising timid leadership, embracing disinformation, flirting with white nationalism, stoking conspiracies and undermining elections.

Cawthorn saw the GOP’s direction — and did what he had to do to be successful. “I absolutely will run for Congress,” then-19-year-old Cawthorn told the Daytona Beach News-Journal in 2015, a year after a spring-break car wreck in Florida left him in a wheelchair. And so he did, on the basis of audacious lies and winks at white nationalists.

In 2017, he posted photos on Instagram about a “bucket list” trip to Adolf Hitler’s retreat, the Eagle’s Nest. Cawthorn referred to Hitler as “the Führer” (though he did allow that Hitler was “evil”).

As the Asheville Citizen Times, Jezebel and others reported in 2020, Cawthorn named his real-estate company SPQR Holdings, an abbreviated Latin phrase that has been co-opted by white nationalists. In a photo on his campaign website, he posed with a rifle and a pistol in a holster featuring a symbol used by the Oath Keepers. He also used as a backdrop for interviews a Betsy Ross flag, which has also been appropriated by white nationalists. Cawthorn’s campaign attacked a local journalist as somebody who works “for non-white males, like Cory Booker, who aims to ruin white males running for office.”

Then there were the fabrications. Cawthorn claimed he was nominated for the U.S. Naval Academy but his “plans were derailed that year after he nearly died in a tragic automobile accident”; the academy rejected him before the accident. He said his friend who pulled him from the burning car instead abandoned him. He called himself the “CEO” of his business, but he was the sole employee and it had no earned income. He misrepresented himself as a full-time staffer of then-Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), when his most extensive employment was apparently at Chick-fil-A.

On top of that, 150 former students of Patrick Henry College, from which Cawthorn dropped out after a semester, signed a letter accusing him of “gross misconduct toward our female peers,” “predatory behavior” and “vandalism.” And a Christian magazine reported on several women accusing Cawthorn of sexual misconduct. (Cawthorn denied these accusations, too.)

Yet Republican leaders didn’t hesitate to back Cawthorn. Donald Trump, after backing a rival in the primary, endorsed Cawthorn and campaigned for him, saying “You’re going to be a star of the party.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) and the Club for Growth helped bankroll him.

The Republican National Committee gave Cawthorn a prime speaking slot at its 2020 convention. And the National Republican Congressional Committee hailed him as a “fighter,” and House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy named him a “Young Gun,” the highest level of the party’s program to support top prospects.

Now that their young gun is going off half-cocked, Republicans have only themselves to blame.

Edited by homersapien
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