It's Time to Talk About Madison Cawthorn

The North Carolina Congressman is a key January 6 figure too few are talking about.

{Note: Throughout this essay, the words of Rep. Madison Cawthorn appear in bolded text.}

We’ve entered an era of American history in which we must be more on guard against recurrences of the past than ever before. Donald Trump, if not convicted of incitement to insurrection by the Senate in February, may run again for president—in a storm of vengeance and spite—in 2024. If he doesn’t, one or another of those of his offspring who haven’t fallen far from the tree might well do so, bringing with them the same depravity of spirit and hatred of democracy that festered in their father for decades.

But it may equally be that, over the next ten or twenty or thirty years, the recurrence of Trumpism as a dangerous monolith at the center of our democracy comes to us in the form of someone outside the Trump family: another man or woman with no scruples, a history of deceit, a willingness to incite the very worst in us, and a penchant for fraud.

It’s in this spirit that I write about a twenty-five year-old Republican Congressman from North Carolina, Madison Cawthorn. Cawthorn, we recently learned from The Nation, was elected to Congress of the strength of lies about his military service, his educational background, his work experience, and even his experience—as it turns out, wholly illusory—as a Paralympian. Why these lies weren’t caught by media before this Trump-in-waiting made it to the halls of Congress, we don’t yet know.

What we do know is that in mid-December 2020, Madison Cawthorn “encouraged” Trump voters to call the Capitol and “lightly threaten” members of Congress on the subject of the 2020 election results, in doing so saying to members of Congress, as he explicitly recommended, “‘You know what? If you don’t start supporting election integrity, I’m coming after you, Madison Cawthorn’s coming after you, everybody’s coming after you.’”

In the event anyone thought Cawthorn had accidentally slipped into unfortunate and indelicate hyperbole, the Congressman appeared at Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6 to expand on his prior incitement. He repeated that he was “encouraging” Trump voters to “make their voice[s] heard” because “our Constitution was violated [on November 3].” He ranted that the mob was “doing this”—what he thought or believed the crowd was about to do is unclear—because they’d been forced to do so, indeed because no one else would “make sure they [their representatives in Congress] stood up for election integrity.”

Cawthorn spoke closer in time to Donald Trump on January 6 than either of Trump’s adult sons, and was introduced by the same music Trump himself is introduced by (“Macho Man” by the Village People). He began his speech on the day of the armed insurrection by shouting, “Wow, this crowd really has some fight in it! I’m so glad each and every one of you have come.” He proceeded to underscore to the gathered mob that the Capitol was only “two miles away” down “Pennsylvania Avenue”—as though he were a traffic cop directing them to their final destination. He juxtaposed the lack of “courage” at the Capitol—just two miles away, down Pennsylvania Avenue, you can’t miss it!—with the “courage” that he said he saw in the angry masses before him.

Cawthorn then said that in the “new Republican Party that is rising”, the “people” should have a voice “in the government”, an unusual way to be speaking just 60 days after an election in which the people of the United States quite vocally expressed their preference for Joe Biden over Trump. Unless what Cawthorn meant was more literal: that the mob before him needed to be inside the seat of government in order to be heard.

Less than two hours after Cawthorn spoke, they would be.

Cawthorn’s January 6 speech falsely decried “all the fraud the Democrats have done in this election”, and opined that the Republicans up at the Capitol were “hiding and not fighting” and in doing so were “trying to silence your [the January 6 mob’s] voice.”

“Make no mistake about it,” Cawthorn warned darkly, “they do not want your voice to be heard!” “But,” he shouted, this crowd has the voice of lions!”

He then repeated that a “new Republican Party” was “on the rise” that would “go and fight” in—he said, pointing at the Capitol“Washington, D.C.” Indeed, he kept pointing at the Capitol to remind the mob that “at 12PM today we will be contesting the election” on “Capitol Hill.” He implied that the crowd needed to send a message to Republicans who think Trump voters should “sit idly by and sit on our hands”, punctuating his call by shouting at full volume, “THEY HAVE NO BACKBONE!”

Cawthorn ended his January 6 address with a request: “I want you to chant so loud that the cowards I serve with on Capitol Hill can hear you,” adding that only by making this chant would “Donald Trump know who supports him.” The proposed chant was “USA! USA! USA!”—the very same chant Mo Brooks had just minutes earlier proposed in his own inciting speech, which indeed became one of the chants insurrectionists employed during their assault on the Capitol just two hours later.

A person attending the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally—indeed, even a child attending that rally—would have taken from Cawthorn’s speech that the “courageous” patriots of the “new Republican Party” would “rise up” at the “Capitol” at “noon” and “go and fight” like “lions.” In short, the picture Cawthorn painted for the armed mob before him mirrored exactly what that mob would go on to do in the hours after his speech.

The only other possibility that can be imagined—that Cawthorn merely wanted the crowd to mass half a mile from the Capitol (the furthest it could legally go) and shout so loud it could be heard inside the House and Senate chambers (an impossibility)—finally runs counter to common sense. It would render meaningless Rep. Cawthorn’s exhortation to “go and fight” or the notion of “rising up.” And notably, “fighting” and “rising up”—the latter an event commonly known as an “uprising”—were two repeated themes in Cawthorn’s brief address. In light of the events of January 6, it’s hard to see this as mere coincidence; this is particularly true given that Cawthorn was both aware of the tenor of the crowd and aware of the words that had already been spoken to that crowd by the time he addressed them. As I’ve written in this space before, incitement cases are as much about context and other evidence of criminal intent as they are about the words of a single speech.

When Cawthorn ultimately spoke during the certification of Biden’s victory, it was after he had objected to the Biden electors from Arizona and Pennsylvania and would have stood ready to contest several others—including Wisconsin—if he and his compatriots had been able to find a senator to stand with them. In an early-morning January 7 speech he knew would be televised, Cawthorn conceded that “I want a new generation of Americans to be radicals”, but called the insurrectionists “cowards” for fighting against Capitol police. The latter comment was a remarkable one, given that just over twelve hours earlier, he had made it clear that “courageous” people “fight.”

Cawthorn then went on to call the state-court judges who had issued rulings about the conduct of the 2020 election prior to election day “usurp[ers]” of powers vested solely in state legislatures, implying again that the November election had been illegitimate.

And then, the unthinkable—or, the depending on your view, the inevitable—happened.

On January 23, Cawthorn told CNN that he had never seen any evidence of “fraud”—a stark contradiction of what he’d claimed 120 minutes before the assault on the Capitol.

In view of the foregoing, is it unreasonable to think of Cawthorn as an insurrectionist and Trump-in-waiting? The brief catechism that helps us answer this question seems simple enough:

Do we find in Cawthorn’s political career, as in Trump’s, pathological deceit? Yes.

Do we find knowingly false and politically motivated claims of election fraud? Yes.

Do we find the man on video gleefully giving inciting speeches to an armed mob? Yes.

Do we see in the man a willingness to persist in undermining democracy even after its most sacred temple has been defiled? Yes.

Because Cawthorn is young, it is easy to dismiss his actions on January 6 as secondary to those of several Trumpist elders: Reps. Paul Gosar, Andy Biggs, and Mo Brooks. But as any who heard Cawthorn’s January 7 speech will recall, the twenty-something freshman representative is fond of discussing the patriots of America’s past: generally speaking, men his age willing to face accountability and even dire consequences for their decisions. So why should Cawthorn be any different, at this moment that federal criminal investigators are considering the actions of members of Congress in the lead-up to an armed insurrection against the American government?

Americans deserve to know how Madison Cawthorn came to participate in the “Stop the Steal” rally, and what communications he had with its organizers and headliners—including Donald Trump—in the weeks before January 6. Cawthorn’s other speeches, including a December 15 speech in Georgia in which he deliberately stoked anger against Congress, must also be carefully reviewed by investigators.

In Georgia, Cawthorn claimed that he was letting the riled-up crowd in on a secret: their Congressional representatives secretly had “contempt” for them. In response to that contempt, he added, “We’re not the party that’s going to sit on the sidelines.” He said Americans must live “on their own terms”, and that the federal government shouldn’t be able to “tell them what to do.” He urged the crowd to “fight back” against government overreach.

While Cawthorn did, on December 15, decry “burning cities” for the sake of “social justice”—not so much a call for non-violence as a gratuitous denigration of the peaceful Black Lives Matter movement, which has never, in fact, “burned a city”—left unsaid was what type of “fighting back” would be appropriate if the cause at stake were one that, unlike ending racism, Cawthorn and his audience had an interest in.

He did, however, offer some hints.

Cawthorn told the Georgians in that December 15 crowd that “fighting back” would mean acting differently from a Republican Party that, in his view, “is filled with cowardice and unwilling to stand up and fight for what needs to be done”—meaning that whatever the actions that would be called for if the federal government were to in the future again seek to silence them (which is what Cawthorn would tell a mob on January 6 its representatives at the Capitol were trying to do), it would surely involve (a) courage, (b) movement, (c) fighting, and, most importantly. (d) doing an extremely hard and previously unthought-of thing that “needs to be done.”

It’s easy to imagine every January 6 insurrectionist believing their actions fit that bill.

“There is a new Republican Party rising!” Cawthorn had shouted in Georgia in mid-December. “One that is going to fight against the Left! One that is going to fight back against them stealing elections!” Not surprisingly, his speech was littered with gratuitous militaristic phrases like “hold the line”, “the final battle”, and an urgent exhortation to “never back down.”

Cawthorn’s words in both December 2020 and January 2021—as well as their context, and the meetings and phone calls and text messages with White House officials or Trump allies that preceded and followed them—must now be scrutinized. What contact did Rep. Cawthorn have with Trump on December 15, 96 hours before Trump announced the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally at which Cawthorn would speak? What contact did he have with Reps. Gosar, Biggs, and Brooks prior to the insurrection?

Though Madison Cawthorn had no role in the impeachment of Donald Trump except to vote against it, he’s already, now, carrying water for the former president’s meritless First Amendment defense to allegations of insurrection, doing so on Twitter on January 23 with characteristically violent metaphors: “Iron sharpens iron, the clash of ideas sharpens minds.”

At worst, Cawthorn is a knowing Trump co-conspirator who halfheartedly sought to withdraw from a seditious conspiracy after it had been perfected on January 6. At best, he’s a freshman Congressman dangerously insensate to how his violent rhetoric plays in the current political landscape, a context in which the very men he clearly idolizes and trails behind are publicly stoking domestic terrorism via “The Big Lie” that Trump did not lose the 2020 presidential election.

In either case, it’s hard to see how he can continue to hold an office of public trust, as his actions have made the public’s maintenance of any trust in him all but impossible.