Today is Friday the 13th, a taboo day, where superstitious people believe that bad things can happen. For Madison Cawthorn, however, Tuesday the 17th is the bad luck day that looms ahead. Tuesday is the primary and seven Republicans are opposing Cawthorn. Right now he and Chuck Edwards, who is endorsed by Thom Tillis, are leading. Unless Cawthorn can garner at least 30% of the vote — which, let’s face it, with seven candidates splitting the vote may not be realistic — the race will go into a runoff between the top two.
Politico Magazine has a lengthy and engaging story up about Cawthorn, going back to the accident that crippled him. People who knew him both before and after say that more than his body got maimed, so did his psyche. That’s understandable. What makes this an interesting read is the description of Cawthorn’s immediate downward plunge right after he was elected to office. He ran as a unifying presence, appearing immediately on The View, where he said that because of all the pain he had experienced from his crippling accident he had great empathy. Listen to the Cawthorn of that era.
“To liberals, let’s have a conversation. To conservatives, let’s define what we support, and win the argument in areas like health care and the environment,” he said from the stage at the Republican National Convention that August. With a walker and the help of his pals, he stood up from his chair at the crescendo of his speech. Noting he had been “touted as a future star of the party,” CNN’s Chris Cillizza said it was “moving.”
In September, speaking with Jewish Insider, Cawthorn praised Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He disagreed with her policy platform, he said, but in other ways he admired the woman who had become a standard-bearer for young progressives. “She is influencing an entire generation,” he said. “I’m sure her and I will get along when I get to Congress.”
“Black lives matter,” Cawthorn said that month during a debate with his Democratic opponent Moe Davis, a retired Air Force colonel and former prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay. “I was unhappy with the way the president treated the death of George Floyd,” he said of Trump, according to the coverage of the debate in the Cherokee Scout, “and the lack of empathy he showed after that death happened.”
Even in late October, speaking with a reporter from the Hendersonville Lightning, Cawthorn sounded totally different from how he sounds today.
“The reason President Trump didn’t endorse me,” he said of the lack of his nod in the primary and runoff, “is because I’m willing to be strongly critical of him whenever he messes up. I’m not planning to vote for Donald Trump or Joe Biden.”
And he said he didn’t care for Trump’s tweets. “It does more to add to the partisan divide rather than try to heal it and unite us all as Americans,” Cawthorn said. “It makes people enemies of each other instead of saying we are Americans first and let’s work towards the future.”
At least he was saying the right stuff. He didn’t have the right stuff, never has had nor ever will, but at least he was mouthing the right platitudes, and with his wheelchair and being a pretty white boy, he was cutting a sympathetic and photogenic figure. That did not last long, as well you know. The inner man showed his face and a pretty one it was not.
In November, when the by-then-Trump-endorsed Cawthorn won, he sent that night a very Trump-esque, red-meat tweet.
“Cry more, lib.”
In interviews with outlets ranging from local newspapers to Jewish Insider to CNN, Cawthorn expressed regret. “I have to represent everybody now, so I shouldn’t have done that,” he said.
But for Cawthorn’s older, more experienced advisers, the tweet was one of the first signs of a stark, disquieting change. Chief among them was Erwin, the sheriff who had helped Cawthorn from the start. Erwin was in line to be Cawthorn’s district director — until Cawthorn in the aftermath of his victory called Erwin “a coward” and “a little bitch.”
The disagreement began, Erwin said, when he wanted an older, more experienced woman to be hired for a position in the district office, and Cawthorn wanted a much younger woman instead. “And so he started communicating with other people and said that I couldn’t handle a disagreement between two girls — and it wasn’t two girls; it was a young lady and a woman — and that I was just a coward and a bitch, and he didn’t know if he wanted me to be his district director,” Erwin told me. “And that’s when I told him, ‘Look, all due respect, I’m going to have to pass on this position.’” (Cawthorn declined to comment.)
“He has an extreme version of what I always call successful person syndrome,” said a Republican strategist familiar with Cawthorn and the campaign, defining it essentially as a first taste of success going to somebody’s head. “I’ve seen this through the years, but not to this degree, because people I think just don’t have the trauma that he has.”
I think this is a very valid insight. I also think this syndrome explains Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, Cawthorn’s two BFFs in the House. Here’s another valid insight.
“Politics is like a vice amplifier, where everybody has a need for affirmation, a need to be important, to be recognized. And then when you’re a young man who has a terrible accident like that, and your identity is kind of stripped from you, all of that is amplified even more,” said a GOP consultant who knows Cawthorn. “I worry about him.”
Here’s a text Cawthorn sent to his friend who was driving the car the night of the accident.
“I miss my life,” he said. “I miss being able to defend myself … being able to dress myself … being able to use the bathroom without someone helping me … I miss not peeing the bed because I have no control over my penis … not having to have pills keep me alive … being able to compete … being checked out by girls … I miss my pride as a man … the pride my father swelled with when he spoke my name … I miss,” he said, “not having to convince myself every day not to pull the trigger and end it all.”
This is very moving. I understand that kind of pain, believe me. And I feel bad for any human being that knows this level of pain. The difference between Cawthorn and most of the rest of us who know what it is to be humbled by life to that level, is that we don’t turn around and lash out at everybody in retaliation. Cawthorn does, and that’s where he loses peoples’ sympathy and certainly their respect.
It’s well documented what his antics were at Patrick Henry college. 148 people signed an open letter accusing him of toxifying the atmosphere of the school, in essence, making it his “personal playground of debauchery” and that is not a normal thing. And that was before he became successful.
Cawthorn’s a mess. He was a mess before his accident, a bigger mess after the accident and then when successful person syndrome and vice amplification syndrome entered the picture, he became a petty, vicious tyrant of a man, lashing out at everybody from “thug” Volodymyr Zelenskyy to “alcoholic” Nancy Pelosi. The man went out of control very quickly and nobody can seem to get him out of the nose dive.
Even Sean Hannity has said,
“What is going on with him?” Sean Hannity said on his radio show the other day. “Look,” Hannity said, “I never like to celebrate people’s decline or misery, and I don’t like to pile on — I don’t know what he’s going through — but … something is going on here, and it sounds to me like he needs some type of intervention or help.”
If Hannity is turning on Cawthorn, that’s the death knell. That means that Fox News, the mouth organ of the GOP, has decided that Cawthorn is too much of a loose cannon.
Maybe he can still win Tuesday. I think it’s notable that one of his opponents said that she believes that at this point that Cawthorn will “be relieved” if he loses. So will we. Oh, so will we. Amen to that.