Shortly after taking his seat in Congress last month, Madison Cawthorn emailed his Republican colleagues to tell them of his intended role. “I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation,” he wrote, using the slang word for public relations.
An Esquire magazine headline offered this translation of the freshman congressman’s words: “It’s not about legislating, or fixing problems. It’s about the show.” If so, the show is not designed to appeal to Western North Carolina’s mainstream Republicans, independents or Democrats, despite Cawthorn’s post-election promise to be the congressman for all his constituents.
[Editor’s note: This story has been modified since initial publication to remove references to handwritten notes that we erroneously said were made by Rep. Cawthorn. The notes were not written by the congressman, and were posted online as parody. The Watchdog regrets the errors.]
A new and featured attraction of Cawthorn’s “comms” is his own channel on a Dubai-based social-media platform, Telegram Messenger. Telegram was relatively unknown in the United States until after the Jan. 6 Capitol pro-Trump insurrection, when Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other services stepped up restrictions against disinformation, including debunked claims that President Biden “stole” the election, delusional conspiracy theories, and reckless assertions that the pandemic is a hoax.
On Telegram, the 25-year-old Hendersonville lawmaker joins like-minded figures on the far-right fringe of the Republican Party, including former QAnon-proponent Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia), gun-toting Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colorado), arch-Trump defender Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida), Donald Trump Jr., Rudy Giuliani, and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.
Just days since its launch on Feb. 3, Cawthorn’s channel has become a gathering place for conspiracy theorists, fellow 2020 election deniers, to-the-death Trump backers, gun-rights advocates, Capitol insurrection apologists, and fans who urge the young congressman onward and rightward.
“I’m always looking for ways to speak directly to fellow patriots,” Cawthorn wrote. “Join my telegram channel for daily updates as we stand firm and speak out in defense of America!”
Seeking Right-Wing Media Stardom
Cawthorn is not alone among House Republicans in choosing to spend his time pumping out press releases and social-media posts rather than engaging in the bipartisanship necessary to craft laws, oversee branches of government and advocate for constituents. As an inexperienced junior member of the minority party in a bitterly divided House, he likely would have scant impact on the substance of governing.
He did, however, join on Thursday with Greene — who last week was expelled from her two House committee assignments after endorsing the executions of Democrats and spreading dangerous and bigoted misinformation online — to sponsor a bill to defund enforcement of all federal gun control laws.
Playing the role of conservative champion draws directly from Cawthorn’s self-image as a charismatic young leader who boasted in his campaign of being a “motivational speaker,” although he showed no income from it. He also claimed to be a master of communicating through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, which he dubbed “the new town square.”
Through the campaign and in the days after winning election on Nov. 3, Cawthorn used social media platforms to communicate with constituents, although with mixed results. Even his most mundane pronouncements – staff hires, scheduled district visits, even buying pizza for National Guard troops protecting the Capitol – are routinely met with an avalanche of mocking responses, often burying the positive feedback from his supporters.
From Twitter to Parler to Telegram
His response: invite his most loyal followers to Telegram. “Social media platforms are banning and censoring true Patriots,” he declared in announcing his move and decrying what he called the censorship being applied by Twitter and Facebook. “Stay in touch and help us fight for free speech!”
Telegram’s content restrictions are comparatively relaxed, and enforcement against false and incendiary postings are rare. Because it is based in Dubai, the Twitter-like messaging platform is beyond the reach of potential regulators in the United States.
Like Parler, another platform Cawthorn endorsed before it was shut down just days later for offensive content, Telegram Messenger was created in Russia but has moved several times to evade government restrictions and to protect its encryption service.
Cawthorn promised his Telegram followers freedom from “UNAMERICAN” censorship, though he urged them to abide by a few guidelines: that they post “nothing illegal,” “nothing violent” and to “speak to others as you would have them speak to you.”
“I value your voices,” he wrote. “I want to hear what issues matter….”
But a review of thousands of the comments posted on his channel makes it evident that Cawthorn hasn’t deterred his followers from posting documented falsehoods, fantastical and dangerous conspiracy theories, thinly veiled threats against prominent leaders and – if not outright appeals to violence – warnings that extreme action must be taken to return Trump to power and to stop what many of them believe is a Democratic Party drive to turn the United States toward communism.
Followers call for armed rebellion
In the few days since the launch of his Telegram channel, thousands have accepted his invitation with a flood of emoji-festooned comments that include adulation for Cawthorn, demands that Trump be returned to the White House (including by military coup), support for Rep. Greene, unfounded claims that the COVID-19 vaccines allow mind control, and virulent hostility toward perceived enemies (especially China, President Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Dr. Anthony Fauci and, in recent days, former Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Rep. Liz Cheney).
Some of his Telegram commenters openly call for military action to oust President Biden. Graphic death threats find their way into some messages, such as this: “Bush’s, clintons and obamas should be at the end of a rope for treasonous acts.“
Another added in response to the “nothing violent” guideline: “I am sorry to disagree but sometimes violence is the answer to attempted political genocide. The attempted destruction of the rights of Americans may very well come to a need for violent protest and maybe even war. Do not be so naïve to take the potential for violence to quell insurrection off the table. You cheapen your credibility by doing so.“
Conspiracy theorists landed on Cawthorn’s Telegram channel almost immediately. “Annie from Collier FL” was among the first to uncork a brain-bursting, exclamation-filled post that linked Fauci, Bill Gates, financier George Soros, several Wall Street investment banks, Microsoft and vaccine maker Pfizer in a vast, money-making conspiracy to create the COVID-19 virus in a Wuhan, China laboratory and let it loose upon the world. “The ‘masks’ are starting to fall off,” Annie declared.
A common discussion topic is the absurd QAnon trope alleging that powerful Democrats and Hollywood celebrities are organizing child sex-trafficking rings and that Trump was at work catching them.
“STOP PEDOPHILIA!!!,” wrote one follower in response to Cawthorn’s invitation to advise him on priorities. “THAT SHOULD BE NUMBER 1… These sick sick child abusers should be held accountable!!!!!! END THE CYCLE!“
Another warned Cawthorn: “Be aware that Satan is controlling many in government… Educate yourself on the adrenocrome… Do not succumb to the darkness.“
QAnon followers believe that Democrats (often led by Hillary Clinton) and Hollywood celebrities kidnap and torture children so they can extract a chemical compound called “adrenochrome.” This fantasy holds that the chemical is secreted when children are terrified and is then used in a psychedelic satanic sex ritual.
Although during his campaign Cawthorn denied being a QAnon adherent, he shared the movement’s obsession with pedophilia and promoted the debunked claim that vast numbers of American children are being kidnapped and taken across the southern border by sex traffickers affiliated with drug cartels.
Reversing the 2020 election outcome is by far the dominant theme on Cawthorn’s channel, joined with the false claim that Trump won, a fantasy that Cawthorn promoted by joining other House members trying to block the electoral college count on Jan. 6 after the bloody insurrection. He also repeated that claim in exhorting the crowd just before Trump’s speech urging the mob to march on the Capitol.
On Cawthorn’s channel, one follower posted a warning: “Election was stolen. We want acknowledgement and we want trump back… Most importantly please understand the only reason conservatives stayed peaceful is because we believe the military will fight for us and the constitution. If this doesn’t happen in the next few months … all hell breaks loose… they can’t jail us all.”
Another rose to defend the rioters who invaded the Capitol on Jan. 6. The writer said she was “sick and tired of the two tiered justice system where Antifa and blm get away with destroying peoples lives and killing people especially our men in blue and they seem to always get away with it. But when a few ‘Trump’ supporters supposedly break into the capital we are deemed terrorist. Enough is enough.“
Many of Cawthorn’s followers clearly place him as an ally of the GOP’s most extreme members, fellow first-time House members Boebert and Greene. “Thank you Madison! You, Lauren and Marjorie are fighting for US!!” wrote one. Another warned: “GOP BETTER NOT MAKE ONE MOVE AGAINST MARJORIE TALOR GREEN (sic) … MTG DOES REPRESENT US, DOES NOT NEED TO APOLOGIZE.“
Pandemic deniers, anti-mask advocates and anti-vaxxers also enjoy prominent space on Cawthorn’s channel. Some claim that the vaccines alter DNA or contain microchips enabling the government to track all recipients. A typical post declared: “Madison…the vaccines are harmful. The shots are ‘gene therapy’ not vaccines and change one’s DNA. Stop the madness!“
No effort to moderate or correct
Despite Cawthorn’s stated guidelines, he hasn’t challenged or removed several comments calling for illegal action or condoning violence. One writer proposed bringing in the military to investigate “EVERYONE in the federal government” for unspecified activities. Those who are deemed to be suspect would be “tried in a military court…. Once everyone has been investigated by the military, they can set up a new election.“
Cawthorn does not appear to make any effort to moderate the comments, nor to correct the falsehoods or challenge the fantastical conspiracy theories. When Asheville Watchdog asked in an email if the congressman was concerned about hosting problematic posts on Telegram, press secretary Micah Bock provided this statement: “Rep. Cawthorn is always looking for new ways to connect to both his constituents and the American people. Unlike many far-left politicians, Rep. Cawthorn seeks to hear from all his constituents, not simply those who agree with him.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Tom Fiedler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political reporter and former executive editor of The Miami Herald. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.