[Editor’s Note: As 2022 comes to a close, Asheville Watchdog staffers take you back and inside their most memorable stories and news events of the year.]
Madison Cawthorn was just 24 when I met him, and he struck me as polite, easy to like, and brimming with ambition.
Though political analysts regarded him — not incorrectly — as wholly unqualified for the congressional seat he was seeking, I admired the fact that he was singularly focused on his goal and exuded confidence in victory. That persisted even though his Republican opponent, the party favorite, had the endorsements of the former incumbent, Mark Meadows, and then-President Donald Trump.
Cawthorn embraced being the underdog. He told audiences that his lack of a big-name backer proved him independent of those swamp-dwelling power brokers in Washington, D.C. He pledged to answer only to the voters in Western North Carolina.
Voters took to his personal story of his battle to rebound from a car crash that nearly took his life and left him in a wheelchair.
He was portrayed as a golden boy who, with seeming courage and grace, would overcome that tragedy through public service. He would later say he was “called by God” to do so.
Cawthorn Was Eager to Chat
I arrived in Asheville from Boston in late March 2020 and soon joined Asheville Watchdog, a start-up news initiative run by volunteer journalists like me. I volunteered to cover the campaign to replace Meadows, who had resigned from Congress to become Trump’s chief of staff.
My focus initially would be on Lynda Bennett, a veteran party worker who was the consensus front-runner for the Republican nomination. But Bennett, perhaps confident in the endorsement embrace from Trump, had no time for me, nor for most other reporters.
Cawthorn, in contrast, was eager to chat by phone (this was at the height of the pandemic) and to emphasize how different he would be from Bennett and the stodgy GOP, which he called “the party of ‘no’ ” and that he said cared little for the downtrodden and sick, or for racial justice. He told me he could transform the GOP by enticing members of his generation to view conservatives in a more appealing way. He would be the “new, fresh face” of young conservatism, he told me.
In our talks Cawthorn would quote Martin Luther King Jr. and the Founding Fathers. He said that as an outdoor enthusiast — mostly as a hunter — he could persuade environmentalists to see conservatives as allies, not enemies.
He said he could be to his party what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the popular self-described Democratic Socialist from the Bronx, is to hers. In an interview with Maggie Astor of The New York Times, he was specific: “I believe I can carry the message of conservatism in a way that doesn’t seem so abrasive — that has better packaging, I would say, better messaging.”
In one interview he surprised me by saying he supported the pandemic mask mandates ordered by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, which had already drawn fierce opposition from Bennett and other conservatives. The mandates are “wise and smart,” Cawthorn told me.
And, he continued, he had learned from his personal tragedy the “lesson … of empathy, and one of being able to see people who are disenfranchised, who feel like society’s left them alone.”
Efforts to reach Cawthorn for this story were unsuccessful.
What Happened to That Madison Cawthorn?
Now, with the perspective of the past two years, I wonder: What happened to that Madison Cawthorn?
The one who called Volodymyr Zelensky “a thug?” Who called Nancy Pelosi “a drunk,” even though she doesn’t drink? Who ridiculed Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris as “little treacherous humans”? Who urged mothers to “raise your sons to be monsters?” Who threatened “bloodshed” on those who stole elections, by which he meant Democrats? Who gleefully told Trump supporters on Jan. 6, 2021, some of whose members at that moment planned to attack the Capitol, “this crowd has some fight in it?”
As someone who had reported on politicians and government for 40 years, I had never witnessed an aspiring public official call Adolph Hitler “the Führer,” a term of respect, and to say that a visit to Hitler’s vacation retreat, the Eagle’s Nest, was a lifelong dream.
I noted in one story how Cawthorn surrounded himself with symbols embraced by white supremacists and conspiracy theorists; how so many of his social-media postings featured guns, carrying them and firing them; how he boasted of being a real-estate investor (he named his company SPQR, a Roman-era term now used by white nationalists).
Central to Cawthorn’s campaign narrative was his oft-repeated claim to have been headed to the U.S. Naval Academy where he would prepare for a life of service in the Marine Corps. But, he would say in campaign speeches and ads, his plan was “derailed” by the tragic crash.
It was a clever deception, one I was able to expose because of my experience at seeking admission to a federal service academy when I was Cawthorn’s age. He accurately claimed to have been nominated for admission to the Naval Academy by Meadows, a family friend.
But I knew that a congressional nomination is just a first step. In a typical year, only one of 10 nominees actually earns admission to a federal service academy.
Cawthorn had been rejected by the Academy weeks before the crash, he admitted under oath in a deposition related to a lawsuit emerging from the crash. Yet his campaign narrative of a “derailed” dream of public service was never amended.
When I reported that story in the Asheville Watchdog, Cawthorn sent out a press release attacking me as “working against white men” and being “an unapologetic defender of left-wing identity politics.”
These stories helped open the floodgates on many other things about Cawthorn and his background: He dropped out of Patrick Henry College after one semester with a D average; several young women accused him of sexual harassment; some 170 Patrick Henry alumni signed a petition saying Cawthorn was unfit to represent that institution; he repeated false QAnon theories alleging child kidnappings by South American drug cartels; and he claimed to be a successful real-estate investor by heading a firm with no employees or income.
Despite these revelations, Cawthorn won the election easily, was sworn in on Jan. 3, 2021, and three days later — at the invitation of President Trump — was a featured speaker at a rally in front of the White House that preceded by minutes the violent attack on the Capitol. At the height of the attack, hiding in a safe room, he called a right-wing radio host and falsely claimed that Democrats were paying the rioters. He also said he was carrying weapons.
If the Jan. 6 attack became a blot on the careers of many others, it had the opposite effect on Cawthorn. His ascent into the upper ranks of the GOP’s most extreme wing was meteoric.
From that day forward, Cawthorn would be linked with the stalwarts of the GOP’s Trump wing, along with Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Stephen K. Bannon, and Charlie Kirk, to name a few.
A Run for Governor When He Turns 30
Asheville Watchdog has chronicled his term with stories of how he turned his congressional office into a taxpayer-funded haven for his
Cawthorn began to see himself as invincible and impervious to criticism. He told a gathering at Western Carolina University that he was considering a run for North Carolina governor as soon as he reached age 30, the minimum age to be qualified for the post under state law.
Early in the 2022 election cycle, in a remarkable act of political hubris, Cawthorn publicly sponsored his own slate of candidates for the national 2022 Republican primaries. But his own re-election fell victim to his claim to having been invited to orgies and cocaine parties by unnamed, prominent Republicans. The knives against him within his party were unsheathed. Suggestive photos and videos of him in women’s lingerie and purporting to imply a sexual relationship with his aide and cousin Stephen Smith were strategically leaked on social media. North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, a fellow Republican, called for an ethics investigation into Cawthorn’s failure to report his involvement in a right-wing cryptocurrency “pump-and-dump” scheme.
The damage was irreversible. Cawthorn lost renomination to state Sen. Chuck Edwards, like himself a Republican from Hendersonville.
A few months later, Cawthorn began closing his district offices, packing his office in the Cannon building on the Capitol grounds, and voting by proxy instead of showing up on the House floor. In August he purchased a million-dollar house in Florida.
Peter Slevin, a political writer for The New Yorker, likened Cawthorn’s story to that of Icarus in Greek mythology, the young man who dreamed he could fly using wings made of feathers and wax. But Icarus flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, and he plummeted to earth.
The “Why” Is Uncertain
As young journalists we were taught in producing a story to include the “five Ws and the H.” These are the who, what, where, when, why, and the how. In trying to understand Cawthorn over these past two and a half years I can answer all but one of those. I can tell you what he did, when he did it, where it happened, and usually how it was done.
But I still don’t know why. Why did he so quickly abandon his expressed goal of being the “less abrasive” sort of conservative? Why the fixation with guns, the violent rhetoric, the fat cigars, the videos of shooting pistols and shotguns and pummeling a tree?
Why would he participate in a Zoom call with other House members while cleaning his gun? Why the need for make-believe machismo, like going with buddies to a shooting facility where they dressed up as special forces operators and play-acted “killing” a terrorist (actually a mannequin) in its bed?
Why would he tell women in a church audience to “raise your sons to be monsters …?” Why the bullying speeches on the House floor, always when the chamber was nearly empty, which would then be published in the Congressional Record and distributed to voters back home via C-SPAN?
These weren’t speeches intended to bring attention to legislation he favored or opposed. These were fulminations as if delivered by a fire-and-brimstone revivalist, a modern-day Father Coughlin, written likely to gain notice on Fox News, Breitbart, or other far-right media.
In one of these minute-long speeches from the well of the House of Representatives he addressed Speaker Pelosi with sarcastic formality: “Madame Speaker, you are not God. You have put before us a death wish for America.”
In another he went into a pro-gun tirade, falsely accusing Democrats of trying to thwart the Second Amendment: “You will not take this right away,” he blustered. “I will not be sucked into the D.C. bubble, but I am here to tell you that outside this bubble, in real America, when we say, ‘Come and take it,’ we damn well mean it.”
There are so many questions: Why did he repeatedly attempt to carry a loaded pistol onto airplanes? Why did he carry a switchblade “combat” knife onto school property contrary to state law? Why did he repeatedly get ticketed for speeding and driving with a revoked driver’s license?
Jesus and John Wayne
Some suggest it is a direct result of his home schooling in an evangelical Christian tradition colloquially called the “Jesus and John Wayne” branch even by its practitioners. This wasn’t the curriculum of the gentle Jesus of the Beatitudes, the “lamb of God” who preached of turning the other cheek and loving thine enemies. This was the “warrior Jesus,” picking fights with the money changers in the temple, confronting authority and, in one telling, allowing himself to be nailed to a cross to demonstrate his manliness.
“Jesus and John Wayne” is the title of a scholarly book by Calvin University professor Kristin Kobes Du Mez, subtitled “How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.”
When I spoke with Du Mez about Cawthorn’s mixture of biblical scripture, aggressive rhetoric and his gun-loving, macho pursuits — almost always videotaped for Instagram — she identified him as the “perfect” archetype of this warrior-Christian movement.
“The conservative home-schooled male was and is steeped in this militant conception of Christian manhood. The home-school curriculum was filled with this idealized, heroic mix of Christian manhood, American manhood, guns, war. Soldiers, even Confederate ones, are heroes,” Du Mez said. “They learn they must defend America, by which they mean White Christian America.”
Cawthorn frequently tells audiences that he has been “called by God” to battle demons, by which he usually means Democrats and liberals. In many speeches he draws from the Old Testament’s Book of Esther, a Persian queen known for her extraordinary beauty and for harboring the secret, even from her husband King Xerxes, that she was Jewish.
As Cawthorn tells the story, Esther was warned by Mordecai, her uncle and also a Jew, that an adviser to the king was planning to annihilate the Jews. Esther knew that the king could thwart the plot. She also knew that telling him would reveal her secret, placing her life at risk.
Yet she went ahead and revealed everything to the king who, because of his love for her, thwarted the massacre and executed the perpetrators. Mordecai then says to Esther: “You were born for such a time as this.” Cawthorn loves that line and repeats it at the climax of his speeches.
In telling this story Cawthorn likens himself to Esther, bravely enduring the slights he receives from political opponents. The message is clear, that he was also “born for this moment.”
“Perhaps God put us on this earth to fight against socialism, to fight against the evils of this earth, to fight against globalism, to fight for this next generation,” he said at a Faith and Freedom rally shortly after his election. “God is with us.”
But is there more than a White, evangelical Christian education behind Cawthorn’s need for self-aggrandizement, self-righteousness and a macho attitude? Many people who knew Cawthorn prior to his car crash — a time when he was an outstanding athlete with college recruiters knocking on his door — speculate that his recent behavior is a form of attention-seeking to make up for his lost athletic honors. One critic called this “the little man syndrome,” the need to use tough talk to compensate for personal insecurity.
The verbal attacks on authority figures who criticize him may be fueled by that need. They also may provide an outlet for the suppressed rage and self-pity he feels as a result of the crippling injuries he sustained as an 18-year-old with the world in the palm of his hand.
“I Miss Having My Pride as a Man”
Cawthorn many times has referred to April 3, 2014, the day of the crash, as having special meaning. It’s the day when the future that he imagined for himself — that he felt he deserved — was never to be.
Brad Ledford — a friend he called his brother — was driving the car when it crashed into a construction barrier and caught fire. The two were returning to Asheville from a Spring Break vacation in Florida to celebrate their high school graduations.
Cawthorn was napping in the front passenger seat and was knocked unconscious in the violence of the wreck. The vehicle caught fire, and Ledford, who was relatively uninjured, pulled the severely injured Cawthorn to safety through the smashed door window. Cawthorn underwent several surgeries and months of rehabilitation.
As is common in such cases, Cawthorn sued Ledford and his insurer seeking a financial settlement above the standard policy. The suit enabled the insurance company’s lawyers to delve deeply into Cawthorn’s background and his state of mind at the time of the accident and the months afterward. They deposed Cawthorn and Ledford and obtained a trove of emails and text messages between the two boyhood friends, all now a part of the court record.
One exchange was so soul-searing that I refrained from reporting it when I read it prior to the 2020 election. Now, almost eight years later, Cawthorn’s words reveal a deep despair that caused him to consider suicide and that may have fueled an inner fury at facing a future with limits he wasn’t ready to accept.
“I miss my life,” Cawthorn responded to Ledford, who had texted to ask how he was doing. “I miss being able to defend myself, I miss the future of getting to go explore the world and to enjoy the thrill of life with my wife and family, I miss being able to dress myself, I miss being able to use the bathroom without someone helping me, I miss the knowing that I can be fruitful and multiply and enjoy life with my own children…”
“I miss waking up without being in pain, I miss being able to think complete though[ts] without them being interrupted by my need to yell out in agony … I miss being able to compete, I miss being checked out by girls all the time … I miss not having to have pills to keep me alive, I miss having my pride as a man, I miss my old innocence and love for life, I miss not having to convince myself every day not to pull the trigger and end it all.”
Cawthorn’s text took up four pages in the printed court record. The words seemed to alternate in tone between mundane chat, heart-wrenching self pity, and rage at Ledford whom he blamed for his situation.
Ledford had initiated the exchange by contacting Cawthorn to ask why he had rebuffed Ledford’s previous communication. Was it because the two were on opposing sides in the lawsuit Cawthorn was pursuing against Ledford’s insurance company? Cawthorn dismissed that explanation.
“It’s the fact that I see you and see how your legs instinctively flex without you even thinking about it to keep you from ending up in a hospital on your stomach for 2 months with a pressure sore and tubes coming out of your butt, it’s the fact that my happiness has been robbed from me and my love for life is gone … and because you COULD NOT HOLD YOUR EYES OPEN LONG ENOUGH TO PULL OVER AND WAKE ME UP …”
“Then on April 3 we would have arrived back in Asheville, and my family would not be so weighted down by me, just dead weight. You ruined my entire life. So it’s hard for me to be around you and not have hate breed in my heart…”
“Your mistake broke me Brad, and I am no longer healing. You shattered me completely, my life is in tattered ruins, all because you made a simple mistake … It’s impossible for me to be around you Brad, seeing you just makes me remember who Madison Cawthorn was, and I really miss being him.”
Succeeding in politics in spite of that life-changing crash could have belied that fear. Indeed, it likely would have brought him recognition and admiration.
But Cawthorn squandered much public goodwill by practicing a politics of anger, vengeance and self-adulation. An electorate in western North Carolina that was inclined to root for him, to pull for a young man rising above adversity, soon wearied of his self-induced controversies and turned on him.
His waxen wings melted, and he crashed.
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. Email email@example.com.