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GOP Lawmakers Representing Appalachian Districts Split By Conspiracies

Win McNamee
Getty Images

The insurrection at the US Capitol is driving a wedge in the Republican Party -- between those who are shying away from former Pres. Donald Trump and those who continue to support his false claims of fraud in last year’s election.  

A few Republican  lawmakers who represent Appalachian states are entrenched in that reckoning. 


Western North Carolina Congressman Madison Cawthorn’s speech at the “Save America” rally on Jan. 6 was denounced by members of both parties.  


“Our Constitution was violated,” he shouted into a microphone. His words echoed across the lawn just South of the White House. 


He raised his voice like a riled up football coach giving a locker room pep-talk before the big game. Cawthorn spoke about a new Republican party on the rise, and he encouraged his audience to fight to overturn the election results. 


Hours later, a violent, pro-Trump mob attacked the US Capitol. 


While Cawthorn may represent an Appalachian district, it’s important to note that rioters who stormed the Capitol traveled from all parts of the country. A Daily Yonder analysis of the nearly 180 arrestees came from urban, suburban and rural counties at about the same rate as the overall population. 


Credit Jeffrey Delannoy / Smoky Mountain News
Smoky Mountain News
Rep. Madison Cawthorn spoke to BPR at his office in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21

“I think it’s egregious for elected officials to speak in this manner,” Olivia Troye, co-director of the Republican Accountability Project, told BPR News. The GOP-led group is calling for 12 Republican lawmakers to resign for promoting falsehoods about the election. Cawthorn is one of them. 


“It’s common sense that you’re just adding fuel to the fire saying things like ‘we’re going to fight, and we’re going to battle it out.’ People are listening,” Troye said. “You may just think you’re using it in the moment, but no. You’ve known there have been threats on election officials -- words matter.”


Troye is also a career intelligence officer. She previously served as a homeland security advisor to former Vice President Mike Pence. 


“It’s a very dark time for the party at this time. It’s time for Republicans to decide, are we a party of conservatism, and where we try to work across the aisle with Democrats?” Troye asked. “Or do we want to be a party of racism and hate and that elects QAnon espousing supporters into Congress?”


(source: ProPublica)

QAnon supporters, like newly-elected Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose district covers Northern Georgia. She’s promoted QAnon’s false conspiracies, including that top Democrats are involved in child sex trafficking and Satan worship. 


On Monday, another Republican from another Appalachian state, Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, called Greene’s “loony lies and conspiracy theories” a “cancer” to the GOP. 


North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis echoed McConnell’s sentiment on Wednesday in a Tweet aimed at Greene. He said supporting QAnon conspiracies “isn’t conservative, it’s insane.”


“Well, they're still trying to sort things out, and they're on the brink of a civil war amongst themselves,” said Al Cross, veteran political reporter and director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community issues. Cross has spent more than four decades covering Kentucky politics, including Sen. McConnell. Cross says this is a moment of reckoning for the GOP, as McConnell has always tried to keep his caucus together. 


“He clearly wants to evict Trump from the Republican party, but now that may have the effect of creating a Trump party,” Cross said. 


Cross adds a major reason for the growing crack in the GOP is Americans no longer rely on the same set of facts to inform their politics, particularly in Appalachia, where local newspapers are diminishing. 


The rise of social media has lured people across the country and socioeconomic strata deeper into their respective echo chambers, where falsehoods and conspiracies go unchecked and are often packaged like reliable information. A recent Pew study found that Americans who get their news primarily through social media are more likely than most other groups to have heard of certain conspiracy theories. 


“You have a lot of people in this country, particularly in rural areas, who feel like they have been forgotten and disrespected and left behind, and the message [Trump] sent them through several different channels was, ‘I won’t forget you,’” Cross said.  


Part of that was a racist appeal. Trump did well in 2016 primaries in areas that were experiencing a recent influx of immigration, like Henderson County, where Congressman Cawthorn is from. 


But even key Republicans in the 11th District who initially supported Cawthorn are troubled by his rhetoric. Former Henderson County Sheriff George Erwin Jr. was going to be district director for the newly-elected congressman. But following the insurrection, Erwin told BPR that Cawthorn no longer had his support.


The youngest member of Congress does admit that political speech needs to be softened. Though, when asked at his DC office two weeks ago, Cawthorn did not give specifics to BPR as to why or how. 


“If we have a more discerning, and a more informed crowd who's electing us, then I think we're going to have to have more intelligent conversations, more intellectual and cerebral speeches, rather than kind of giving the raw, ‘let's go out, let's do this,” where everybody cheers and it gets everybody's adrenaline up,’” Cawthorn said. 


Amid the calls for his resignation, Cawthorn says he has no regrets about the comments he made just steps away from the Capitol. 

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