When then 24-year-old Madison Cawthorn easily defeated a Trump-backed rival to capture the GOP nomination in Western North Carolina’s 11th congressional district, he declared that his mission would be to rescue his party from a “generational time bomb.”
Charismatic, telegenic, social media-savvy and deeply rooted in the region, the Hendersonville native reveled in the national news reports that, if elected, he would become one of the youngest people ever sent to Congress and a bridge to his party's future.
“Move over AOC,” asserts a cartoonish video on his campaign website where his smiling photo shoves aside one of New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 31-year-old favorite of the Democratic left known widely as AOC.
Cawthorn told a New York Times interviewer that he was motivated to seek office “because I believe there’s a generational time bomb going off in the Republican Party… I think we’ve not been working hard enough to really reach out and try to appeal to younger voters and we’re starting to see the ramifications of that in national elections.”
But if those words seem to presage a campaign message that would inject a new, younger way of thinking in his party, it isn’t evident in his general election campaign. Since claiming the nomination, Cawthorn has campaigned as a hard-right conservative on policies aligned with the party base of older white voters rather than those expressed by his Gen Z and millennial peers in several polls.
Gone from his website is a boast that, by trouncing primary-rival Lynda Bennett despite her endorsements from President Trump and former incumbent Mark Meadows, he had demonstrated his independence from the Washington, D.C.-based Republican elite.
Newly prominent is the mantra that he is “pro-Trump, pro-life and pro-2nd Amendment.” He populates his Twitter, Instagram and Facebook posts with videos of his Washington, D.C. meetings with Trump and other long-time GOP leaders.
These join earlier images of the ever-upbeat young man bearing assault-style weapons, an homage to the 2nd Amendment (which, he claims, makes possible the 1st Amendment’s guarantees) and occasional Bible verses. A home-schooled evangelical Christian, he says he believes in “faith, family & freedom” and vows to oppose “leftist coastal elites like Nancy Pelosi and AOC.”
Now, like Trump, he often flouts C.D.C., state and White House guidelines for combating the spread of Covid-19. Many of the campaign appearances featured on his social media pages – including a video with President Trump, Meadows, Rudy Giuliani and other senior Republicans last month at the Trump International Hotel – depict Cawthorn and most of the other participants ignoring social distancing and face covering mandates. (Cawthorn’s campaign didn’t respond to AVL Watchdog’s requests for comment on this practice).
Deliberately or inadvertently, Cawthorn uses or has displayed some symbols associated with such right-wing extremists as Alex Jones -- proponent of the debunked conspiracy theory that the Sandy Hook elementary school’s mass killing was staged -- and of white nationalists, including some participating in the infamous Charlottesville “Unite the White” demonstration.
And he has dismissed as “divisive” and “racist” the Asheville City Council’s recent decision to develop policies of reparations for African Americans. “Six-hundred thousand Americans gave their lives to free slaves and you’re going to tell me that’s not enough?” he said in an interview with Blue Ridge Public Radio reporter Cory Vaillancourt, a reply that overlooks both the century-long impact of Jim Crow laws and the fact that 260,000 of the soldiers who died in the Civil War were Confederates fighting to maintain slavery.
Taken as a whole, far from campaigning as the Pied Piper for a new Republican generation, Cawthorn’s strategy appears to take pages from the Trump and Meadows playbook by appealing primarily to the older, white, conservative base in the 11th congressional district’s 17 counties including Buncombe and Henderson.
Western North Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper sees some logic in this strategy because Trump carried these counties in 2016 with 57 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, Cooper added in an interview with AVL Watchdog, the strategy also carries risk: “His base is going to vote for him anyway. But the largest group of voters in the 11th [congressional district] is unaffiliated with either political party and they could be alienated by the hard-right rhetoric.”
Since the 2016 election, federal courts ordered the GOP-gerrymandered district to be redrawn to include all of Buncombe, significantly diluting its Republican domination. Registered Republicans still outnumber Democrats by more than two to one in the new district, but voters unaffiliated with either party now make up about 52 percent of the total eligible vote. Although independent analysts continue to rate the district as “solid” Republican, a landslide shift by these unaffiliated voters could switch the district into the Democratic column.
Yet despite Cawthorn’s expressed ambition to defuse the GOP’s “generational time bomb,” Cooper said, “he’s not reaching out to next-generation voters in his policy positions.”
That, too, makes political sense for him. Numerous national surveys of younger voters portend trouble for Republican candidates beginning with Trump. The 2020 Harvard Institute of Politics Youth Poll, the nation’s oldest and largest survey of 18 to 29-year-olds, found just 22 percent said they identified with the GOP -- half of those “not very strong.” And by a 2-1 margin, these young Americans disapproved of the job being done by Trump and Republicans in Congress. (The survey was completed in March, prior to the full impact of the pandemic, which likely cut more into Trump and the GOP’s favorability.)
Numerous polls also show Cawthorn out of step with the large majority of his generational peers on at least two of the issues central to his campaign: publicly funded health care and the ability to own assault weapons. The Youth Poll found in 2019 that 53 percent of these young Americans would ban the sale of assault weapons while 30 percent oppose a ban. In the 2020 survey, just 2 percent of the younger Americans even listed protection of gun rights as an issue of concern.
On health care, 63 percent of those surveyed favor a government-funded program, while just 16 percent oppose such government involvement. In an interview with New York Times reporter Maggie Astor after capturing the GOP nomination, Cawthorn expressed disappointment that Republicans failed to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017 despite holding the White House and both chambers of Congress. He said that, if elected, he would work to “remove a lot of the regulations in the health care industry” and would “bring in a few more insurance companies [to] open up more competition.”
When the reporter asked where he differs from older Republican lawmakers, he replied: “I think the place where we really do differ is that 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.”
Cawthorn also said he has drawn life lessons from the near-fatal injuries sustained when he was a passenger in an SUV that crashed in 2014. The injuries required months of therapy, derailed his ambition to go into the Marine Corps via Annapolis and requires him to use a wheelchair. Among the lessons, he told Astor, are persistence to pursue goals despite obstacles and empathy for “people who are disenfranchised, people who feel like society’s left them all alone.”
The question facing his campaign is whether a new “packaging” of conservative policies – though successful in the GOP primary – can win enough of the unaffiliated to be elected. So far, Cawthorn is sticking with the existing GOP messaging on immigration, China, the coronavirus and civil protest in the wake of the George Floyd protests. And rather than finding material in his public speeches and media comments to suggest empathy for “people who are disenfranchised,” there is a great deal that strikes his on-line critics as being not only abrasive, but extremist.
A prominent source of social-media discussion is the corporate name of Cawthorn’s real-estate investment company, SPQR Holdings, LLC. The initials SPQR derive from the Latin initials for “the Senate and People of Rome,” which denoted the Roman empire at its height and today appears widely on Italian tourist trinkets. But in recent years SPQR has been embraced by skinhead gangs in Italy and by some white nationalists in the United States. Banners with those initials were carried by white supremacists during the “Unite the White” demonstrations and were later singled out by the Southern Poverty Law Center as signifying a hate group.
Vassar College Professor Curtis Dozier, who studies the modern appropriation of classical symbols such as SPQR, said in an interview with AVL Watchdog that some white nationalists use the symbol to denote “racial and cultural purity” and to glorify cultures of “military and violence.”
Although Cawthorn declined to be interviewed about his use of SPQR in his business, he provided a written statement calling it merely “a term for Rome” and denouncing efforts “by extremists on any side to hijack or rewrite history” by attaching other meanings to it.
He added that this nation’s Founding Fathers were influenced by such Roman statesmen as the philosopher Cicero who warned against authoritarian policies, which Cawthorn said today would describe “the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.”
“SPQR is a warning to my generation from the ages against tyranny and authoritarianism,” Cawthorn wrote in the statement.
A photo of Cawthorn in his wheelchair carrying a military-style rifle and wearing a bandolier holster with a pistol also has drawn the attention of his political critics. The holster, which rests on his chest, bears the outline of a Spartan soldier’s helmet. It’s a symbol popularized by a far-right gun-advocacy group called the Oath Keepers and often includes the motto Molon Labe. The translation from ancient Greek is akin to the phrase “Come and take them from me.” The words were attributed the Spartan King Leonidis in response to a demand from a much-larger enemy to order his soldiers to lay down their weapons and surrender.
A film of that name backed by the Oath Keepers features conspiracy theorist Alex Jones who claimed on his Infowars web program that the 2012 mass murder of 26 children and teachers at the Sandy Hook elementary school was faked as a pretense by liberals to outlaw assault weapons. Jones is being sued by the parents of several children and has been ordered to pay more than $100,000 in legal costs in one case before it has even gone to trial.
Cawthorn also is frequently interviewed at home against a wall displaying a stylized version of the so-called Betsy Ross flag with just 13 stars for the original 13 states. It too has been adopted by some white supremacists to reference the nation at a time when Blacks were enslaved and counted in the newly adopted Constitution as three-fifths of a white person.
This use was little known outside extremist circles until 2019 when Nike was forced to scuttle the release of a new shoe featuring the 13-star design that had been scheduled for release on the Fourth of July. Former NFL star Colin Kaepernick, a Nike brand ambassador who protested police misconduct against Blacks, warned the company that the symbol would offend Black consumers.
Cawthorn didn’t respond to an emailed AVL Watchdog request for comment on his display of these symbols, and it isn’t known if he is aware of how they are being used. But in public comments after expressing opposition to a federal policy of African-American reparations, he has pushed back at any suggestion of racism. He told BPR interviewer Vaillancourt that his fiance’ is “half African American” and their children will thus be bi-racial.
He insisted his opposition stemmed from his determination that his children wouldn’t grow up with “an entitlement mindset.” The real racists are white liberals who advocate for reparations and such programs as Affirmative Action, Cawthorn continued.
“They want people to be able to get into college with lower grades and lower school scores simply because they are African American. That’s insane. That is saying, ‘Hey, you know what? Don’t work so hard because you’re African American, because you probably just can’t do it.’ Are you kidding me?”
His opponent, retired Air Force Colonel Morris (Moe) Davis of Asheville, is among those advocating for a federal reparations policy, a position he has come to in part after attending and teaching law at a historically Black university.
“My opponent was homeschooled, never went to college, never went to law school and never worked outside this area,” Davis said.
Missing from Cawthorn’s campaign so far have been policy positions on issues that might draw support from other young voters and thereby position him as a conservative alternative to Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez who has established a following far beyond her district. Those policies would likely need to address such issues as climate change, LGBTQ concerns and social equity.
But Western Carolina University’s Cooper said that if Cawthorn moved in this direction to fulfill his desire to become the new face of GOP conservatives, he’d be confronted with a dilemma.
“If he runs a campaign that would get him that level of national attention,“ Cooper said, “I don’t think it would help him locally.”
AVL Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Tom Fiedler is former executive editor of The Miami Herald and a Pulitzer Prize-winning political reporter. He lives in Asheville. Contact us at email@example.com.