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Madison Cawthorn's cardinal sin against the GOP had nothing to do with misconduct

It’s hard not to see a connection between Cawthorn getting on the wrong side of his own party and the sudden emergence of leaks meant to embarrass him.
Image: Madison Cawthorn
U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., speaks to supporters and the media at his primary election night watch party in Hendersonville, N.C., on Tuesday, May 17, 2022.Nell Redmond / AP

Rep. Madison Cawthorn had a meteoric political rise as the youngest Republican elected to Congress in American history. He is telegenic and self-assured. This year, he was endorsed by former President Donald Trump. Yet on Tuesday night in his district’s GOP congressional primary, he went down in flames.

Virtually any account of Cawthorn’s political demise after his surprise victory in 2020 will include the word “scandal.” Indeed, Cawthorn’s list of misconduct as a freshman lawmaker was so long it almost seemed like he was deliberately trying to test the boundaries of what a politician could get away with.

The bright red line for the GOP is not authoritarianism or other potentially criminal acts, but undermining the power of the party.

But the reality is that Cawthorn was not ousted from the party purely for affiliation with scandals, which Republican voters have shown they have a very high tolerance for. Rather, he was plagued by association with the wrong kind of scandals. More important than his acts of deception or alleged mistreatment of women or extreme political positions was the fact that he embarrassed and rankled politicians in his own party by implicating them in his allegations that Washington is the site of “sexual perversion.” The whole episode illustrates how the bright red line for the GOP is not authoritarianism or other potentially criminal acts, but undermining the power of the party.

Remember that scandal did not prevent Cawthorn from making it into office. During his campaign it was revealed that he misled and lied to voters about why he didn’t make it into the Naval Academy, and about having a successful business. And a letter signed by more than 150 students from the college he attended for one semester accused him of “gross misconduct toward our female peers, public misrepresentation of his past, disorderly conduct that was against the school’s student honor code.” But he was elected anyway.

Political extremism was not a problem for Cawthorn either. He was an eager booster of Trump’s lies about the 2020 election being rigged against him. He had a prime speaking slot at the Jan. 6 “Save America” rally, and he encouraged voters to “lightly threaten” their representatives if they didn’t get on board with Trump’s false narrative of the election. That was not a source of controversy on the right.

This spring, Cawthorn did irritate at least some Republicans for calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a “thug.” And he made headlines for being charged for driving with a suspended license. But in the Trump era, this registered as yawn-inducing on the spectrum of scandal.

Things really took a turn at the end of March. On a podcast, Cawthorn said that Washington was packed with “sexual perversion,” alleged that colleagues he had “looked up to” had invited him to sex parties in Washington, and said that he had seen his peers use cocaine. As the Independent reports: “The uproar was instant. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called him into a meeting which included the minority whip, Steve Scalise, and afterward declared that Mr. Cawthorn had destroyed his trust. Other Republicans were equally disdainful, and some openly called for him to be primaried.”

Again, Cawthorn had failed at the game of diplomacy within his party.

In other words, Cawthorn’s transgression wasn’t ardent support of authoritarianism, lying, mistreating people or breaking the law. The transgression was revealing how he was a politician who might be willing to throw members of his own party under the bus. (Note that his colleagues could make this assessment regardless of the whether or not they believed Cawthorn was being truthful.)

In the following weeks, photos and videos were leaked to the press that were designed to embarrass and undermine Cawthorn’s standing on the right. Images of him in women’s lingerie were leaked to Politico. Now this doesn’t strike me as particularly noteworthy, but for a hardcore right-winger who talked about there only being “one God and two genders,” it was probably not a good look, from a consistency standpoint.

Just a couple weeks before the primary, an anti-Cawthorn PAC released a video which purportedly showed him thrusting in the nude, which Cawthorn called “blackmail” and explained as him “being crass with a friend.” Again, not particularly important per se, but a clear attempt to draw attention to Cawthorn’s sexuality and judgment.

While the sources of these leaks are not known, it’s hard not to see a connection between Cawthorn getting on the wrong side of his own party and the sudden emergence of leaks meant to embarrass him from a right-wing point of view. He had infuriated the wrong people in Washington, and it also probably didn’t help that he had also made enemies over the winter in his home state after he contemplated running for re-election in a neighboring district, which had been custom-tailored for the Republican speaker of the North Carolina House. The episode elicited some extremely pointed criticism from North Carolina Republicans, who saw Cawthorn as a cocky and selfish newcomer. (“Madison Cawthorn is a callow and appallingly ignorant young man who regularly embarrasses conservatives and Republicans, whether they admit it or not,” one said.) In other words, again Cawthorn had failed at the game of diplomacy within his party.

As the leaks came out — and amidst even more of Cawthorn’s own scandals, like investigations into whether he had engaged in insider trading — his standing in the polls dropped. And while Trump endorsed him in 2022, Cawthorn was attacked openly by powerful lawmakers from his own state, like Sen. Thom Tillis, in the run-up to the primary. Cawthorn didn't just head into the primary steeped in the aura of scandal — he was also steeped in an aura of controversy and anger from within his party. Ultimately Cawthorn lost to a 61-year-old state senator with almost the opposite temperament.

All this is a reminder that even in the Trump era, Republicans have the capacity to swiftly rally together to reject certain kinds of behavior and seriously attempt to persuade their own base to choose an alternative to the current direction of the party. But the Republican Party does not see the need to do that in response to authoritarianism or disinformation. It only seeks to go to war against a colleague who threatens to undermine its own power and ambition.