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Is Madison Cawthorn the future of Trumpism?

“Cry more, lib.”

The three-word tweet from a conservative politician hit social media like a poke in the chest. It was a taunt in the style of Donald Trump Jr., or perhaps former President Donald Trump himself – direct, demeaning, with a gleam of glee.

But it wasn’t from a Trump family member. It came instead from Madison Cawthorn, a college dropout and former Chick-fil-A employee, after it became clear on Nov. 3 that he had rolled over Democrats and establishment-endorsed Republicans alike to become the next congressman to represent North Carolina’s 11th district, a seat held until recently by Mr. Trump’s White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows. 

Is Congressman Cawthorn – only 25, with a compelling story of adversity overcome – the future of Trumpism? Born and raised in Carolina mountain country, he’s already a hit with right-leaning media figures who helped power Mr. Trump’s political rise. The day before the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, he went door-to-door in the Senate, lobbying GOP senators to vote against confirming President Joe Biden’s Electoral College win. 

In some ways he’s a less abrasive figure than the former president. Asked about his touchdown-dance “cry more” tweet, he’s contrite, saying it was a heat-of-the-moment action he now regrets, the result of growing up in a competitive household. He even says he deleted the Twitter app off his phone to prevent a similar mistake.

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But Mr. Cawthorn’s mix of chutzpah and ambition seems, if not Trumpian, at least Trump-adjacent. When I introduce myself at a meeting in his office he remarks on the irony that my name is Story and I write stories for a living. I tell him I’m an “aptronym,” a word that describes people whose name fits their occupation. He repeats “aptronym” enthusiastically.

“Really? Wow,” he says, and then without skipping a beat: “I’m going to rename myself ‘Speaker.’”

“Lightly threaten”

Representative Cawthorn calls Donald Trump “the best president in my lifetime” and seems tickled by the idea that some observers think he resembles the former U.S. chief executive in aspects of biography and style.

Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Cawthorn has a compelling personal history. He’s not a businessman/reality TV star/former commander-in-chief, but a baby-faced political newcomer paralyzed in a car accident seven years ago. In 2020 he surprised pundits by beating a jostling primary field of Republicans and then cruising to victory in a conservative-leaning district, only two months after reaching the Constitution-set minimum age of 25 for House members. (On Mr. Meadows’ advice, Mr. Trump actually backed another Republican in the primary.)

Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Cawthorn evokes strong reactions from both supporters and opponents. The former see him as an appealing conservative fresh face. An older woman in a Hendersonville Walmart talks about her new “handsome, young, well-spoken” representative, despite not being able to recall his first name. The latter sometimes express visceral dislike – a Latina waitress downtown resorts to expletives when talking about the rookie congressman.

Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Cawthorn has quickly become a dominant presence on the conservative media circuit. Mere days after his primary win, the young North Carolinian was profiled as a “star on the rise” on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show. He’s appeared on Sean Hannity’s eponymous Fox show as well.

And like Mr. Trump, Mr. Cawthorn has been accused of helping incite the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.

He was an opening speaker onstage at the Trump rally that day, supporting the false accusation that the election was stolen. Among other things, he commended the crowd for having “some fight” in it.

Two weeks prior, at a conference held by the conservative group Turning Point USA, he told attendees they could “lightly threaten” their members of Congress by telling the lawmakers that if they didn’t support “election integrity” then “everybody’s coming after you.”

On Jan. 4, he tweeted that the future of the republic now depended on “the actions of a solitary few.”

“It’s time to fight,” he wrote.

Two days later, when the mob broke into the Capitol and started pounding on doors leading to the House chamber, the congressman, who uses a wheelchair, was uniquely vulnerable. Fellow North Carolina lawmakers were instrumental in helping him around obstacles and down staircases.

When the House reconvened hours after the violence, Mr. Cawthorn voted to reject the certification of Pennsylvania’s Electoral College votes. In brief remarks to lawmakers, he called for “a new generation of Americans to be radicals.”

“If I had a Magic 8-Ball”

But Madison Cawthorn is not a clone of Donald Trump. Unlike the former president, he seems willing to change course in the face of opposition. That’s been the case in response to the blowback from his incendiary words prior to the attack on the Capitol.

In the aftermath of the mob attack, North Carolina Democrats called for Mr. Cawthorn’s expulsion from office for his “violent language.” A petition on Change.org calling for his resignation became the site’s fastest growing petition the weekend following the riot.

Some Republicans were upset as well. Former Henderson County Sheriff George Erwin, who was previously going to be Mr. Cawthorn’s district director in North Carolina, said he was “wrong” to support the congressman. Local conservative voters posted on Facebook about their disappointment with Mr. Cawthorn, one writing that he “deceived a lot of us.”

In response the freshman lawmaker backtracked. Pressed on CNN about why, exactly, he had objected to Pennsylvania’s Electoral College votes, Mr. Cawthorn said that “the election was not fraudulent” and that President Joe Biden “is our president.” Asked in an interview about his statements before Jan. 6, he said he had meant that he would be fighting for the rally-goers in his capacity as a lawmaker.

“Obviously if I had a Magic 8-Ball and knew what was going to happen that day, I would have added some words, but I wouldn’t have changed anything that I did say,” says Mr. Cawthorn. “I was telling these people that I was going down to the Capitol to fight on their behalf, so they had a representative inside the halls of Congress.”

While he says he wants to continue former President Trump’s “America first” agenda, Mr. Cawthorn adds that he prays for President Biden’s and Vice President Kamala Harris’ success. Hours before Mr. Biden took the oath of office last Wednesday, 17 freshman Republican members of Congress signed a letter congratulating the new president and expressing their hope that they may begin to work together for the American people.

One of the first signatures, in schoolboy cursive, was “Madison Cawthorn.”

Vision board for the future

Mr. Cawthorn was born in Asheville, North Carolina, and raised a few miles south of that city in Hendersonville. Homeschooled as a youth, his initial ambition was to attend the Naval Academy. He applied in 2014 with a nomination from his then-local congressman, Rep. Mark Meadows, but was denied.

Later that year he was returning home from a spring break trip in Florida when his friend who was driving fell asleep at the wheel and crashed the car into a concrete barrier. Mr. Cawthorn spent months in the hospital, and he says doctors gave him a 1% chance of surviving. Today, Mr. Cawthorn is partially paralyzed.

The accident was an experience, he says, which has put the rigors of politics in perspective and made him wiser than his years.

“I used to be very unempathetic to where I didn’t care about anyone else’s beliefs or what their previous life experiences were. I was just like ‘Okay, well you should get over it and let’s move on,’” says Mr. Cawthorn. “But now, going through my accident… It gives me more empathy to think about people’s past before I make conclusions about them.”

But even before the crash Mr. Cawthorn had a knack for leading other people, says Joel Benson, Mr. Cawthorn’s manager at Chick-fil-A.

He remembers one night when five buses pulled up unexpectedly, and Mr. Cawthorn, who was then a “team leader,” pumped up the rest of the employees with high-fives and cheers of “We got this!”

Mr. Benson suggested Mr. Cawthorn make a “vision board” for his future, with cut-out pictures to represent long-term goals. The final product, says Mr. Benson, included a large photograph of the U.S. Capitol building.

True to his vision board, Mr. Cawthorn launched his congressional campaign in December 2019, one day after Mr. Meadows announced his resignation. And when asked at what point in his campaign he knew he would win, he quickly responds: “The day I signed up.”

In fact, Mr. Cawthorn’s victory was far from foreordained. There was some bad press: In August a now-deleted Instagram post from 2017 of a smiling Mr. Cawthorn visiting Adolf Hitler’s vacation home “Eagle’s Nest” went viral. In the post he referred to Hitler as “the Führer” and said the visit “has been on my bucket list for awhile, it did not disappoint.”

In October, a group of former students from Patrick Henry College, which Mr. Cawthorn attended for one semester in 2016, penned a letter about why they felt Mr. Cawthorn was unqualified for office, citing sexual assault allegations, lies, and theft, from his time on campus.

During the campaign, he was criticized for making it seem as if the accident upended his plans to attend the Naval Academy, whereas he was denied before the accident. 

But in the end Mr. Cawthorn squeaked past a crowded field of Republicans in a primary run-off. Voters were skeptical of real estate agent Lynda Bennett, who Mr. Meadows endorsed as his replacement. Mr. Cawthorn was a telegenic fresh face.

Mr. Meadows and President Trump got behind Mr. Cawthorn for the general election. Donald Trump Jr. came down to campaign. Mr. Cawthorn was a good story, and got lots of free media coverage – as did candidate Trump in 2016. He beat Democrat Moe Davis, an Air Force veteran, by 13 points.

“You can’t calculate the value of the publicity he got,” says Mr. Davis.

Lunch with Pelosi?

Age is an issue that haunts both parties. Despite being the largest share of the U.S. population, millennials, people between the ages of 24 and 39 in 2020, are vastly underrepresented in politics. The top three Democratic leaders in the House are all in their early 80s, while the top three Republicans are all in their mid-50s. In the new 117th Congress, the average age for House members is 58, Senate members average 64, and last Wednesday, President Joe Biden became the oldest president in America history at 78.

In contrast, Mr. Cawthorn is the youngest current House member. Indeed, he is the youngest U.S. Representative since the mid-1960s.

“If you don’t think young people can change the world, then you just don’t know American history,” said Mr. Cawthorn during his speech at the National Republican Convention in August. “George Washington was 21 when he received his first military commission. Abe Lincoln, 22 when he first ran for office. And my personal favorite: James Madison was just 25 years old when he signed the Declaration of Independence.”

(James Madison did not sign the Declaration of Independence. He signed the Constitution.)

The youngest Congressman also has one of the youngest teams. Mr. Cawthorn brought on his friend from Patrick Henry, Blake Harp, who also dropped out after his freshman year, first as his campaign manager and now his chief of staff.

Another college buddy, Micah Bock, came on board as their communications director after graduating earlier this year. Mr. Bock recalls a conversation he had the other day with another congressman’s communications director who bragged about being the youngest person in this position at the age of 26. Mr. Bock says he had to “steal his thunder” and tell the colleague that he is 23.

“There’s definitely a learning curve to how things work in Congress,” says Mr. Bock from the team’s new office in the Cannon Building, where the couch throw pillows still have their tags on them. “But so far I think we’ve been doing well. We’ve had a lot of press…. Madison is definitely someone that makes gathering media attention not too difficult.”

For all his Trumpian aspects, Mr. Cawthorn may more closely resemble another famous current politician: Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The North Carolinian hopes to become “the AOC of the right” – a young and attractive leader able to influence his party with celebrity and social media might.

With 373,000 followers on Instagram, Mr. Cawthorn has more than three top congressional Republicans – House Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Sen. Chuck Grassley – combined. (But it’s still only a fraction of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s follower count.) He posts to his Instagram story and Twitter account daily, reminding followers to catch his appearances on Fox, OANN, or Newsmax.

Unlike Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, Mr. Cawthorn isn’t quite sure what legislative ends he wants to achieve with these means. At least, not in an overarching, ideological sense.

But he does have policy priorities. When asked which other member of Congress he’d like to have lunch with, Mr. Cawthorn, without hesitation, says “Nancy Pelosi.”

Mr. Cawthorn says his big to-do item is rural broadband, something that is incredibly lacking in his home district (to which this reporter can attest). He hopes that over a meal, perhaps he and the octogenarian House Speaker might be able to hash out a deal.

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