What Madison Cawthorn Saw at the Insurrection

The youngest member of Congress is invigorated by the mob he helped incite.

Madison Cawthorn after speaking at Trump’s rally and before the insurrection. Photo: Gabriella Demczuk for New York Magazine/Gabriella Demczuk
Madison Cawthorn after speaking at Trump’s rally and before the insurrection. Photo: Gabriella Demczuk for New York Magazine/Gabriella Demczuk

Madison Cawthorn has a vision of a January 6 that did not happen. One in which he does the noble thing for career and country. He uses his MAGA celebrity for good. He transforms from shitposter to statesman. And he emerges from the U.S. Capitol as America’s savior.

Ten days into the 25-year-old’s first term as the youngest member of the House of Representatives, and three hours after voting against the second impeachment of Donald Trump, the North Carolina Republican was in his quarters at the Cannon House Office Building talking about what-ifs and reliving an already historic sequence of events — in which he gave a speech to some people and then those people stormed the Capitol to overturn the results of the election, kill a police officer, and call for the execution of the vice-president.

“Literally,” Cawthorn said, “I … I … I …”

From behind his desk, as gleaming and bare as Trump’s Resolute, he looked to the side of the room, where his buddy turned campaign manager turned senior aide Blake Harp sat folded on the black leather couch upon which Cawthorn has been sleeping since arriving in Washington. Harp was focused on his phone. Cawthorn kept staring in his direction, as if searching for the right words. Harp continued to type.

“In hindsight,” Cawthorn went on, “you know, I wish I could’ve … uhh … if I could, you know … I probably would’ve … obviously … knowing what happened later in the day … I wish I would’ve been like, ‘Just so you know, we are peaceful protesters.’ ”

He lowered his mask to drink from a can of peach-flavored Red Bull. The motion revealed the cartoonishly telegenic face — much more cherubic in person — that has been everywhere since Cawthorn vaulted into the conservative-media hype machine this summer.

After winning a competitive primary and the November election, he avidly promoted the president’s false claims of voter fraud. In a December speech to Turning Point USA, the right-wing youth organization, he said, “Call your congressman, and feel free — you can lightly threaten them and say, ‘You know what? If you don’t start supporting election integrity, I’m coming after you, Madison Cawthorn is coming after you, everybody’s coming after you.’ ” With digital charisma and total fealty to the Trump election lie, Cawthorn snagged a prime speaking spot at the president’s January 6 “Save America” rally alongside lifers like Rudy Giuliani and Trump’s own son. Facing the MAGA masses, his leather-gloved fist raised in the air, Cawthorn said, “Wow, this crowd has some fight in it!”

The language of war is standard in politics — to go by bad newspaper copy, lawmakers are always “firing salvos” in “battleground” states — and fight is a word that, in American elections, has not often been interpreted literally. (In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s official campaign anthem was “Fight Song,” and it seemed to only inspire self-harm among the press corps.) Cawthorn says he left Trump’s rally with no clue of what was about to happen and was back on the Hill before the president spoke. “I think telling the people to march down to the Capitol was probably … I mean … that … that just seemed unwise,” he told me. (Asked to respond, Judd Deere, a White House deputy press secretary who is friendly with Cawthorn, said, “Off the record — no comment.”)

In the House chamber on the 6th, Cawthorn sensed something was off. “I started to become very aware of Capitol Police,” he said. They seemed to be “anxious” and “nervous” and “moving around a lot.” Soon, he said, a security official “came up and said, ‘Hey, just wanna give you guys all a reminder: Everything’s under control, but if anything bad should happen, there’s bulletproof backing on all these chairs.’ And at that point, the Democratic side lost their minds. They just started yelling, ‘This is because of you!’ ”

Still, Cawthorn said, despite the yelling and “scattering about” and “ten or so members who seemed very vividly, visibly afraid,” he didn’t grasp what was happening — that the Capitol was, at that moment, being overrun like a fire-ant hill by the same people he had recently exhorted to “chant with me so loud that the cowards in Washington, D.C., that I serve with can hear you.” The Republican members were unruffled, he said, until the sergeant at arms informed them that the perimeter had been breached and the building was going into lockdown. “I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy. A couple people must’ve ran by, down the stairs,’ ” he said. “ ‘Well, that’s gonna end poorly for them! They’re about to be Tased!’ ”

Cawthorn, who was paralyzed in a 2014 car accident, recalled navigating the escape route with “an abundance of calm” alongside Ted Budd and Richard Hudson, fellow representatives from North Carolina. “They really played a huge role in helping me get over barricades and down some staircases,” he said. “The evacuation route was not very accessible. I’m pretty physically vulnerable, just being in a wheelchair.”

Cawthorn — now armed with a handgun, he said — took shelter in the office of a colleague. “It was a great bonding experience,” he said. “But it literally felt like a scene from The Lord of the Rings. You kind of see the orcs — Helm’s Deep, or taking over Minas Tirith, whatever — it just looks like the enemy is on something that they’re not supposed to be on … And the worst part was they’re all waving these American flags and these MAGA flags, and you want to say, ‘You don’t represent me at all. That’s not my movement. You’re not part of my party one bit if you’re taking this kind of extreme action.’ One can say, ‘You can only push somebody so much, and they watched the Black Lives Matter people do this all summer,’ blah blah blah — but at the end of the day, there’s no excuse for it.”

And yet for Cawthorn it was also, on a personal level, a missed opportunity: “I genuinely believe, had we realized what was going on and sent myself, or maybe Lauren Boebert” — he was referring to the freshman representative from Colorado infamous for her gun fetish — “some of these people who are just very recognizable to, kind of, the MAGA crowd; in the wheelchair, I probably would’ve been better, because it’s very easily recognizable. I might’ve just gone to the front steps.” And there, facing the rioters, he said, “I think we could’ve stopped them.”

Cawthorn on January 6. Photo: Gabriella Demczuk for New York Magazine/Gabriella Demczuk.
Cawthorn on January 6. Photo: Gabriella Demczuk for New York Magazine/Gabriella Demczuk.

An extremely online Evangelical ex-linebacker son of a financial adviser, Cawthorn so embodied the right-wing ethos of the Trump era — “I don’t want to raise a family in a country run by left-wing socialists,” etc. — that it didn’t even matter to voters when Trump himself endorsed someone else in his primary. That was done on the advice of the White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, who held the seat from 2013 to 2020. Meadows knew Cawthorn personally: A few years before, he had been his intern and then a low-level staffer.

A Meadows aide at the time described Cawthorn as “a typical overachiever College Republican type” with a good sense of branding. (He dropped out of Patrick Henry College after one semester.) As an intern, Cawthorn was tasked with assembling each day’s “clips,” the collection of news items relating to the boss. “What I took away from it is it’s almost a scattergraph of where different news outlets and media organizations are,” Cawthorn told me, referring to partisanship. He said the Associated Press is “very, very fair,” and the Washington Examiner “does a good job.” Or actually, he wasn’t sure. “I think it’s them,” he said. “One of the Washingtons does a good job. You realize Politico leans this way; the Drudge Report leans this way.”

Cawthorn won his runoff by 30 points.* “Madison had decent name ID because he became a local hero after his accident, and people love a hero overcoming adversity,” the Meadows aide said with casual cynicism. By the time Cawthorn won the general election, he looked, to liberals, almost like a mini-Trump, adept at owning the libs and racking up liabilities that would have ended most political careers. He visited the U.S.-Mexico border and appealed to QAnon with a claim that children were being kidnapped and sold into sex slavery across the Rio Grande; he was accused of sexual misconduct (Cawthorn maintains he did nothing wrong) and of spreading a lie that, if not for his car crash, he would have attended the Naval Academy (he was rejected prior to the accident). His campaign launched a racist attack against a member of the press; he posted a photo at Hitler’s vacation home with a caption about how seeing where “the Führer” (umlaut and everything) went to decompress had been on his “bucket list.” And on and on.

Cawthorn’s ideology is an almost convincing patchwork of conservative slogans and concepts, expressed with a child actor’s poised delivery — designed to charm elders and scare off peers. But it is shallow and contradictory. In one breath, he proposes a retreat from identity politics. In the next, he cites Trump’s appointing an openly gay Cabinet official as proof that he is one of the greatest presidents ever. He describes his version of “America First” foreign policy as humanitarian dovishness: “We should be leading with wells, not warheads.” Then he says he wants to cut foreign aid, the less than one percent of the budget that theoretically goes toward well digging.

During an interview with the columnist John Solomon (famous for spreading Ukrainian-themed conspiracy theories ahead of the first Trump impeachment), Cawthorn described his new station in magical terms. “You think of a Harry Potter or a Gandalf in one of these great works of fiction,” he said. “They’re handed a wand. And you as the viewer, you don’t exactly know what they can do with that wand, but you know it holds incredible power. That’s a lot what it’s like coming into Congress, because there’s really no limitations onto what you can and cannot do in Congress. Aside from what the Supreme Court will allow you to do.”

“You almost can’t help, with him, doing some armchair psychoanalysis,” said Tom Fiedler, the Miami Herald journalist who derailed Gary Hart’s 1988 presidential campaign and three decades later retired to Asheville and found himself covering the rise of Cawthorn for a local nonprofit. After Fiedler reported critically on aspects of Cawthorn’s biography, the campaign created a racist website to highlight that the journalist, who is white, “quit his academia job in Boston to work for non-white males, like Cory Booker.” Fiedler said, “He has a very Trump-like quality: He sees himself as charismatic and able to persuade everyone to come to his side. He feels he is the anointed one.”

In Washington, Cawthorn’s ambition is to replicate on the right what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has achieved on the left. (When we spoke in his office, Cawthorn said he considers her a “genius.”) As he understood things, that meant being famous, even if it required disregarding the wisdom of his elders. “We advised him, ‘Keep your head down for the first year,’ ” the former Meadows aide said. “ ‘Don’t try to be a celebrity. It rarely works out.’ ”

Now, with Cawthorn’s fame tied up in accusations that he helped incite a violent insurrection and with opponents calling for him to be expelled from the House after just days on the job, basic survival instincts are kicking in. I asked him about a tweet sent just after his election — “Cry more, lib” — that had helped make him a right-wing star. “That’s the thing I regret most,” he said. Wait a minute — isn’t this the party of “Don’t retreat, reload?” Of never admitting any wrongdoing so that you never have to be accountable? Cawthorn said many Republicans have encouraged him to hold the line. “I get so many texts from a lot of people who feel like they’re great advisers, saying, ‘Never apologize! We never back down! We never do this!’ ” he said, raising his voice.

But that’s not going to work for him anymore, not in the environment he feels forming in the void left by Trump. “I think that’s bad for the country,” he said. “I really think that us just saying whatever the fuck we want to say and then — please don’t quote the ‘fuck’ — just saying whatever we want to say and then never apologizing for it, never saying, ‘Oh, you know what? That was wrong. This is actually wrong because this is actually not factual; here, let me fix that.’ I think that hurts our party, and it hurts us as humans and Americans because it makes people just so angry and aggressive toward one another. I don’t think it makes you weaker to apologize.”

To be clear, Cawthorn is talking about contrition in theory; he is not saying he is sorry for his participation in Trump’s rally. In fact, he thinks his speech to the mob may have saved his colleagues’ lives. “Maybe my remarks that day led to a thousand less people, or ten less people, who didn’t storm the Capitol,” he told me. “Maybe that number would’ve been enough to breach the House floor, and congressmen could have died or more police officers could have died. I think my comments there led to less violence.”

Here, Cawthorn is almost certainly in uncharted waters, which is his analogy, not mine. “I feel a lot like Magellan,” he said. “You know — the great explorer during the Age of Exploration.”

*This article appears in the January 18, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

*This article has been corrected to show that Cawthorn won a runoff, not a primary, by 30 points.

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What Madison Cawthorn Saw at the Insurrection