Madison Cawthorn is a 25-year-old motivational speaker running for Congress in North Carolina as a Republican. He has a compelling life story—he survived a horrific car crash that left him wheelchair-bound, ending his plans to become a Marine—and a fresh face. If elected, he would be the youngest member of Congress in history.
His campaign rhetoric reflects his youth, as well as the sloganeering and rah-rah patriotism of the #MAGA era. It’s all “I love America too much to let the squad destroy it,” and “A Patriot revolution is on the rise,” and “America needs more Young Patriots in Congress and less Socialists.” (Fewer socialists would be a goal worth supporting, indeed.)
A recent piece by Jezebel‘s Esther Wang attempts to poke holes in Cawthorn’s alleged professional accomplishments and the narrative he tells about himself. Wang asserts that Cawthorn was rejected from the Naval Academy not because of his accident but prior to it, and that despite billing himself as a successful businessman, Cawthorn is not actually a real estate investor at all.
Since these are not particularly exciting revelations, Wang also goes to great lengths to paint Cawthorn as some sort of closeted white supremacist. Indeed, the very second sentence of the piece contains the out-of-absolutely-nowhere claim that his hair is “swept back and gelled a la Richard Spencer.” Cawthorn has hair—you know who else had hair?
Wang then notes several increasingly thin pieces of evidence that Cawthorn might be alt-right adjacent. The most damning of these is that Cawthorn apparently thought it was a good idea to take a picture of himself touring Hitler’s vacation house in 2017, adding this caption for Instagram: “The vacation house of the Führer. Seeing the Eagles Nest has been on my bucket list for a while, it did not disappoint. Strange to hear so many laughs and share a good time with my brother where only 79 years ago a supreme evil shared laughs and good times with his compatriots.” It’s a truly cringeworthy comment, but one that strikes me as a failed attempt at perspective—in the vein of those moving dance-at-Auschwitz videos—rather than an endorsement of Hitler.
The rest of the evidence is even less convincing. Cawthorn has a Betsy Ross flag, and some white nationalists like the Betsy Ross flag. Cawthorn really likes the acronym “SPQR,” which stands for “the Senate and the Roman Republic,” something that white nationalists have recently appropriated. It would surprise me if Cawthorn knew that these have become alt-right symbols, just as it would surprise most people to learn that making the OK gesture will get them branded as white nationalists by hate-group watchers.
Again, if the criticism of Cawthorn is that he’s immature, out of his depth, or exaggerating his accomplishments, these are fine points. But Wang titled her article, “My Dark Journey Into the Soul of a Model Young Republican Candidate.” Reported pieces that aspire to be “dark journeys into the soul” probably should not rest upon somebody’s haircut resembling some other sinister person’s haircut—which is a false smear, in any case.