With his upset win over a Trump-endorsed candidate in North Carolina’s 11th District in 2020, Rep. Madison Cawthorn—freshman Republican from North Carolina and Congress’s youngest member—burst into politics as an unknown commodity. With a tragic backstory (he’d lost the use of his legs in a car crash) and central-casting good looks, Cawthorn was a blank slate onto which smitten Republicans projected remarkable attributes. A college dropout, Cawthorn presented himself as a self-made entrepreneur and real estate investor; conservative media ate up the story of a wunderkind who, in the memorable phrase of one Washington Examiner writer, was “a student of ancient Rome and Athens.”
Two years later, much of the shine has come off—leaving Cawthorn facing a Republican primary that’s gotten much more interesting than it otherwise would have been. From his personal story to his political brand, it’s hard to find a single political attribute of Cawthorn’s that hasn’t sprung some kind of leak.
Various flourishes of his telling of the tragic accident turned out to be embellished, as did his former supposed real-estate career. A number of female students at Patrick Henry College, where Cawthorn spent part of a year, accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior.
His political identity, meanwhile, is composed of a mish-mash of odd and contradictory gestures. He campaigned on aisle-crossing civility, then marked his election victory by tweeting “cry more, lib.” He took the stage at Donald Trump’s infamous January 6 rally to denounce “all the fraud [Democrats] have done in this election,” then pivoted in the wake of the Capitol riot, appearing on CNN to admit that “I think I would say that the election was not fraudulent”—before pivoting again once it became clear Trump was sticking to his stolen-election guns, telling a group of Republicans last summer that “if our election systems continue to be rigged, and continue to be stolen, then it’s going to lead to one place, and it’s bloodshed.”