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Madison Cawthorn’s Warped Washington
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Madison Cawthorn’s Warped Washington

If the first-term congressman has been invited to cocaine-fueled orgies, it says more about the crowd he's fallen in with than D.C. itself.


I once heard Robert Goldwin, a great constitutional scholar, give a talk about gun rights. It was remarkably nuanced and I think many of my Second Amendment enthusiast friends would have objected to it. He believed the Second Amendment was not about private ownership of guns, but about the right of states to have militias. That said, he also believed that if you asked any of the Founders whether you had a right to own a gun, they’d say, “Yes. Of course. It goes without saying. Everyone has firearms in the home. Everyone hunts. Why do you ask?” For Goldwin, the individual right to own a gun was like the right to own a dog: You have that right, but the state can regulate it to one extent or another. In short, it is an “unenumerated right” and the Founders were perfectly reasonable in not listing every right Americans have in the Constitution.

The problem with not listing every right we have is that it leaves other things we obviously have a right to do less secure than the rights that are listed. Parents have the right to name their child whatever they want. So you can name your kid “Quarter Pounder With Cheese” or “Le Big Mac” even though it’s not in the Constitution. You have a right to wear mismatched socks, eat soup with a fork, and spell everyday words with silent Qs riddled throughout, and the Squpreme Coqurt can’t say jack about it.

James Madison was so concerned about these rights getting trampled that he insisted on the Ninth Amendment, which says, “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

I bring this up for two reasons. First, because I thought I should cram some eggheady substance into this “news”letter before I got to the point.

The second reason is that this popped into my head when I started thinking about what you might call unenumerated rules. In life, there are lots of rules people follow that they are only vaguely aware are actual rules. In fact, they materialize from the ether of our consciousness only when specific circumstances emerge that allow us to inductively draft them on the fly. We were all told, “Don’t run with scissors.” But few of us were similarly informed that we shouldn’t run with chainsaws smeared with Vaseline (of course, we shouldn’t have to tell people not to smear really dangerous tools with Vaseline in the first place). We were all told to say “please” and “thank you” when asking for small favors, like “Please pass the salt.”  But no one told us that we shouldn’t say, “My fingers really smell like dog butt” while preparing sushi for paying customers. I’ve given lots of career advice over the years, but I’ve never told anyone, “Don’t tap on your glass eye with a pen during a job interview. It’s distracting.”

I’ve told this story about my dad before. He loved to give very, very specific advice even when not obviously warranted by events. One time, when I was a little kid, we were walking down the street holding hands. He stopped, squeezed my hand, and said, “Jonah, if you are ever pulled over by a policeman in a South American country, you must tell him, ‘I’m sorry, officer. I didn’t realize my mistake. Is there any way I can pay the fine right here rather than go down to the station house?’”

More than a decade later, when I accidentally got hot sauce in my eye, he asked me what happened when I was at the sink furiously washing out the burn. I told him and he replied, “Damn. I could kick myself for not telling you not to rub hot sauce in your eye.”

In a similar spirit, when my daughter was in grade school, I had a fun tradition. I’d drop off my adorable little girl at the front of school and then very loudly shout, “Remember, Lu: No knife fights!”

I thought it was funny.

Rules are for other people.

Where was I? Oh right, unenumerated rules.

I was going to use the above as a set-up for saying one of my unenumerated rules is, “Don’t take Madison Cawthorn seriously.” And I’ll get to that in a second. But first, a broader observation. Most of the reasons we can figure out why new rules are rules is that they fit into other rules we already accepted. Don’t run with scissors is literal advice, but it’s also figurative: Don’t do stupid, dangerous things, and don’t take unnecessary risks that make terrible accidents more likely. When we rhetorically ask, “If all your friends jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do that, too?” the point applies just as much to the Queensboro Bridge or even to such non-bridge structures as the Sears Tower or the balcony at the Bellagio hotel. (Which reminds me: My dad always used to say, “It’s like shuffling the deck chairs on the Lusitania” because he thought the Titanic got too much market share in sinking ship similes.)

In short, rules are the product of broader, universal principles. (This is a very Hayekian point. Emergent orders spring forth out of the interplay of existing rules-based systems.) I think one of the problems we have today is that many people are losing the ability—or willingness—to recognize the authority of various universal principles in their own situations. Will Smith surely knows the “don’t hit” rule. He just thought it shouldn’t apply to him. Politicians always invoke general principles when partisan opponents violate them. As I’ve written before, this is not how norms are supposed to work. If your position boils down to “norms for thee but not for me,” you don’t actually believe in norms. I don’t entirely agree with Andy McCarthy’s argument about Ginni Thomas’ text messages, but I think he’s absolutely right that Clarence Thomas’ critics are being very selective in their application of norms and rules. For those who insist Thomas should recuse himself, much of their argument boils down to, “This situation is different.” They might be right, it feels like that to me, but you need to make the argument. All serious thought is fundamentally about making distinctions between similar or seemingly similar things. But I’m not seeing many of Thomas’ critics bothering to show their work. They just let passion substitute for critical thinking.

And I get it: Ginni Thomas’ texts were bonkers, and not just Japanese game show bonkers. They were legitimately disturbing. But a lot of people seem to miss the point. There’s a lot of talk that she was part of a coup. And in one sense she obviously was. But a plain reading of the texts shows that she didn’t think she was. She thought—wrongly!—that she was on the side preventing a coup. You can argue—easily and persuasively—that she was duped. But where is the evidence that she didn’t believe what she was saying to Mark Meadows in private text exchanges? You gotta pick a theory: Was she a willing and knowing participant in an effort to illegally steal an election, or was she effectively brainwashed by the people trying to steal it? Both can’t be true. So far, all of the evidence points to the latter. After all, this is a woman who couldn’t understand why Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani had become liabilities for the cause. And almost as bizarre, she believed a conspiracy theorist’s report that the “Biden crime family” was being arrested for treason and heading to prison barges off the coast of Guantanamo. Again, she wasn’t saying this on TV, she was saying it privately.

Ginni Thomas is not Roger Stone. I think it’s obvious that Stone is a liar and fraud who deliberately spun bogus claims to help Trump steal the election. Ginni Thomas is simply guilty of thinking that Stone and his imitators were serious people. It doesn’t reflect well on her. But until new evidence is provided, I think she’s guilty of being a true believer, not a cynical plotter. This is important for all sorts of reasons, not least that all of the people going after her husband need her to be a knowing villain rather than a victim of the villains. Distinctions matter.

Orgy town.

And since we’re talking about Roger Stone, let’s talk about Madison Cawthorn. I think he’s an embarrassing ignoramus, a crank, and, if various allegations are true, a very scummy dude. On a podcast, Cawthorn was asked if the TV show House of Cards was a “fictitious show” or “more like a documentary.”

Cawthorn’s immediate reply hasn’t gotten enough attention.

 “So I heard a former president we had in the 1990s was asked the question about this. And he gave an answer that I thought was so true. He said the only thing that’s not accurate in that show is you could never get a piece of legislation about education passed that quickly.”

Now, is Cawthorn so young and ignorant that he can’t keep all the presidents we had in the 1990s straight—you know, all two of them? Or did he want to make it sound like George H.W. Bush—a guy who wouldn’t take off his jacket in the Oval Office—might have made this joke? And it was a joke, told second-hand by Kevin Spacey. Does he think that either Clinton or Bush would seriously argue that politicians—like them—routinely murder inconvenient lovers, staffers, and rivals?

Cawthorn went on to say: “Aside from that, the sexual perversion that goes on in Washington. I mean, being kind of a young guy in Washington, where the average age is probably 60 or 70—[you] look at all these people, a lot of them that I’ve looked up to through my life, I’ve always paid attention to politics. … Then all of a sudden you get invited: ‘We’re going to have a sexual get-together at one of our homes, you should come.’ ‘What did you just ask me to come to?’ And then you realize they’re asking you to come to an orgy.” He added, displaying an interesting familiarity with drug jargon, that he’s seen leading conservatives fighting coke addiction. “And then you watch them do a key bump of cocaine right in front of you. And it’s like, this is wild.”

So first of all, when someone uses a phrase like “key bump” like everyone knows what it is, it’s a pretty good sign that they are pretty comfortable in settings where there’s a lot of key bumping going around. It’s sort of like if someone next to you sees a disturbing scene in a movie and derisively shouts “Come on! That’s not how you have sex with a chicken!” odds are good they have that special knowledge for a reason.

Anyway, my initial instinct was to follow my fairly recently minted rule: “Don’t take Madison Cawthorn seriously.” And I’m still inclined to. I’ve lived in Washington for three decades. I like gossip and I’ve been well-situated to hear lots of it from journalists, politicians, and quite a few well-lubricated lobbyists. And while I’m sure there have been orgies in D.C., the idea that they are commonplace gatherings among 60-and-70-year-old leading conservatives strikes me as … implausible. I mean, the mental images alone, many too terrible to contemplate, of this crowd going full Caligula should arouse (“Word choice! Word choice!”—editor) skepticism. Occam’s razor could be a spoon, and you’d still reach that conclusion.

In a town full of people who can’t keep secrets, the idea that a bunch of prominent old dudes are casually inviting 25-year-old congressmen to orgies is so unlikely in so many ways it’s like one of those “What’s wrong with this picture?” games. I mean, I get that Viagra is a wonder drug, but that only reduces the implausibility by a small fraction. It’s not that he implied an orgy (singular) happened. It’s that he said insinuated such “sexual perversion” is routine and endemic. And if it were, we’d know about it.

In the next breath, he bemoans the “espionage aspect of what goes on in Washington” where “so many people trade in secrets.” It’s true: People do trade in secrets. But in Washington’s economy-of-secrets such orgies are akin to a thumb drive with $1 billion worth of bitcoin on it. If Cawthorn were the genius he pretends to be, he’d cash in his orgy 411 to become majority leader or the president of CPAC, not give it away for free to a rando podcaster. His North Carolina district would be littered with Olympic swimming pools and naval bases—and his district is landlocked.

But I’ve been burned on similar, albeit less dramatic, allegations before. I was at Fox for more than a decade, and I never once got the memo that grown men send pictures of their junk to women other than their wives (heck, I didn’t know they did that with their wives). I didn’t know that prominent journalists walked nude in front of their assistants. Or that beloved TV hosts had James Bond villain systems to lock their doors so they could “mentor” their staff. (During the Clinton sex scandal, I believe it was Michael Kinsley who responded to claims Bill was just “mentoring” Monica, “Yeah, I’m sure he mentored her senseless.”)

So while I’m sure the impression Cawthorn is trying to leave people with is false, there may be some there there. And that brings me back to Roger Stone, an avowed swinger and sexual adventurer. Roger Stone is an old dude. Roger Stone and Cawthorn have swum in similar waters these last few years. It would not shock me at all if Stone asked Cawthorn to a “sexual get together.” Even the phrase “sexual get together” is so twee that it sounds like something Stone would say. It would not shock me at all if Stone had Cawthorn fit for a leather onesie. Similarly, I can see Matt Gaetz saying, “Come on back to my pad” after taking a key bump. Or maybe it was Jerry Falwell Jr. with some righteous nose candy his pool boy picked up for him.

But here’s the thing: That’s not normal Washington. That’s the crowd Cawthorn has fallen in with. Roger Stone left Washington for Florida precisely because D.C. was too uptight for his freak flag. He came back to Washington because he’d attached himself to Trump, for all the obvious reasons.

There’s a pithy phrase I’m fond of: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” The point being that the simplest, most obvious explanation is most likely to be true. If Cawthorn is being invited to orgies and watching social conservatives snort coke, it’s almost surely because the first term congressman has fallen in with the sybaritic and crapulent grifters who peddle the same kind of garbage Cawthorn does.

And that’s what’s so hilarious about this. In his remarks, Cawthorn struck the pose of a decent, morally upright Mr. Smith who went to Washington and found Plato’s Retreat. But he’s not on the moralists’ team. And if he’s not lying, he’s confused his allies’ perversions for the establishment’s.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.