My Dark Journey Into the Soul of a Model Young Republican Candidate

My Dark Journey Into the Soul of a Model Young Republican Candidate

Madison Cawthorn is a handsome guy, if your tastes run towards toothy, muscled blondes. In interviews, the 25-year-old Republican practically gleams with youthful vigor, his locks swept back and gelled à la Richard Spencer. Cawthorn’s age is his selling point; he paints his relative inexperience as a key motivation for why he’s running for Congress in North Carolina’s 11th district. “I don’t really think there’s any time to wait,” he told Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo shortly after his lopsided victory in June’s Republican primary runoff. “Our country’s in dire times, and if it doesn’t have somebody come out to help and someone to lead a patriot revolution of this younger generation, then I feel like we’re going to have a generational time bomb go off in the Republican Party.”

It’s clear Cawthorn sees himself as that person. With his primary victory over Donald Trump-endorsed Lynda Bennett, Cawthorn created a narrative that was eagerly, if belatedly, embraced by the upper echelons of the Republican Party; he spent a Monday in late July hobnobbing with Trump, Lindsay Graham, and Rudy Giuliani at Trump’s Washington hotel. The Republicans need new blood, and who better than Cawthorn, with his perfect story and his perfect looks? He’s a “fighter,” to use his favorite term, who survived a devastating car accident at 18, which left him partially paralyzed and using a wheelchair. He’s a real estate investor and the CEO of his own company; a motivational speaker who just wants to inspire others; a devout Christian; a lover of the Second Amendment; a family man, already engaged to be married to Cristina Bayardelle, an impressively buff fitness influencer and CrossFit champion who also loves guns. Cawthorn is Republican catnip.

But after I first wrote about him, I received a flurry of emails, many from North Carolinians who will be his constituents if Cawthorn wins his general election race against his Democratic opponent, Moe Davis. These constituents told me that there was more to know about Cawthorn than his hatred of socialism, his eyebrow-raising legal battles, and his penchant for posting vacation photos with distasteful captions—including a joke he made about conquering Mexican restaurants in the same way that conquistadors conquered “entire civilizations,” and another about the fulfillment of his dream of seeing the vacation home of, as he put it, the “Führer.” (The experience, he wrote, “did not disappoint.”) “Strange to hear so many laughs and share such a good time with my brother where only 79 years ago a supreme evil shared laughs and good times with his compatriots,” Cawthorn mused in the caption of the latter Instagram post, which featured a photo of him and his brother smiling widely in front of the Eagle’s Nest, where Adolf Hitler vacationed in Berchtesgaden.

So I decided to look a little closer. And while Cawthorn’s campaign didn’t provide any answers—they did not respond to several requests for comment, which included a detailed list of questions—what I discovered was illuminating. Cawthorn often talks about the need for Republicans to have a fresh young face, and to wrap conservative ideas in “better packaging” and “better messaging” that is less “abrasive.” But “better packaging” is just that—packaging. Cawthorn is following the playbook of other, more successful far-right Republicans in recent years, attempting to rebrand his extreme views—which include what I would describe as white supremacist-adjacent nationalism—as squarely in the mainstream of the Republican Party. In doing so, he’s co-signing those ideas for a new generation of voters who may be turned off by Old White Men but who might embrace them from a fellow millennial.

And then there’s the story he tells about himself. Much of Cawthorn’s professional background has been accepted at face value, with news articles about him (including one I wrote) running with the persona he has cultivated: that of a young, successful businessman who, inspired by personal tragedy and a quagmire of medical debt, is on a mission to stop the horrific spread of socialism. But look even slightly beyond the surface and that story begins to look more like a padded resumé, one composed of what seems like half-truths and lies by omission.

Cawthorn paints himself as a promising young man with plans to become a Marine until the 2014 car accident that left him partially paralyzed. “He planned on serving his country in the Navy with a nomination to the U.S. Naval Academy,” one of his campaign ads states, until “tragedy struck.” Almost every single news article about Cawthorn mentions that he was nominated to the Naval Academy by his former boss Mark Meadows, now White House Chief of Staff; it’s easy to then assume that he was accepted by the Naval Academy. But it turns out, according to a 2017 deposition Cawthorn gave as part of his unsuccessful lawsuit seeking $30 million from the auto insurance company that had already paid him $3 million, he was actually rejected by the Naval Academy, and was informed of his rejection before his car accident.

Cawthorn’s biography also neglects to highlight his actual time in college, which seemingly consisted of one semester at Patrick Henry College in Virginia, a small conservative Christian university described as “God’s Harvard” that operates as a sort of feeder school for those who want to enter right-wing politics. According to that same 2017 deposition, Cawthorn said he attended Patrick Henry College starting in the fall of 2016 and studied political science, but dropped out. The reason he gave? “Heartbreak,” he told the attorney, saying that his first fiancée (he was engaged to another woman before Bayardelle) “ran off with my best friend.” But he also admitted his grades were terrible. “I would think probably my average grade in most classes was a D,” he recalled, pinning the cause partly on the injuries stemming from his accident.

So Cawthorn was never admitted to the Naval Academy, and is by his own admission a college dropout—details that on their own are inconsequential. But when combined and coupled with the lawsuit, they paint a clearer, and more complete, picture of Cawthorn that differs from the image he has presented to date.

This includes his assertion that he is a real estate investor. In 2019, according to a scan of Cawthorne’s Instagram page, he appeared to do a lot of relaxing for someone who is supposedly a busy entrepreneur—in between working out, claiming to train for the Olympics (a goal which he gave up that July), giving a few motivational speeches here and there, and proposing to Bayardelle—Cawthorn traveled to the Bahamas, Mexico, and traipsed around Europe. Of course, it’s not disqualifying for a potential member of Congress to be a dick who loves to go on vacation and work out—so many of them do! I myself enjoy vacations, though I personally try to avoid making offensive jokes. But it does raise the question of how the 25-year-old Cawthorn—who appears to have no consistent source of income other than his real estate business and the occasional paid speeches to churches and businesses—supports himself.

So I took a look at his financial disclosure form, where he’s supposed to list out all of his assets and income sources. According to the form Cawthorn submitted, he, as he put it himself, “made most of my money in the New York Stock Exchange,” which is helpfully characterized as “unearned” income. Under the section for “earned” income, i.e. where one would include income one made from, say, a job? It was blank.

Which isn’t surprising, because, according to public records, Cawthorn didn’t spend much of 2019 investing in real estate. To be fair, he’s only a budding real estate investor—Cawthorn registered his real estate company, SPQR Holdings LLC, in August of 2019, using his home address (SPQR Holdings has no other office, as far as I can tell based on the registered address for his LLC, and the company appears to have no other employees other than Cawthorn himself). SPQR Holdings seems to have only been involved in one real estate transaction in its admittedly brief existence. In October of last year, Cawthorn bought a six-acre property in Genoia, Georgia, at a tax foreclosure auction, for $20,000. (My attempts to reach the previous owner of the property and have a conversation with him about how he felt about losing his land through foreclosure, and to a potential future member of Congress to boot, were sadly unsuccessful.)

I suppose registering an LLC and buying a single property technically qualifies someone to call themselves a real estate investor, but it definitely reads as more akin to playing with the idea of being a real estate investor, perhaps so one could describe oneself as a “real estate investor” when mounting a run for Congress instead of someone who supports himself largely through his stock market investments. Cawthorn has in interviews pitched himself as a sort of folksy everyman, a “fighter” who didn’t even need to get a college degree before running for Congress. (He does not mention his brief time at Patrick Henry in the interviews I’ve read, and in a recent interview he offhandedly described colleges as “indoctrination camps.”)

“I think we need more people who put on steel-toed boots every single morning rather than a tie, shaping our public policy,” he proclaimed during a July 20 interview with Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk, heavily implying that he was part of the former group, which is odd given that he’s pitched himself as a “real estate investor.” I guess calling oneself a “real estate investor,” if one takes the Trump sons as a model, conjures up images of working at construction sites, a hard hat jammed on one’s head. But unfortunately for Cawthorn, even the Trump sons seem to have more actual real estate experience than he does.

And then there’s the matter of the name of his LLC—SPQR, the acronym of the Latin phrase “Senatus Populusque Romanus,” which means “the Senate and the Roman people,” from the time of the Roman republic. Cawthorn may just be a big fan of Mary Beard, but unfortunately for him, the acronym SPQR has lately become quite popular among white nationalists. Given his previous goal of becoming a U.S. Marine, and the popularity of the debate over whether a Marine unit could take on the Roman legions, I initially waved off the name of his company as some strange holdover from the days when he dreamed of being in the Corps.

On every issue from abortion to immigration to civil rights, Cawthorn picked the most far-right position one could feasibly take without being labeled an obvious white supremacist.

But in many of his television interviews filmed from home during the pandemic and as he ran for office, Cawthorn can be seen speaking in front of a version of the U.S. flag that’s commonly called the Betsy Ross flag. During the hours I spent watching both Cawthorn’s and his fiancée’s videos on Instagram, I spied a second Betsy Ross flag in their home, one clearly displayed in their garage, which seemed odd to me—I haven’t spent that much time in the homes of white people who live in the South, but according to my colleague Kelly Faircloth of Georgia (which, along with North Carolina, was one of the original 13 colonies), it’s not exactly common to see the Betsy Ross flag proudly displayed. The Betsy Ross flag, which features a circle of 13 stars instead of the more common 50 stars in the upper left-hand corner, has, like the phrase SPQR, been similarly appropriated by some extremist movements.

According to Rolling Stone, the flag has “been associated with the Patriot Movement, an anti-government, extremist right-wing movement that encompasses smaller fringe movements such as the militia movement, the sovereign citizen movement, and the tax protest movement.” Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League told Rolling Stone that the militia movement “has been using the Betsy Ross flag, among other Revolutionary War-era symbols, since its inception.” He explained that these movements use “old flags from that era” because “they view themselves as analogous to American revolutionaries.” And Robert Evans, a journalist who covers far-right groups in the U.S., told Rolling Stone that he has “definitely seen the original U.S. flag appropriated by white nationalist groups.”

Which is not to say that the Betsy Ross flag or the use of the phrase SPQR automatically brands someone as a white nationalist, or even someone with an affinity towards the ideas animating white nationalist movements. As Evans also noted, the Betsy Ross flag is “also common among non-explicitly racist or fascist patriotic Americans.” Cawthorn, after all, is very proud of the fact that “his ancestors have served Western North Carolina communities for over 200 years including in the Revolutionary War,” as his bio states on his campaign website. Cawthorn’s love for the Betsy Ross flag could, simply, stem from his family’s supposedly long history in the state.

But it certainly raises some questions. I reached out to Ben Lorber, an analyst who studies anti-Semitism and white nationalist movements at Political Research Associates, to ask him what he made of Cawthorn’s use of SPQR and his display of the Betsy Ross flag prominently in his home. Lorber noted that the Betsy Ross flag had been seen at the Unite the Right rally in 2017, and most recently at some pro-police rallies, though he said the usage of the flag by extremist groups “is not prominent.” More striking, he told me, was Cawthorn’s decision to use SPQR in the name of his business. As Lorber told me via email, the term SPQR has been “adapted as a symbol by many white nationalists, who falsely glorify the ancient Roman Empire, much as they view the present-day U.S., as a proud white civilization that collapsed due to multiculturalism and immigration of non-white foreigners,” and has been used “to assert a similarly specious equivalence between an idealized Greco-Roman past and contemporary Western civilization, which they view as under attack by sinister forces of progressivism.” Cawthorn, Lorber wrote, “should clarify to the public why he used the acronym for his company name, and whether he holds these disturbing views.”

I agreed with Lorber, and I had a lot of questions for Cawthorn. He hasn’t exactly had to answer that many difficult questions during his run for Congress, so I wanted to know, why SPQR? Why his love for the Betsy Ross flag? What did he think of the Black Lives Matter protests, and what were his views on immigration beyond, as he states on his website, that “our immigration system is in crisis,” that “we need to secure our borders and we need the rule of law,” and that he opposes “the continued allowance of sanctuary cities?” In a softball interview with the New York Times, Cawthorn claimed to “love legal immigration” and to “love how the diversity adds to our country”—did that love extend to DACA recipients, whom Trump is continuing to threaten? To international students in the U.S. on student visas?

But his campaign, as I mentioned, never responded to my numerous requests for comment. He was too busy hanging out with Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani, I guess!

I didn’t need to hear back from his campaign to know where Cawthorn truly stands, though. Read or watch interviews that he’s given to conservative outlets, and it becomes clear that he seems himself squarely in the Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton wing of the Republican party. During his lengthy interview with Charlie Kirk, Cawthorn spoke freely about what he believes. Feminists, whom he mistakenly seems to believe have achieved pay parity with men, are now going too far. “You have this third wave feminism that comes in that says, ‘No, we don’t want to be equal to men, we want to be greater than men at this point, we want to put them down.’” The Black Lives Matter movement, he told Kirk, has been “hijacked by Marxists.” The LGBT movement, he asserted, used to be “just two people who want to be able to get married.” But trans rights are a step too far for Cawthorn. “Now it’s saying we need to be able to have gender reassignment surgery for 12-year-olds,” he warned.

And that was just in the first 15 minutes. On every issue from abortion to immigration to civil rights, Cawthorn picked the most far-right position one could feasibly take without being labeled an obvious white supremacist. He called Roe v. Wade an “archaic ruling,” and described abortion as “murder” and “genocide.” When the conversation turned to reparations, Cawthorn proclaimed that the example of Asheville, North Carolina—whose city council recently approved a program to invest in community businesses and homeownership that the council described somewhat confusingly as “reparations”—“sets a dangerous precedent,” because it leads to a “victimhood mentality.”

“On another part,” he added,” it’s saying that they’re owed something. Did we not pay enough when 600,000 Americans died to free slaves?” He called the New York Times’s 1619 Project the “Project 1692,” because, he said, “it’s more like the Salem witch trials.” And one of the “biggest problems” in “minority communities,” Cawthorn asserted, isn’t systemic discrimination and racism, but “fatherless homes.” He explained further, apparently without any knowledge of how welfare reform has reduced already minimal benefits to practically nothing: “We subsidize fatherlessness because there are so many financial benefits to these young women to not get married and have more children, because then they can get more subsidies for those children. And then you have a woman who has seven kids from three different fathers, but none of those dads are around.” As for immigration? He told Kirk he believes in a merit-based immigration system, and that due to the pandemic, sounding thisssss close to Stephen Miller, “We should not be accepting new people into our country right now.”

“I do not believe that it’s my job as an American to be the caretaker of the rest of the world,” Cawthorn said. “Because one, we’ll lose our national identity, and two, we can’t support it.”

Cawthorn has proven that he’s learned a valuable lesson, one that’s been gleaned from watching a generation of Republicans: If you craft the right story, as riddled with holes as it may be, you can sell people anything.

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