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Madison Cawthorn Is the Future of the Republican Party

He could be a rising star of the party or an alt-right Trojan horse. Or maybe there’s no difference between the two.

Courtesy of Cawthorn for North Carolina

In a June primary, a photogenic Zoomer Republican named Madison Cawthorn beat a candidate endorsed by President Donald Trump to fill the North Carolina House seat formerly occupied by his chief of staff, Mark Meadows. In the breathless aftermath, CNN ran a story introducing the “political newcomer” as “a staunch conservative” who was “partially paralyzed in a 2014 car accident” and who “is an owner of a real estate investment company and a motivational speaker.”

NPR described his profession succinctly as “real estate investor.” He had “campaigned as ‘pro-Trump, pro-life and pro-Second Amendment’ and emphasized his family’s deep roots in the state.” None of that is particularly notable; the same could be said of any “normal” Republican. The unusual, and hence newsworthy, thing about Cawthorn was his youth: If elected (the seat is Republican-leaning), he will be the youngest member of Congress by some years.

Without rendering judgment on his politics—which may have been considered extreme in another era but are now coded as “normal” simply because they reflect the politics of the current regime—outlets like CNN and NPR treated the novelty of his youth as an interesting and laudatory thing. He was one of the political media’s favorite animals: a Rising Star.

Of course, to be a 24-year-old fervid Donald Trump supporter, as Cawthorn proudly claims to be, is itself highly unusual. (“I support our great president,” he said in a statement clarifying that he didn’t believe his upset victory was a repudiation of Trump.) Fewer than 30 percent of registered voters between the ages of 18 and 29 plan to vote for Donald Trump in November, according to Pew. Even that number overstates his true support among young people: A mere 14 percent of Americans between the ages 18 and 29 “very strongly approve” of his performance as president; 59 percent “very strongly disapprove.”

Yet until recently, no one had bothered to ask how Cawthorn came to love Donald Trump, the president so many of his peers and contemporaries despise. In the news stories published in the days after he won his primary, Cawthorn just seemed to love tradition, the Second Amendment, and the armed forces, which he nearly joined before his car accident.

Then, prompted by messages from North Carolina residents, Jezebel’s Esther Wang did the slightest bit of additional digging and found some details that seemed to cast doubt on his campaign biography.

Cawthorn oddly seems to have no regular source of income, at least none that he has publicly disclosed. He is a “real estate investor” in the sense that at one point last year he formed an LLC that bought a single property. He writes on his financial disclosure form simply that he “made most of my money in the New York Stock Exchange.” His account of his thwarted military ambitions also turned out to be misleading, and he had been suspiciously vague about his single semester at Patrick Henry College, a school The New Republic has described as “a training ground for the religious right and a pipeline to conservative jobs in Washington.”

In other words, this is a young man with money who attended a right-wing finishing school—again, nothing out of the ordinary in today’s GOP.

More suspicious than his résumé were a few odd elements of his self-presentation: The name of Cawthorn’s phony real estate LLC includes a Latin phrase now commonly used as a white nationalist dog whistle; his home is decorated with a flag beloved by the so-called “Patriot Movement”; he posted to Instagram, and eventually deleted, a bizarre family photo taken at Hitler’s vacation spot, saying the trip “has been on my bucket list for years.”

Prompted by Wang’s digging, other suspicious details accumulated. Cawthorn oddly follows precisely 88 people on Twitter. (88 is white supremacist numerical code for “Heil Hitler.”) He posed for a photo wearing a gun holster emblazoned with a Spartan soldier’s helmet, a symbol associated with far-right gun culture in general and the Oath Keepers specifically.

These details are all suggestive rather than definitive. But the suggestiveness is telling in and of itself. As countless observers of the far right have noted, part of the game the far right plays online is to maintain what writer Talia Lavin calls “a winking plausible deniability.” Maybe Cawthorn managed to follow precisely 88 people by accident. Or, if it was intentional, maybe he was “just” making a joke. But it would be surprising if Cawthorn wasn’t at the very least willing to indulge in white nationalist tropes and dog whistles. There is basically no path to becoming a Trumpist 20-something that doesn’t involve flirting with extremist beliefs and communities.

In 2017, in the immediate aftermath of the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, at which James Alex Fields Jr., a young neo-Nazi, killed a left-wing anti-racism activist, Heather Heyer, I wrote that the rally amounted to a “preview of the future of the Republican Party.”

I argued, based in part on the number of (identified) College Republicans in attendance at the rally, that the near complete collapse of support for conservatism and the Republican Party among younger generations would have the perverse effect of making the future leadership of the conservative movement even more extreme.

Even if the Republican Party loses seats in the coming years, it will still win plenty of elections, locally and often nationally. As Adam Kotsko once wrote, the United States is in many respects “a variant on the party-state form” but with “two parties instead of just one.” It is not simply that our political, legal, and constitutional institutions inexorably gave rise to a two-party system while multiparty democracy flourished elsewhere; due to how ballot access is controlled, the rules essentially require that these two specific parties run everything. We are stuck with a Republican Party for the foreseeable future. And the Republican Party, right now, is recruiting its future leaders from a pool of people attracted to the furthest fringes of far-right thought simply because those are the only young people currently interested in being associated with organized Republican Party politics under Donald Trump.

Jeet Heer recently made a similar case. Writing this week for The Nation, he argued that the future of the GOP can be glimpsed in Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republican nominee for Georgia’s 14th congressional district. Greene, Heer writes, is “an adherent of QAnon, the amorphous conspiracy theory that holds that Donald Trump is battling a secret cabal of Satanic cannibalistic pedophiles who control the Democratic Party, Hollywood, and the American government.”

As Obama administration veteran Dan Pfeiffer points out, “Greene is one of eleven QAnon supporting Republican congressional nominees on the ballot this fall.” After yesterday’s elections, that number has probably risen. Many Republicans have avoided calling these candidates out seemingly due to the belief that supporting or tacitly tolerating people like Greene is the price of maintaining power.

As Heer writes, “If we understand QAnon as a conciliatory myth that evolves to excuse the horrific truth about Trump and Trumpism, then it is likely to have a long life after he is defeated. It’ll become a Lost Cause myth about how a great man was felled by a sinister conspiracy.”

I think Heer is right that QAnon, or whatever it morphs into, will be with us for a long time, fueling the paranoia and resentment of the conservative base. It may even turn, as he warns, more violent than it already is.

But the GOP has made room for grotesques like Greene for years, with the only thing distinguishing her from a Michele Bachmann or a Louie Gohmert being that her brand of conspiratorial thinking is more baroque and Facebook-poisoned. Republicans tolerate their Steve Kings while generally not allowing them near leadership. If QAnon does represent the future of the official GOP, as opposed to the rank and file, it will be through a successful campaign of entryism.

Cawthorn, notably, has some experience with the sort of institutions that have groomed future conservative leaders for decades. He attended a college designed to churn out future Republican operatives, even if he only spent a semester there. Then, somehow, without a college degree, without stellar grades, and with work experience consisting solely of a teenage stint at Chick-fil-A, he became a staff assistant in then Representative Mark Meadows’s district office. (The staff assistant is essentially a receptionist, but a sample job description from the Congressional Management Foundation says a four-year college degree and experience as a congressional intern are “preferred.” Cawthorn, who vaguely describes Meadows as a mentor, has explained previously that Meadows simply offered him the job at an election night victory party.)

Whether or not he is actually a product of it, there is an expensive machine engineered to produce Cawthorns. Robert and Rebekah Mercer essentially funded Milo Yiannopoulos as a youth recruitment campaign. There is so much money in conservative politics that a shocking amount of it is directed at winning college campus elections.

And Mark Meadows, for some reason, took this young man under his wing a few years ago. All of that makes Cawthorn—with a face, story, and message suitable for CNN and NPR and a curious trail of clues about his actual allegiances and beliefs—a more plausible vision of the future of the official Republican Party, I think, than an overt conspiracy theorist. Marjorie Taylor Greene—like Laura Loomer, the right-wing provocateur who just won a primary election in Palm Beach—is really the Republican Party of the present. This is the form the delirium and rage of the right is taking today. The next generation of conservative leaders is being molded now in avowedly Christian schools and on obscure internet forums, but they will need to operate in a post-Trump United States.

Madison Cawthorn was probably not in Charlottesville for the “Unite the Right” rally. But a poster advertising the rally notably featured a flag on which was printed the obscure Latin acronym he’d go on to use when he named his phony real estate company. These little coincidences will abound, I’m afraid, for decades.