Nasty, Brutish, and Short: The Political Life of Madison Cawthorn
Part 2 – A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall
To be effective as a political gadfly, there are two rules one must remember: don’t bite too hard, too often on the hands that feed you and never, ever talk about cocaine orgy club.
On March 25, 2022, Cawthorn did a video interview on The Warrior Poet Society’s YouTube channel. The host asked Cawthorn how close the television show House of Cards gets to giving a real glimpse of “our ruling class.” For some reason known only to sheer, feckless stupidity, Cawthorn claimed that “sexual perversion” was so prevalent at Capitol Hill that “people…a lot of them that I’ve looked up to through my life” had invited him to “sexual get-togethers” at their homes. If that weren’t enough, Cawthorn also claimed to have seen prominent political figures “do a key bump of cocaine” in front of him.
In the most generously diplomatic of terms, this decision could be called a grave and deeply regrettable error of tactical judgment. Or, as my own western North Carolina native forbears would have said it, “Sunny Jim, you have done messed up.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy met in a closed-door session with multiple Republican lawmakers expressing their anger, frustration, and embarrassment at Cawthorn’s comments. Some wanted him to either prove the truth of his accusations by naming names or issue a retraction and apology. Others wanted to avoid the potential for additional scandal.
It was evidently decided that McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise would meet privately with Cawthorn to discuss the incident. McCarthy claimed that during that meeting, Cawthorn had changed his story about what he had seen and admitted that some of his claims were “exaggerated.” McCarthy also told reporters, “I just told him he's lost my trust, he's gonna have to earn it back, and I laid out everything I find is unbecoming.” McCarthy and Scalise said they would wait to see how Cawthorn reacts before deciding on any disciplinary action against him.
Cawthorn did not speak with the press after the meeting. Instead, he released a statement a few days later claiming that while “corruption and unethical activities exist in Washington,” his podcast comments were being used “by the left and the media to disparage my Republican colleagues and falsely insinuate their involvement in illicit activities.” That’s not the same thing as saying he lied, exaggerated, or misspoke, and it’s definitely not an apology.
On April 22, images leaked to POLITICO by a person formerly close to his campaign showed Cawthorn visibly drunk, dressed in lingerie, and surrounded by a group of women at a party on a cruise ship. Cawthorn acknowledged the “goofy vacation photos” in a tweet and said they were taken long before his congressional campaign.
On April 26, Cawthorn was caught bringing a firearm to a public airport for the second time. The first incident happened in February 2021 at Asheville Regional Airport. Cawthorn’s spokesperson claimed in February that the unloaded 9mm was in Cawthorn’s bag by mistake. The weapon was confiscated, and no charges were filed. The second incident happened at Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. This time the gun, another 9mm pistol, was loaded, and this time Cawthorn was cited on a misdemeanor criminal charge of possessing a dangerous weapon on city property. He also faces potential civil penalties from the TSA and could be fined up to $13,000.
On April 27, American Muckrakers PAC, a political action committee dedicated to removing Cawthorn from office filed a seven-count ethics complaint against him. In addition to the weapons charges for the knives and guns, the complaint alleges that Cawthorn failed to properly disclose gifts, unrepaid loans, and free housing provided to scheduler and campaign staffer Stephen L. Smith. The complaint also requested an investigation into the nature of Cawthorn and Smith’s relationship. Stephen L. Smith is Madison Cawthorn’s second cousin, but the complaint heavily implies much more than simple nepotism.
Smith and Cawthorn have continually lived at the same address since 2017, as confirmed by Smith’s voter registration data and campaign payroll records. The financial portion of the complaint accuses Cawthon of providing travel expenses for Smith in excess of $250. One of those trips was for Smith to accompany Cawthorn on his honeymoon to Dubai. Cawthorn married Cristina Bayardelle in April 2021 but announced in December the couple was divorcing due to irreconcilable differences.
Among the exhibits filed with the ethics complaint was a link to an undated video of Cawthorn sitting in a parked car, joking with another man. At one point in the video, the other man films himself putting his hand on Cawthorn’s crotch. That man is reported to be Stephen L. Smith. The day after the complaint was filed, the video of the car incident was published in the Daily Mail, a British tabloid with a well-established appetite for the lurid.
The president of American Muckrakers, David B. Wheeler, also posted screenshots of purported Venmo payments between Cawthorn and Smith sent between June 2018 and January 2019, before Smith joined Cawthorn’s campaign staff. Some of the payment memo lines included labels reading “The stuff we did in Amsterdam,” “The quickie at the airport,” “For loving me daily and nightly,” and “Nudes.”
On May 4, American Muckrakers released another video obtained from an anonymous source showing a nude Cawthorn simulating a sex act on another person while an unknown number of other people in the room laugh. Cawthorn acknowledged the video, saying he was “being crass with a friend, trying to be funny. We were acting foolish and joking. That’s it.”
The Calls Are Coming from Inside the House and the Senate.
Senator Thom Tillis is a former Speaker of the House for the North Carolina General Assembly. Senator Tillis endorsed Chuck Edwards, one of Cawthorn’s seven Republican Party primary challengers, and a super PAC connected to Tillis spent over $300,000 on campaign ads against Cawthorn. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore have also participated in campaign fundraisers for Edwards.
On April 27, Senator Tillis called for the House Ethics Committee to investigate Cawthorn for possible insider trading violations. Cawthorn was pictured at a December 29 event with James Koutoulas, one of the founders of a Let’s Go Brandon meme cryptocurrency coin based on a slogan used as a coded insult toward President Biden. In an Instagram post about the event, Cawthorn said, “LGB legends…Tomorrow we go to the moon!” The next day, NASCAR driver Brandon Brown, the coin’s namesake, announced the Let’s Go Brandon cryptocurrency would be one of his main sponsors during the 2022 season.
Despite former President Trump continuing to endorse Cawthorn and ask voters to “give Madison a second chance,” Cawthorn lost Tuesday’s spring primary election to Chuck Edwards by a margin of 1.5%, or just over 1300 votes. Come January, Cawthorn will no longer be a Congressman. He’s promised Twitter that “the best is yet to come.” Whether that means he’ll seek a different political office, become a right-wing media pundit, or release a tell-all book about the Real Coke Orgies of Capitol Hill, only time will tell. Based on what we’ve seen of him so far, whatever plans he makes will be focused on serving himself, not western North Carolina.
Lessons of the Fallout
My hometown is in Madison Cawthorn’s congressional district, about 30 miles away from his native Hendersonville. He is the same age as my eldest child. All three of us were very likely born in the same hospital. I’m intimately familiar with the sheltered bubble of privilege, semi-latent white supremacy, and evangelical Dominionist “Christianity” that Cawthorn has been soaking in his whole life.
I also know exactly what it means when a “very conservative” person of a certain vintage who used to support Cawthorn now says “I do not appreciate his lifestyle.” It means they didn’t mind the blatant racism, xenophobia, and bigotry that were both constant and well-documented throughout his term. It means that 150 people willing to sign their names to a public statement of his lies and sexual misconduct were not enough to keep him from being elected in the first place. What’s a few speeding tickets or weapons charges among friends, right? Boys will be boys, after all. Troll tweets are just speaking your mind, especially if the person making them hates all the right people and none of them are you.
He might have the highest number of missed votes of any other freshman member of Congress, but “he seems like a MAGA guy. That’s all right.” Despite everything, Cawthorn could probably have ridden the Trump Train all the way to a second term if he hadn’t gotten derailed by an unexpected stop in Gay Town.
Personally, I don’t care that Cawthorn got drunk off his face at a cruise ship party and put on some lingerie. He actually looked kinda hot in it, if self-destructive, insecure, baby-faced fascist is your type. I don’t care that he wrote what he probably thinks are hilariously risqué notes on his Venmo transactions. Beyond wishing I’d never seen it and hoping that all parties really did consent, I also don’t really care that he fake-humped another guy.
Cawthorn and his buddies are not my first encounter with what passes for humor between obnoxious frat boys. If any of them are actually queer, then I’m the Queen of Scotland. They’re using a parody of what they think queerness is and does to mock and dominate each other. It’s another aspect of the same “locker room talk” that excuses grabbing and groping women. Mix patriarchy with heterosexism and you get a version of toxic masculinity strong enough to strip paint. If you don’t keep a proper lid on it, it’ll leak out and derail your political career.
A number of people have been talking about the hypocrisy surrounding Cawthorn’s scandals and which ones proved to be most damning. I care about hypocrisy, too.
I care about the hypocrisy of an entire political Party that knew it could weaponize its own bigotry to take down one of their own, once they decided his foolishness exceeded his usefulness. I care about Cawthorn’s hypocrisy of dressing up in drag for a laugh while using his public office and platforms to mock and discriminate against queer and transgender people.
I care about the hypocrisy of a society still stuck on “a man in a dress is either a punchline or a threat” while so many Catholic clergy members have either committed or covered up the sexual abuse of children, and while two sitting conservative Supreme Court Justices have been credibly accused of sexual assault and harassment. I’m pretty sure we’re obsessing over the wrong men in skirts.
Do the Ends Justify the Means?
When Cawthorn departs Congress in January, he’ll either be replaced by Republican Chuck Edwards or Democrat Jasmine Beach-Ferrara. Edwards is a current State Senator and owns an operating company for local McDonald’s Restaurant franchises. Beach-Ferrara is a United Church of Christ minister, former Buncombe County Commissioner, and founding Executive Director of the Campaign for Southern Equality. Edwards is just as hardcore conservative as Cawthorn, basically the milquetoast Pence to his Baby Trump. Beach-Ferrara is graduate of Harvard Divinity School and married lesbian mom. In a district that blends an R+14 overall partisan lean with deeply progressive major metropolitan seats and tourism centers, it’s going to be an absolute dogfight between now and November.
Cawthorn’s image isn’t the only one to suffer. Between the incest “jokes” and redneck stereotype revivals complete with banjo music, western North Carolina has been painted by some as the land of scenic mountain beauty occupied by people who spoon with their cousins because their family trees don’t fork. It’s tiresome, but nothing that doesn’t happen every time one of the home folks shows their metaphorical (or literal) backsides in the public eye.
What bothers me much more is the amount of ableist and queer/transphobic online trolling Cawthorn’s loss has sparked. A great many of our self-styled “allies” and even certain gay celebrities have piled on because it’s fun and gets them clicks. They justify it by claiming Cawthorn deserves it. Given the escalating nationwide legislative attacks on LGBTQ+ rights and rapidly deteriorating statistics on queer and trans youth mental health, I’d say a quick cheap laugh isn’t worth the collateral damage.
I believe that Madison Cawthorn does not belong in a Congressional office. I also believe that what happened to him was revenge porn even if it didn’t meet the clear legal definition of it. Nobody deserves to be a victim of that no matter how much they’re disliked.
American Muckrakers PAC disagrees. They’ve already launched fireboebert.com to unseat Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert in either the June primary or the November general election using the same methods they used against Cawthorn. They’re fundraising just as hard as they’re soliciting dirt.
As long as scandal remains more effective and lucrative than ethics, I’m not sure we’ve learned anything except new ways to profit from it while entertaining ourselves with other people’s misfortune.
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