Madison Cawthorn arrives in Washington

The 25-year-old Republican upstart defeated his opponent Moe Davis in the race to represent western North Carolina

Madison Cawthorn was in a jubilant mood on election night, and for good reason. The 25-year-old Republican upstart had defeated his Democratic opponent, retired Air Force Colonel Moe Davis, in the race to represent a district in western North Carolina. Though Cawthorn has never held elective office or worked full-time in government, he had convinced a majority of voters to send him to Congress next year, making him the youngest U.S. representative in decades. “It was freakin’ awesome,” Cawthorn recalled. “I mean, the mood was just electric.” 

The first thing he did, according to a post on his Instagram page published the following day, was bow his head in prayer and “give glory to God.” But the first thing many outside his immediate orbit saw was a short but provocative tweet that was far less conciliatory than the seemingly inclusive message he had preached throughout his campaign. 

“Cry more, lib,” Cawthorn wrote at 9:24 p.m., just a few minutes after the election had been called

For many who read it, Cawthorn’s message was an indication that the young conservative had yet to settle into his role as a congressman-elect. But in an interview on Saturday afternoon, Cawthorn sought to dispel that impression and admitted that, “in the heat of victory,” he had gone too far.

“I’m a fierce competitor, always have been, love competition, love really getting into it,” he told Jewish Insider in a 30-minute interview. “Even with my brothers, I love talking smack, you know, that kind of thing.” 

Still, he made sure to note that the tweet wasn’t directed at Davis, with whom he said he has not spoken since claiming victory. “I will say that it was directed at a sect of the liberal party that has really bought into cancel culture,” Cawthorn said. “There’s just been so much, you know, blatant lies about me, specifically when it comes to questions of Nazism and racism.”

“It was a lash out at that cancel culture saying, ‘You know what, people saw through your lies,’ and it was kind of just, like, gloating in victory. But I’ll say it was probably not the most congressional thing I’ve ever done,” Cawthorn added. “I have to represent everybody now, so I shouldn’t have done that.”

The North Carolina native experienced a tumultuous campaign as he struggled to fend off accusations of racism, antisemitism and white nationalism along with allegations of sexual impropriety. Perhaps most notably, Cawthorn came under scrutiny for a July 2017 social media post in which he appeared to glorify Adolf Hitler during a visit to the Nazi leader’s former mountain chalet, referring to him as “the Führer.”

Cawthorn is succeeding former Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who in March vacated the seat in North Carolina’s 11th district to serve as President Donald Trump’s chief of staff. Meadows contracted the coronavirus about a week ago, but Cawthorn said that the former congressman has been helpful in assisting with his transition to the Hill. 

Cawthorn spoke to JI from Washington, D.C., where he is attending freshman orientation for new House members through Saturday. 

“It’s actually incredible,” Cawthorn said of orientation. “I’m a lover of history, so it’s incredible to be in a place where we had the vote to decide to have the Emancipation Proclamation, where we decided to go to World War II, where the civil rights battles were fought. I mean, it’s just, I got to spend about 30 minutes all by myself on the House floor yesterday — and just to be frank with you, I was in awe.”

The Emancipation Proclamation, a precursor to the abolition of slavery, was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and was not voted on by Congress.

Cawthorn said he was impressed by the new class. “We have some real rock stars,” he said. “It’s a diverse field. You’ve got the charismatic people who can really carry a message and communicate with broad spectrums of the American people about what our mission is. You also have some really great thought leaders. You have a few people who are mixtures of those two. And it’s so diverse. There’s so many young patriotic women in our conference this year.”

The congressman-elect said he had talked to “just about every single person” new to the class and that he had been particularly impressed with Texas Rep.-elect Ronny Jackson, Trump’s former doctor, and Burgess Owens, the retired NFL safety whose Utah congressional race has not yet been called but who is in D.C. anyway. “He’s just a badass,” Cawthorn said. “So kind, so generous, but you can tell that he is an immovable object.”

Cawthorn told JI that he had not met Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican and QAnon adherent who has been stirring up controversy since she arrived in Washington thanks to her incendiary Twitter feed attacking coronavirus restrictions, nor has he had the chance to speak with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), for whom he has expressed admiration despite taking issue with her policies. 

“I’m looking forward to it, though, for sure,” he said. “Disagree with just about everything she believes in, but I think that we need more people of conviction.”

As for President Donald Trump, with whom Cawthorn hobnobbed over the summer: no interactions yet. 

Cawthorn has argued on his Instagram page that the American electorate should stand up to defend a free and fair election process as Trump has made baseless claims about voter fraud. But in conversation with JI, Cawthorn seemed ready to accept that former Vice President Joe Biden would be the next president. 

“If you could put this in, please, and keep the whole quote: I do completely support our president, I support the democratic process that we have,” Cawthorn said. “I will tell you right now, if I was a betting man, I would say it does not look like Donald Trump is going to be the president. I do think that there’s still a Hail Mary’s chance that we get it. If we can keep Biden under 270 and then it goes to the House of Representatives, I think that the president will win. But I admit, from where I’m sitting, that it seems like an unlikely scenario.”

Whatever the outcome, he said he would go along with it. “If Biden becomes president, I will respect the office,” Cawthorn told JI. “I will oppose him where I have to. Hopefully there’ll be some common ground. I doubt it. But one point I do think that we’ll be able to have common ground is infrastructure reform.”

Broadband infrastructure is Cawthorn’s rallying cry, but he also made clear that he is interested in a wide array of changes. “I want to make sure that we have the best road system, I want to make sure that we update all bridges, I want to make sure that we upgrade the wall, I want to make sure that we have better ports, better pipelines,” he said. “I want to make sure that we are energy diverse. I don’t want to get rid of fossil fuels, but I do see the wisdom in diversifying our energy portfolio.”

Cawthorn emphasized that, with such goals in mind, he hopes to sit on the appropriations committee but would also settle for foreign affairs. “I really think that our foreign policy positions have just been terrible for the last few decades,” he said. “You know, we’re wasting our money, wasting our blood, wasting our resources. I think we just need to be more shrewd with our foreign policy positions.”

Did that mean a less hawkish approach than before? 

“Absolutely, for sure,” he said. “I think the military industrial complex is a thing, and I think that, you know, all life is precious.” He added, “When we say, you know, walk around carrying a big stick, speak softly and carry a big stick, we’ve forgotten what it meant to speak softly. If we dug more wells instead of launched more warheads, I think the world would be a much safer place right now, and it would be cheaper.”

Madison Cawthorn and some young fans. (Courtesy)

Asked to describe his mission statement with about two months remaining until he is sworn in, Cawthorn got lofty.

“I think kind of an overarching value you can say is freedom, but it’s more just strong conservative ideas, but delivered empathetically, that also take into account that not everybody has the same life or lifestyle or the same experiences and we need to do the best we can for everybody. But there are certain people in our community we need to cater to, which is not a hugely winning argument among the deep red conservative base,” he said. “But really, my accident really showed me that there are people who struggle with some things that you just can’t know about unless you’ve lived it. And so that’s my big message.”

Cawthorn was paralyzed from the waist down in a near-fatal car accident six years ago. Until recently, he had been training to compete in the Paralympic Games, but he switched paths when it became clear that his workout regimen was degrading the integrity of his spine. 

After the crash, he also picked up a sideline as a preacher, delivering sermons to churches throughout North Carolina. “It really gave me a great platform to really share my testimony,” he said.

The congressman-elect, who was raised Baptist but is now nondenominational, said that he is a devout Christian. “I would say I have a very, very, very strong faith and [am] very grounded in the actual word,” he told JI, adding that he had read through “just about every single religious work there is,” including the Torah and the Quran. 

At first, Cawthorn asked that his admission about reading the Quran be off the record, but he then agreed to allow it to be published. The biggest reason he read through the Quran, he said, is because he wanted to become a better proselytizer if he was “ever was presented with the opportunity to speak to a practicing Muslim who was kind of thinking like, ‘Hey, you know, I’ve kind of got a feeling in my heart, I’m interested in Christianity.’”

“The thing I found when I was actually reading through the Quran is that Christianity — that is a very easy switch to make to lead a Muslim to Christ,” Cawthorn said. 

“They believe Jesus is a real person,” he said of Muslims. “They believe he was a prophet, though. And so when you’re trying to lead an atheist to Christ, or, say, kind of a traditional Jewish person, you kind of have to make people really — you have to sell Jesus a lot, because, one, they don’t really believe that, you know — some very devout Jews just think he’s kind of a good guy. That’s great. But, you know, the Muslims, they already believe that he was somewhat divine, and so all you have to do is just be like, he wasn’t just a good man, he was a god, and now if you can submit to that then you believe in Christ.”

Cawthorn said he had converted “several Muslims to Christ because of that,” including a “young woman” who lived in New York and someone “down in Atlanta” when he was in rehab after his accident. “It was pretty incredible.” 

He did not go into specifics, but seemed to believe that evangelism was a calling on par with public service. “If all you are is friends with other Christians, then how are you ever going to lead somebody to Christ?” Cawthorn mused. “If you’re not wanting to lead somebody to Christ, then you’re probably not really a Christian.”

Had he ever tried to convert any Jews to the Christian faith?

“I have,” he said with a laugh. “I have, unsuccessfully. I have switched a lot of, uh, you know, I guess, culturally Jewish people. But being a practicing Jew, like, people who are religious about it, they are very difficult. I’ve had a hard time connecting with them in that way.”

Cawthorn expressed a similar sentiment during a July 2019 sermon at a church in Highlands, North Carolina. “If you have Jewish blood running through your veins today,” he told the crowd, mulling on a chapter from the Gospel of Mark, “this might not mean as much to you, but for someone like me, who’s a gentile, this means a lot.”

Cawthorn told JI that he has been making efforts to commune with the Jewish community in his district but because services are online, he has been unsuccessful. He’s planning to arrange an event at which he can reach out to a diverse section of his community, including people of different races and religions.

It is unclear, however, if his more left-leaning constituents are ready to hear from him. “Among Democrats, there is a deep disappointment that Madison Cawthorn was elected over Moe Davis, and, frankly, surprise, given the inexperience, missteps and exclusionary viewpoints of Mr. Cawthorn,” Esther Manheimer, the mayor of Asheville, which sits in Cawthorn’s district, told JI in an email. “However, I understand that, purely from a political standpoint, the congressional district heavily favors any Republican candidate and that may be what happened here.”

After JI inquired about Cawthorn’s thoughts on the separation of church and state, he said that many people have asked him if he will be able to divorce himself from his faith as a congressman. “That is the basis of all of my experience and everything I’ve learned, everything that I believe in, how I’ve formed all of my worldview,” he said of his religion. “I always think of that question as just so silly.”

“The Lord and the Bible and the value systems I’ve gotten through Judeo-Christian values,” he added, “it affects every single decision I make.”

“My family is a bunch of true frickin’ believers,” Cawthorn said. “It’s Christians that are, like, fun to be around, too. It’s not like guys who are like, ‘Oh, that’s a sin,’ ‘Oh, you’re awful,’ ‘Oh, X Y and Z.’ It’s people who just meet you where you are. If you want to cuss and drink, that’s your prerogative. I cuss and drink. I probably shouldn’t, but, you know.”

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