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Vacuous Valor

Madison Cawthorn’s muddled militarism is a reflection of our political culture

Madison Cawthorn’s political origin story is that of an innocent Christian boy transformed through tragedy into a fierce freedom fighter. This tale begins with Cawthorn as a popular home-schooled teenager. He played football in a faith-based league, worked at Chick-fil-A, and was destined for a long and rewarding military career. Tragically, his path to the U.S. Naval Academy was derailed by a brutal car crash. Cawthorn, then just nineteen, was “declared dead on the scene.” But then a miracle happened. He kept the faith and fought his way back to a fulfilling life. In short order, he became an inspirational speaker, self-proclaimed CEO of a real estate investment company, and Paralympic athlete.

Cawthorn’s quasi-biblical biography captured the hearts of many in North Carolina’s 11th district, who last year elected him one of the youngest Congressmen in American history. While most political careers are assisted by mythmaking, Cawthorn’s self-spun narrative is particularly fictitious. In truth, he’s a college dropout, credibly accused sexual predator, and fan of the Third Reich who had no path to the Paralympics and was rejected by the Naval Academy. Contrary to Cawthorn’s past statements, he was not declared dead at his car’s crash site, and his real estate “business” appears to have only purchased a single foreclosed lot.

But what Cawthorn lacks in integrity he makes up for in resiliency. The determination and durability he demonstrated throughout his post-crash recovery—plus his natural born charisma—served him well during his Congressional bid. Cawthorn used these skills to convince many low-information voters that he was a soldier of some sort, then leveraged the credibility conferred by this false perception to cast his Democratic opponent, a retired Air Force Colonel named Moe Davis, as a “dishonorable” ally of terrorists. This warped reality led to a bizarre Election Day moment in which a voter essentially recognized Cawthorn as a decorated war hero. “Hey,” the voter began, “thanks for, uh, doing your service—.” Before he could finish, Cawthorn interjected: “It’s an honor to get to fight for America,” he said.

Cawthorn’s unrepentant brand of stolen valor is the logical endpoint of a political culture that grossly overvalues military service.

The only thing that Cawthorn has truly fought is a tree. His serial dishonesty is no longer surprising to Tom Fiedler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Asheville Watchdog who has exposed numerous cracks in Cawthorn’s origin story. He told me that Cawthorn has been introduced on local television as if he served. “He has this ability to cloud his own experience so that when someone leaps to an incorrect conclusion about who he is, he doesn’t correct them,” Fiedler explained.

Cawthorn is far from the first politician to steal valor, but he’s perfected the con. Unlike those before him, he’s never explicitly claimed to have served. Instead, he’s covertly tied himself to the military through imagery and insinuation. This work is made easier by the fact that Cawthorn comes from a long line of Marines and was blessed with the looks of G.I. Joe: blonde, strong, and square-jawed. He’s also adopted the accessories of the fighter and the rhetoric of the general. Take his victory speech, where he promised: “We are sending a weapon to Washington D.C.”

Cawthorn’s unrepentant brand of stolen valor is the logical endpoint of a political culture that grossly overvalues military service. He likely felt this pressure more than most having grown up in North Carolina, which claims a significant veteran population, a powerful cross-section of defense contractors, and Fort Bragg, the largest military base in the world. His family has also been fighting for America since the Revolutionary War, a tradition Cawthorn could not sustain, and clearly feels some shame about. “My parents, my grandparents, all the way back til about 1777. . . so not the very inception of this country, but pretty doggone’ near—we’ve been Marines,” he recently told me. “Every single generation, almost every male has. But I let them down unfortunately, just because of my physical disabilities.”

Without any medals to pin on his chest, Cawthorn has channeled his family’s fighting spirit into today’s political wars. Rather than appeal to a wide swath of Republicans, he is working to cultivate followers on the far right, including militia members, where his itch for service seems to be scratched. “I didn’t have the pleasure to serve as a Marine, apparently they want you to be able to run to fight the battle,” Cawthorn, who uses a wheelchair, joked to me. “But I always say that I’m very deadly downhill.”

In previous eras, scores of American politicians came from legitimate military backgrounds. In the 1970s, for instance, World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War veterans constituted three-quarters of Congress. Many were decent politicians, like Michigan Democrat John Dingell Jr., an advocate for Medicare, who followed in the footsteps of his father, an early proponent of a national health care system, and Vermont Republican Robert Stafford, a staunch environmentalist who championed college access for lower-and middle-class families.

This period and others preceding it, of course, were not devoid of hucksters and cynics. Joseph McCarthy overstated his World War II record, then adopted fascist tendencies in his conspiratorial rooting-out of political opponents. There was also Douglas Stringfellow, a Utah Republican who won a Congressional seat in 1952 by billing himself as a World War II spy who parachuted into Germany, was captured, tortured, and became paraplegic—none of which was true. Despite some bad seeds, however, the cumulative accomplishments of these veteran lawmakers were positive. This work, plus lots of propagandizing news reels, forged in the American imagination the idea of veterans as hardworking, honorable, and fundamentally decent.

Today, the burden of military service rarely falls on the shoulders of the rich and powerful. As a result, valor is a rare commodity among elites; it has become the second most-sought-after substance in Washington, behind Botox. Politicians know that voters crave valor and can become easily blinded by it. It protects against attacks, makes it easier to launder extremist views into the mainstream, and smooths the launch of a toxic political smear.

While valor remains difficult to score legitimately, synthetic versions can be made through the right mix of truth, lies, and embellishment. Many stealing it today are themselves veterans. They include Republican Senator Tom Cotton, who falsely claimed to be an Army Ranger; former Republican Oklahoma state representative Rep. Mike Ritze, who wore a Purple Heart he was never awarded; and Paul Rieckhoff, the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America who also wore a patch and a medal that he did not earn during a photo shoot.

These are, of course, relatively minor offenses from people who really served. Still, their exaggerations suggest ulterior motives for service. Rather than enlisting to learn leadership skills or contribute to something larger than themselves, these veterans seem to view the military only as a means to a political end.

Today, the burden of military service rarely falls on the shoulders of the rich and powerful. As a result, valor is a rare commodity among elites.

That’s true of many civilian politicians, too, who often pass symbolic veterans’ legislation or take protected trips to war zones with the hope that some of the military’s credibility will rub off on them. Former U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler never served, but she weaponized her military lineage and her rather limited amount of veterans’ policymaking to deride Raphael Warnock—the son of a World War II veteran—as an enemy of service members. Most successful in this work was Donald Trump, a draft-dodger who opportunistically took up veterans’ issues on the 2016 campaign trail. This pandering earned him high support among those who served, and resulted in a Virginia veteran gifting Trump his Purple Heart. “I always wanted to get the Purple Heart,” said Trump, who once compared his unprotected sexual exploits to fighting in Vietnam. “This was much easier. But I tell you, it was such an honor.” Republicans have so thoroughly defined themselves by militarism that an actual record of service is no longer necessary. This strange dynamic is what allowed George W. Bush and Dick Cheney—two more draft dodgers—to cast themselves as heroes for starting a war while swiftboating John Kerry, who fought in one.

The fake war stories that Democrats tell have often been less successful than their Republican counterparts. Many read like the rich playing Cowboys and Indians. Take Al Gore, who was assigned a cushy public affairs job in Vietnam. Gore later lied about coming under fire and spoke giddily about how the Army made him feel “more alive.” Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal said he’d fought in Vietnam when he’d actually secured deferments to attend Harvard, get a graduate degree in England, then work in the Nixon White House. During her 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton contended that she’d faced sniper fire at a Bosnian airport back when she was first lady. In fact, she was greeted on the tarmac by smiling officials as well an eight-year-old Muslim girl who recited a poem, then offered Clinton a kiss. (Her false account was contradicted by news reports and video footage from the time.)

Democrats would do best to frame war as what it is: a deeply damaging experience for American service members, their families, and the world. In their failure to do so, the left has not only perpetuated conflict but also failed to define peace. The Pentagon has stepped into this vacuum and convinced the American people—a majority of whom want a smaller military footprint abroad—that peace is armed, dangerous, and MAD. Those who describe it otherwise, or call for the peacekeepers to put down their guns, are deemed weak-willed and anti-American.

Unwilling to challenge this consensus, Democrats continue to concoct war stories or cozy up to the military establishment in hopes of insulating themselves from criticism. Take Bernie Sanders’s support of the F-35 fighter jet being based in his hometown of Burlington, a highly controversial position that a political scientist once half-jokingly suggested to me was directed “almost at the point of a gun.”

Madison Cawthorn belongs to a generation that has known nothing else but war. He was barely six years old when the Twin Towers fell and seems to have been incubated by the indiscriminate hate of the Middle East that sprung from these attacks. He expressed this worldview repeatedly in his race against Moe Davis, the rare military leader with a conscience. In 2005, Davis became the Chief Prosecutor inside Guantánamo Bay. For a while he parroted the company line, until he became radicalized by the injustice he saw. Most notably, he instituted a policy that made inadmissible any testimony gleaned through torture. After his directive was challenged, Davis resigned his post and became an outspoken critic of the Pentagon, work that likely lost him a medal or two.

Rather than praise Davis’s bravery, Cawthorn attacked him for defending innocent men. One of his more poisonous ads falsely claimed that Davis “sided with foreign enemies over our own country numerous times.” (This obsession has carried on to Congress, where Cawthorn became an early sponsor of the Vaccinate Americans, Not Terrorists Act, which would prohibit Covid-19 vaccines from being administered to Guantánamo Bay detainees before troops.)

Davis did a decent job defending his military record, but he faced heat from Cawthorn over his profanity-laced social media presence. Davis accused Cawthorn of “clutching his pearls” over a few aggressive tweets and tried to refocus on Cawthorn’s fabrications. “It’s stunning to me that here’s this young man who purports to be a patriot and a Christian who lies, just repeatedly lies, in the same way that the president does,” Davis said in one debate. Nonetheless, Cawthorn’s lies took hold. “If you go listen in at a VA waiting room, you’ll find military veterans talking very highly of Cawthorn, like he’s a veteran,” Annika Peacock, a Navy veteran and resident of the 11th district, told me. “He’s created a very strong image.”

Twitter users thank Cawthorn for his “service.”

While Cawthorn says his most loyal campaign supporters were “probably” second amendment groups, he asserted that “aside from that, it was the veterans charity.” He was recently appointed to the House Veterans Affairs Committee but offered few specifics on how he plans to support this community. In our conversation, I asked Cawthorn how he squared support for the VA’s universal health care system that his father receives care from with his overall opposition to public health care. He contradicted his earlier comments about his local VA facility being excellent, citing a vague plan for “patient freedom” that would allow veterans to choose their own doctor and not be “limited to what the government can find”: in other words, stripping down and privatizing vital agency services. Veterans want somebody to go to D.C. and “not just pay lip service” and thank them for their service, he noted.

War, to him, is not hell, it’s cool; valor is not an act of bravery but something even a coward can buy through the right combination of gear and guns.

Outside of veterans, one of Cawthorn’s most vocal supporters is a right-wing blogger named Chad Nesbitt. He was injured last summer while filming protesters demonstrating against a grand jury’s decision to not indict the Kentucky police officers who killed Breonna Taylor. (News outlets reported a video which showed someone pushed Nesbitt’s bodyguard into him, causing him to fall to the ground and suffer a brain injury.) Cawthorn used Nesbitt’s assault as startling evidence of violence on the far left, even as his own political brand is built on stoking anger among Republicans against more moderate forces. In December, for instance, he urged attendees at a Turning Point USA event to “lightly threaten” lawmakers. “Say, ‘You know what, if you don’t start supporting election integrity, I’m coming after you,’” Cawthorn ordered. That same month, the SKYline News Facebook page, reportedly run by Nesbitt, posted cryptically about a Three Percenters training camp in North Carolina. Cawthorn was not mentioned in the post, but he has adopted some of the group’s symbols, including the Betsy Ross flag.

Then, on January 6, Cawthorn, apparently armed, whipped up thousands of pissed off Trumpists in the “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the sacking of the Capitol. Nesbitt was there that day too, livestreaming. A man associated with the Oath Keepers who was later indicted by the FBI for his role in the attacks suggested that he had trained in North Carolina the month prior.

Not one to be pinned down, days later, Cawthorn took up the cause of the thousands of National Guard troops ordered to protect the Capitol from an assault similar to the one he helped incite. On January 21, he filled up a white pickup truck with pizza and visited a crowd of troops milling around a parking garage. “HEY EVERYBODY, CAN I HAVE YOURS GUYS’ ATTENTION!” Cawthorn bellowed with such force that a man off camera is heard saying, “Holy, shit!” “HEY GUYS,” he continued, “MY NAME’S MADISON CAWTHORN. I HEARD THEY KICKED YOUR ASSES DOWN HERE SO WE BROUGHT SOME PIZZA IF ANYBODY WANTS ANY!” The guard members cheered at the news. Some even came up to Cawthorn and offered their appreciation. “Thank you for what you do,” one soldier said.

Cawthorn’s eagerness to ally himself with both sides of the attempted Capitol Hill coup perfectly illustrates the aimlessness of his militarism. He doesn’t care whether those toting guns are sanctioned by the government or fulminating against it. Rather, he’s exhilarated by shows of force, and cares little about the consequences of it. War, to him, is not hell, it’s cool; valor is not an act of bravery but something even a coward can buy through the right combination of gear and guns. His brand of militarism, in other words, is play-acting. It’s militarism without the military, and any of the stakes or service it implies.