As the Trump Administration drew to a close, Republican legislators and aides were forced to choose a side. They could either distance themselves from a twice-impeached President who instigated an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol Building after claiming, baselessly, that his electoral victory was stolen, or they could continue to embrace Donald Trump’s brand of scorched-earth populism well after President Joe Biden redecorated 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Longtime Trump faithfuls, including Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Tom Rice have chosen Option 1, rebuffing their former leader, calling for rule of law and returning, at least rhetorically, to the storied principles of conservatism that once guided the Grand Old Party. Dozens of others, including Sen. Josh Hawley, Rep. Jim Jordan—and more than half of the Republican caucus in the U.S. House—appear to have gone with Option 2, continuing to amplify Trump’s false claim that the 2020 Election was riddled with fraud.
Newly elected 25-year-old Congressman Madison Cawthorn has taken a different approach: he’s trying to have it both ways. One day, he’s preaching about respecting the office of the Presidency and vowing to work across the aisle with Democratic colleagues. The next, he’s trumpeting dangerous conspiracies to right-wing crowds and commentators. While offering different messages to different audiences is hardly unique inside the Beltway, Cawthorn’s brand of shape-shifting is emblematic of this broader moment in national politics. As the Trump era ends, the Republican Party is struggling to chart a future course in which it both retains the support of Trump’s expansive base, while jettisoning the controversial former President.
Cawthorn’s potential power, as a rising Republican star, is rooted in his apparent ability to navigate this tight rope. Though the gun-toting, Twitter-wielding freshman is a Trump acolyte, both in his political views and personal positioning, he has differentiated himself from his similarly hardline fellow freshmen, like newly-elected Rep. Lauren Boebert, who tweeted the movement of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as a rioter allegedly stalked the Capitol with zip ties, and fellow newcomer Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who embraced QAnon and wore a Stop The Steal mask on Capitol Hill. Cawthorn, meanwhile, has offered a more measured—even contradictory—message, depending on who’s listening.
The new Representative from North Carolina’s 11th District appears, in other words, both willing and able to engage in that old-fashioned game of politics. It’s a skill that may paper over some of his far-flung views, earning him more airtime, more followers, and more influence than many of his Trump-supporting colleagues and predecessors, even as he continues to appeal to Trump’s most hardcore fanbase.
“He’s saying one thing and then he’s doing another. He is good at apologizing. He is charismatic,” says Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University who closely followed Cawthorn’s race. “I don’t recall a time where Trump has ever apologized,” Cooper adds. “Cawthorn will apologize. He’ll just then do the same activity again.”
‘Madison Cawthorn is coming after you’
Less than three weeks before pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol, resulting in five deaths, then-Congressman-elect Cawthorn delivered a speech at a Turning Point student summit in West Palm Beach, Fla., urging thousands of mostly unmasked young conservatives to “lightly threaten” their representatives. “Call your Congressman,” he said to the young people, offering them a script: “Say, ‘You know what? If you don’t start supporting election integrity, I’m coming after you, Madison Cawthorn is coming after you. Everybody’s coming after you.’”
Hours before the Jan. 6 riot on the Capitol—in which an angry mob did, in fact, come after members of Congress— Cawthorn again addressed an agitated crowd just south of the White House, this time commending them for their pugnacity. “This crowd has some fight in it!” he said, gesturing out to the crowd with one hand while his other one gripped a microphone.
When the Capitol was breached, forcing lawmakers to take shelter behind wooden furniture and in crudely barricaded offices, Cawthorn called into conservative talk show host Charlie Kirk’s live podcast, where he suggested that his wheelchair allowed him to carry “multiple weapons” and entertained a radical conspiracy theory that the riot was carried out by actors planted by the left. “I believe that this was agitators strategically placed inside of this group—you can call them antifa, you can call them people paid by the Democratic machine,” he said. (There is no evidence of this, according to the FBI.) When the teargas cleared, Cawthorn returned to the House floor, where he joined more than 120 fellow Republicans in voting to support objections to Biden’s electoral victories in Arizona and Pennsylvania.
Less than 24-hours later, Cawthorn appeared to do a 180—sort of. “What occurred on Capitol Hill was a perversion of patriotism,” the new Congressman tweeted on Jan. 7. Urging supporters to march to the Capitol was a “mistake on behalf of the president,” he told a local news channel. On Jan. 20, Cawthorn joined 16 other Republican freshmen in signing a letter congratulating Biden and expressed a desire to work with his Administration and “rise above the partisan fray,” and on Jan. 23, Cawthorn publicly condoned the election results after failing to come up with strong examples of fraud on air. “I think I would say that the election was not fraudulent,” he told CNN, adding, “I would say that Joseph R. Biden is our president.”
But, again, Cawthorn’s public messaging continues to warp and bend. Two days before his CNN interview, Cawthorn’s Communications Director, Micah Bock, told TIME that the election wasn’t conducted appropriately. “It became clear, over the course of December, that there were clear Constitutional violations of election law in key states. Rep. Cawthorn felt a duty to fulfill his oath and defend the Constitution on the House Floor,” Bock said, without citing examples. When asked if Cawthorn stood by his suggestion that Democrats were behind the insurrection at the Capitol, Bock declined to respond at all.
Cawthorn’s outsized focus on messaging isn’t incidental to his rise to power; it is central to his success. As a new legislator, he is not working on churning out new bills. He is, instead, presenting himself as a useful messaging megaphone for the legislators that do. “I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation,” he wrote to Republican colleagues in a Jan. 19 email obtained by TIME.
Cawthorn’s media savvy was in full view when he spoke to TIME through a computer screen from his North Carolina home in December. During our 45-minute talk, Cawthorn smiled easily, peppered his responses with my first name, and characterized himself as an amiable young lawmaker willing to reach across the aisle. He told me, for example, that he plans to sleep in his office, rather than paying for an expensive Capitol Hill apartment, and will perhaps use the money he saves to buy a handful of sport wheelchairs that he’ll invite colleagues to use in games of wheelchair basketball. “I definitely want to challenge AOC’s office,” he said, “because we should seek to create relationships outside of the halls of Congress with people on both sides of the aisle.”
Throughout our interview, Cawthorn pivoted back to calls for unity and bipartisanship. “People are really hurting right now,” he told me. “This is the time when you come together. Let’s get rural broadband done, let’s get some COVID relief done. Let’s actually work together for once.” Like other Members of Congress, Cawthorn is known for sprinkling in historical references, often name-checking American founding documents. In our Dec. 12 conversation, he accurately cited Federalist Paper No. 52 in arguing the qualifications for members of the House. But in other instances, he overreaches. During an impassioned speech at the Republican convention, he claimed, erroneously, that James Madison had signed the Declaration of Independence, and on Kirk’s Jan. 6 podcast, he cited the wrong Constitutional clause in trying to argue why it was “very, very clear” that election procedures had run afoul.
Cawthorn’s resume is unlikely for a U.S. Congressman. Unlike 95% of House members from the last Congress who held Bachelor’s degrees and 68% who held graduate degrees, Cawthorn has neither. He briefly attended Patrick Henry College in Virginia, but dropped out after earning low grades, according to a sworn deposition. Cawthorn packages this part of his backstory as an upside, arguing that he represents the 66% of North Carolinians ages 25 and up who also lack college degrees. “I think that our country would probably be better-served if we had people that were wearing work boots…crafting legislation,” he says.
His work history is equally thin. After working as a low-level staffer for former Rep. Mark Meadows from about 2015 to 2016, according to the Citizen-Times, he founded a real estate investment firm called SPQR Holdings in August 2019, according to a document filed with the North Carolina Secretary of State’s office. Yet, as of March 2020, when he filed a financial disclosure form that is required of congressional candidates, he reported $0 in earned income.
Cawthorn’s life thus far has been shaped by adversity. In April 2014, Cawthorn and a friend were driving home after a spring break trip when his friend fell asleep behind the wheel of the SUV and rammed it into a concrete barrier. Both teens made it out of the crash alive, but Cawthorn did so only barely: He was partially paralyzed after injuring his spinal cord and breaking his T12 vertebra. He also lost a kidney, broke his pelvis, and suffered severe burns and two collapsed lungs.
The tragedy—and his ability to overcome it—was central to his 2020 campaign message. But so were a flurry of reversals, untruths, missteps, and outright flubs. He claimed, for example, that he had been “nominated to the U.S. Naval Academy by Rep. Mark Meadows in 2014,” until his plans “were derailed” by that automobile accident. (Cawthorn’s application to the Naval Academy was rejected before he was injured.) And then there was the 2017 photo of Cawthorn smiling at Adolf Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, a compound in Germany the Third Reich built for Hitler’s 50th birthday. “The vacation house of the Führer. Seeing the Eagles Nest has been on my bucket list for awhile (sic), it did not disappoint,” part of his Instagram caption read. Cawthorn now dismisses the controversy with the same skill he’s bringing to bear on the national stage. “Going there as a guy who’s speaking English, a guy who’s rolling in a wheelchair,” he says, “the Nazis would have put me to death.”
After months of telling reporters that he regretted tweeting “Cry more, lib” immediately following his victory over an Air Force veteran in his Nov. 3 election, the legislator’s Shopify account continued to sell $35 t-shirts screen-printed with the phrase until Jan. 16. (Bock says that Cawthorn requested the shirts to be removed from Shopify before this date, but that “the message wasn’t passed along during the transition to D.C.”)
Perhaps one of the most consistent things about Cawthorn is his inconsistency. When I pressed him on the claims multiple women made against him about uncomfortable sexual encounters—high-leg grabbing, aggressive kissing—they allegedly experienced with him, Cawthorn didn’t attack his accusers in the way that Trump has his own accusers. Nor did Cawthorn deny that he ever made women uncomfortable. Instead, he spoke about his experiences with regret. “Looking back now in hindsight,” he said, “I would have changed how I acted.” (To other news outlets, his team seemed less contrite. “Sadly, in the Kavanaugh age, nothing will satisfy a woke mob that decides someone is guilty of sexual misconduct until proven innocent,” campaign aide John Hart said at the time allegations were made public.)
Back in mid-December, when I asked about his thoughts on the election results, he walked a careful line, praising Trump as “probably the best President we’ve had in modern times,” while simultaneously raising questions about the now-former President’s assertions of election fraud. “I sit down and think to myself, okay, well, I need to think about this rationally. Where is the evidence? If there’s so much evidence that there is so much fraud, then why has the Trump legal team not brought it to bear?” he told me. “And why has Trump himself not brought it to bear?” He added then that if “electors come and the delegates decide to vote for Joe Biden, I will support him as my President.”
Yet three weeks after our conversation, Cawthorn voted to challenge the certification of Biden’s electoral victories in both Arizona and Pennsylvania. He has also questioned the integrity of Wisconsin’s election results, though the rules prevented a formal contest because no Senators objected to them. (No significant proof of voter fraud was ever established in any of these states, and in the absence of evidence, at least 86 judges across the country rejected post-election lawsuits filed by Trump or his allies, according to a Washington Post analysis.)
Cooper isn’t surprised by the reversal. “Well-coached, and well-managed, he could have become what he wanted to be, which I think was the new face of the Republican Party,” he says.
At just 25, of course, Cawthorn still has ample time to figure out the coaching and the managing. Ambitious, with a magnetic energy and the ability to enthrall a crowd of Trump-deprived MAGA devotees, Cawthorn may very well outlast and outlive many of his fellow lawmakers to drive the future of the GOP—if he can figure out what the Republican party really is in a post-Trump world.