In the end, the Republican Party decided that Rep. Madison Cawthorn's (R-NC) unforgivable sin was not his starring role on the stage from which then-President Donald Trump beckoned his followers to march to the Capitol and "stop the steal." It was not his false claims that those Jan. 6 rioters were crisis actors "paid by the Democratic machine" nor was it his declaration that Volodymyr Zelensky is a "thug" presiding over the "evil" nation of Ukraine.
No. In the end, the Republican Party establishment decided to knife Cawthorn only because of his audacity to turn on the "swamp." In Tuesday's primary, the well-coordinated effort from GOP leadership has brought the 26-year-old's career in elected office to an end little more than a year after it began. With the entire state party's backing and less than 2,000 votes extra, state Sen. Chuck Edwards beat Cawthorn in his Super Tuesday primary, rendering the freshman the lamest of lame ducks.
Don't get me wrong: Cawthorn was always a bit of a clown in Congress, a political neophyte and professional numpty who never really found his footing in the polity of a party out of power. He was at once an idealist almost childish in his sincerity (Cawthorn pivoted from election denialism on the morning of Jan. 6 to pledging publicly to "rise above the partisan fray" and cooperate with President Joe Biden in the span of a fortnight) and an angsty adolescent who seemed like he still needed to burn off steam in a frat house instead of in Congress. And he would have gotten away with it, too, if he hadn't made the fatal flaw of claiming he saw salacious behavior from members of the swamp.
In an initially overlooked March podcast appearance, Cawthorn claimed that prominent Washington Republicans had invited him to an orgy and that he had witnessed some use cocaine.
"There’s some of the people that are leading on the movement to try and remove addiction in our country, and then you watch them do a key bump of cocaine right in front of you," Cawthorn had said. "And it’s like, 'This is wild.'"
All hell broke loose. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, who wouldn't even condemn Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia by name for embracing a literal neo-Nazi just after he stirred applause for President Vladimir Putin for starting Russia's war in Ukraine, publicly lambasted Cawthorn, calling his remarks "unacceptable" and accusing him of lying. In effect, McCarthy gave his party the green light to drop the hammer on Cawthorn.
In North Carolina, Sen. Thom Tillis, state Senate leader Phil Berger, and state House Speaker Tim Moore all endorsed Edwards, who almost immediately received a deluge of donations, while Cawthorn was subjected to a steady flow of the most far-reaching opposition research anti-Cawthorn activists could find: dirty joke captions on his Venmo feed, a silly costume including a bra he wore during a cruise ship contest, and even a pixelated nude video released without his consent. None of Cawthorn's apolitical crimes held a candle to the dregs of his caucus — recall that sitting GOP congressman Scott DesJarlais tried to convince both his wife and his mistress to get abortions — but the confluence of Cawthorn's unserious theatrics and MAGA cosplaying with his millennial mishaps made his demise delectable to many but most saliently his own party's bosses.
Not even Trump's late-breaking restatement of his endorsement could save Cawthorn. Although the former president offered a seemingly heartfelt backing of the backbencher ("Recently, he made some foolish mistakes, which I don't believe he'll make again ... let's give Madison a second chance!" Trump wrote on his Truth Social account), the rest of the MAGAverse was oddly silent. The fellow scandal-ridden Rep, Matt Gaetz of Florida came out firmly in Cawthorn's camp, but from cable to Congress, the rest of the party powers that be left Cawthorn out to dry.
It's probably for the good of both the party and Cawthorn personally that his career in elected office is done — at least for now, anyway. But the moral of the story is less sanguine: The GOP establishment can tolerate any level of demagoguery, but challenge Beltway secrecy or its standing in the eyes of the plebeian class, even in the most unserious of ways, and the swamp will always strike back.