Madison Cawthorn, the newly-elected, 25-year-old congressman from western North Carolina–a “rising GOP star,” the “future of Trumpism,” even “Trump 2.0”–has been making waves in the national media lately. 

Last week, The Nation documented in excruciating detail how Cawthorn misrepresented himself as a Paralympic athlete, connecting the dots between that mistruth and other lies he’s told about his education and business acumen. And on Monday, the MSNBC opinion columnist Liz Plank wrote a scathing piece about how, in her view, Cawthorn uses ableist stereotypes to massage the egos of nondisabled Americans.

So far, so Trumpy. 

Then, on Wednesday, Time published a story that digs into Cawthorn’s Machiavellian messaging strategy–arguably what sets him apart from other outlandish, GOP newcomers, including Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene and Colorado’s Lauren Boebert, and even from Trump himself.

Cawthorn, who replaces Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the youngest person ever to be elected to Congress, has mastered the art of selling different talking points to different audiences, notes Abby Vesoulis for Time. 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.”

“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, Vesoulis writes. “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.”

As a media darling and self-styled AOC of the right, Cawthorn undoubtedly has short-term staying power, says Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State’s School of Public and International Affairs. But, unlike AOC, Cawthorn doesn’t particularly seem to care about outcomes: “I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation,” he wrote in an email to Republican colleagues, as Time reported.

“Being fluff rather than substance has never stopped anyone from moving forward in their political careers,” Taylor says. “In the short term, I don’t see him going anywhere, partly because he is such an entertaining character. He has a great story. Like AOC, he is young, good-looking, energetic, and social media savvy. She has an established fan base. Presumably, he will get one. He will have an attentive audience.”

Whether Cawthorn has a long-term future, though, depends on a few things, including redistricting, the will of Democrats to stamp out Trumpism, and the fate of the Republican party. In terms of censuring Republicans for their roles in the failed insurrection, Taylor notes that Cawthorn (unlike Taylor Greene and Boebert) doesn’t currently appear to be Enemy No. 1, despite his not-inconsiderable role in inciting the mob. That’s on top of the fact that the House hasn’t actually expelled a member in nearly 20 years.

“It becomes a question of, ‘What does that district look like in 2022?’” Taylor says. “It will be redrawn. Will there be a Republican primary challenger? I’m not sure at the moment because of Trump’s hold, and I’m not sure how long the hold will be. Those are the kinds of things we need to be talking about in terms of how long Madison Cawthorn will be around.”

While it’s true that, following the Capitol riots, North Carolina Republicans are leaving the party, it’d be a stretch to call it a mass exodus.

“My sense is, for 2022, if he gets the Tump nod, some kind of anointing, that helps [Cawthorn] in any primary,” Taylor says. “But I just don’t know how long the Trump shelf life is.”


Follow Editor-in-Chief Jane Porter on Twitter or send an email to jporter@indyweek.com

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