Madison Cawthorn's Threat

Congressman says he dreads taking up arms against fellow citizens but...

Speaking at an event on Sunday, North Carolina congressman Madison Cawthorn decried “rigged” elections and intimated that “bloodshed” would ensue unless Republicans felt elections were secure. “Because, you know, if our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen, then it’s going to lead to one place — and it’s bloodshed,” Cawthorn said. He added, “I will tell you, as much as I am willing to defend our liberty at all costs, there is nothing that I would dread doing more than having to pick up arms against a fellow American. And the way that we can have recourse against that is if we all passionately demand that we have election security in all 50 states.” In the audience, a Cawthorn supporter seemed to suggest a reprise of the January 6 riot by asking, “When are you going to call us to Washington again?”

Cawthorn has mastered the art of the double talk. He knows how to threaten mayhem while leaving enough wiggle-room so that his statements could be presented as a caution rather than intimidation. That is the tack his office took in defending his remarks in a statement released on Monday: “In his comments, Congressman Cawthorn is CLEARLY advocating for violence not to occur over election integrity questions. He fears others would erroneously choose that route and strongly states that election integrity issues should be resolved peacefully and never through violence.”

This defence is disingenuous since threats are often worded in the form of a admonitory terms, as in the classic gangster line, “Nice little store you have here. It would be a pity if anything happened to it.”

Cawthorn’s words are all the more alarming because they are hardly isolated. Justification for revolt is increasingly heard on the right. On Monday, Tucker Carlson claimed that “revolt” would be needed if America does not change course soon:

There is a school of thought, shared by both some leftists and liberals, that too much is made about the dangers of the authoritarian right. The shrewd political theorist Corey Robins recently tweeted:

I’ve tried to heed the cautionary words of writers like Robin and avoid hyperbole. I do think that claims of an imminent Civil War or a new Nazism create more heat than light. They describe dangers that are very different than the ones the United States currently face. Both a Civil War and the most extreme forms of fascism would require a level of mobilization into armed units that the current Trumpist right has shown little capacity for.

But if fear-mongering is bad, so is complacency. Figures like Cawthorn and Carlson are hardly negligible. They are the voice of a large faction within the Republican party, a political tendency that is the most energetic, creative, and innovative force within the right. Over the last six years, more moderate Republicans have proven themselves unable or unwilling to challenge or contain the Trumpist right. There os every reason to think the Cawthorns and Carlsons, not to speak of Trump himself, will remain the voices that set the terms for debate for Republicans.

The likely future isn’t so much a full-scale civil war as persistent low-level political violence: what one could call “two, three, many January 6th” with a sprinkling of El Paso style massacres. Combine this with the broader GOP (what we can call the political wing of the right) pushing for voting restrictions. This gives you a formula for a slow, torturous descent into racist authoritarianism. The closest analogy would be the rise of Jim Crow in the late 19th century, where the same combination of legal manipulation and extra-legal violence achieved the effect of mass disenfranchisement along racial lines. Which is worrisome enough, even if it isn’t the worst case scenario. We’d all do well to take Madison Cawthorn very seriously indeed.

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