Donald Trump should never be considered anything approximating normal. Compulsive in his puerile narcissism and clumsy corruption, his presidency was a daily deluge of cruelty, outrage, and inanity, and any revisionist efforts to smooth out the hard edges of his tenure should be swiftly condemned. But it is true that he rose to power in normal times — comparatively speaking — and thus was encouraged by his handlers to at least occasionally go through the motions of what a normal person might do, to sometimes model “presidential” behavior. Did he fail at this? Absolutely. But it is almost nice to think back on this quaint-seeming time when his circle expected him to at least try to rein in his raging id.
Trump’s acolytes, who ascended to their undeserved positions of power after he’d already remade American politics in his image, feel no such obligation. Where Trump’s team initially tried to channel his demagoguery into more traditional political packaging, the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert have always been free to lean into the crazy — knowing, because the former president proved it so, that they will be rewarded by the base rather than punished for their extremism. Trump was — and continues to be — a uniquely destructive force in American politics. But the movement he unleashed may somehow manage to get worse and worse as it evolves.
Take Madison Cawthorn. Speaking at a county event in his home state of North Carolina over the weekend, the far-right representative parroted Trump’s lie about a “rigged” election, which by now has been accepted as a standard talking point by the GOP establishment. But he also took it a step beyond many other big lie proponents, telling attendees at the Republican event that the bogus claim not only justifies the voter suppression laws the party is pushing, but perhaps even a new civil war.
“If our election systems continue to be rigged and continue to be stolen, then it’s gonna lead to one place and that’s bloodshed,” Cawthorn said at the Republican event. “And I will tell you: As much as I am willing to defend our liberty at all costs, there’s 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.”
This is, of course, the same kind of overheated rhetoric that has long plagued the more deluded members of the GOP, who seem to have convinced themselves that defending Dr. Seuss against “cancel culture” makes them heirs to the Founding Fathers. But it also cannot be dismissed as the Revolutionary cosplaying the Tea Party was prone to a decade ago. It was this same type of bile that led a rag-tag army of pro-Trump rioters, whom Cawthorn described at the same event as “political prisoners,” to mount a deadly attack on Capitol Hill earlier this year. And while Cawthorn’s spokesman denied that the congressman was “supporting or advocating any form of violence” — he was “CLEARLY advocating for violence not to occur over election integrity questions,” the spokesman said, according to the Washington Post — the incendiary remarks in Macon County on Sunday represent a dangerous escalation in the big lie bombast MAGA world has been spouting for the better part of a year. As Congressman Adam Kinzinger, a prominent GOP Trump critic, pointed out, we already know where that kind of bluster can lead. “This is insane,” Kinzinger wrote Monday of Cawthorn’s comments. “Based on a total lie. This must stop.”
Unfortunately for Kinzinger, and for the rest of us, Cawthorn and his fellow crazies are far more welcome in the current GOP than he is, and the likelihood of this kind of Trumpian insanity stopping anytime soon is dim. The House of Representatives is already lousy with far-right loons like Cawthorn, whose political careers are premised on acting as much like Donald Trump Jr. as possible — and the Senate, which boasts its own roster of cranks and carnival barkers, could be poised to get Trumpier. As Politico reported Tuesday, impending GOP retirements in five states could clear the way for more MAGA Republicans to move into the upper chamber in next year’s midterms — a further reflection, North Carolina GOP Chair Michael Whatley told the outlet, of how Trump has “reshaped the Republican Party.”
“I don’t think the party is going back,” Whatley added.
A party that would elect Donald Trump in the first place was dangerous already. But it could prove even more so as it continues to build on his extremism. As Peter Wehner wrote in the Atlantic last week, after Trump himself got booed, briefly, for suggesting his supporters consider getting vaccinated against COVID-19, we may be witnessing the GOP go in an “even more frenzied direction after Trump’s presidency than during it” — his behaviors, “initially a bug,” have now become a “feature” of the party. Cawthorn, who spoke at the January 6 riot, is not only a product of that rot — he is a proud agent of it.
“When are you going to call us to Washington again?” a supporter asked Cawthorn at the event Sunday.
“We are actively working on that one,” Cawthorn replied. “I don’t have an answer to that one right yet, but we are actively working on this. We have a few plans in motion that I can’t make public right now.”
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