Madison Cawthorn, Matt Gaetz, and too many others are fake legislators. They ran for office and got elected; so technically they’re elected officials. But their actions, strategies, and overall purpose for being in Congress don’t strike me as the motivations of normal legislators: those who want to pass bills. Instead, the apparent measure by which they judge success revolves around how much they can use their position in Congress as a soapbox to screech their culture war grievances upon the rest of us.
Congress is obviously broken; it is no longer the place where things get done, and for a variety of reasons. An unfortunate outcome of these inactive years is that more and more policy priorities are routed through the White House via executive orders or are settled in the courts. People like Madison Cawthorn thrive in this environment; they exploit the fact that Congress doesn’t actually do all that much on major legislation. Instead, people like Madison Cawthorn are there for their own brand, at the center of which is their never-ending war on “cancel culture”.
What they really want
Wannabe Fox News pundits
Since things don’t get done in Congress like they used to, these fake legislators channel most of their energy into their communications strategy. Here is a quote from a TIME profile of Madison Cawthorn that highlights his comms first way of thinking.
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 is not in Congress to pass legislation, he wants to get his face in front of cameras, post to twitter, and be a poster boy for Trumpism. As much as the right lambasts liberal Hollywood, these fake legislators seem to crave the same celebrity status, just with a different audience. Others are also following this playbook, including Matt Gaetz. In a Vanity Fair piece last year, Gaetz espoused the same principles: being on the air and gaining media attention was more important than passing laws.
Gaetz, like Trump, sees politics as entertainment: if you can keep the people’s attention, you can keep your power. Or, as he puts it, ‘Stagecraft is statecraft.’ That Gaetz is regularly knee-deep in the outrage cycle…is by design.
Cancel Culture Warriors
Madison Cawthorn & Co. hate cancel culture, which to them is an angry liberal twitter mob silencing their reasonable conservative opinions. But what the right calls “cancel culture” seems to be something different: mainly the growing consensus in major business circles that the country is changing. Shifting demographics show more people of color and immigrants in America and culturally liberal attitudes that were unpopular ten or twenty years ago are now mainstream. A growing majority of Americans are becoming less tolerable of Madison Cawthorn & Co.’s outright lies that they dress up as conservative opinions. If you spread a lie as significant as, say, the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump and then incite a mob to attack the capitol—as Madison Cawthorn and others did—people will be repelled and want to see some consequences. That isn’t cancel culture or censorship—it’s accountability. You don’t get to lie, incite a mob and then go about your days in congress like nothing happened.
Some might say the capitol riot and the big lie are extreme examples. What about Josh Hawley’s book being pulled by Simon & Schuster or Dr. Seuss books being taken out of circulation? Aren’t these examples of cancel culture run amuck? Not exactly.
These companies are making business decisions: if Simon & Schuster prints Hawley’s book after he literally threw a fist pump in support of the soon-to-be capital rioters on January 6th, they would have a PR nightmare. If the company that publishes Dr. Seuss didn’t take out the six books that absolutely had racist imagery, consumers might have revolted and boycotted them. If Tucker Carlson spews racist or misogynistic vitriol, advertisers might pull their ads because their financial support of his program might drive consumers away.
This isn’t the mob. This is the market.
Let’s take their fake outrage to its logical conclusions. What actual laws would Madison Cawthorn or Matt Gaetz want to pass to stop “cancel culture”? Do they suggest we tax businesses that don’t publish conservatives? And if so, where do they draw the line? If David Duke wanted to publish a book with Simon & Schuster but they refused, would Madison Cawthorn support legislation that makes Simon & Schuster publish it? What about advertisers supporting shows like Tucker Carlson’s? Are we supposed to make it illegal to pull financial support from a show? Or not allow people to organize a boycott to pressure advertisers? The answer to these questions are all obviously no.
These examples show me how weak these people are. They are incapable of admitting even the possibility that what they said or did was wrong. Self-reflection is so foreign to them that it would need a passport just to cross their minds. I’m all for honest conversations about these topics with well-intentioned conservatives, but these fake legislators and the far right are not those people. Madison Cawthorn and others are not in Congress to do anything about “cancel culture” because they can’t without eradicating the first amendment. They just want to fight about it on cable news and put it in fundraising emails.
Madison Cawthorn, Matt Gaetz, and the other fake legislators didn’t run for congress to pass laws or solve problems. They didn’t head to Washington to compromise and move the country forward. They don’t care about policy or honest debate.
They went to congress to fight: on TV, on Twitter, and on the House floor. They were elected to be Fox News pundits in the House of Representatives. This is a symptom of the weakening of the national legislature. We need to fix that problem soon and hopefully return people who care more about passing laws. Otherwise, our politics will keep giving disproportionate media attention to people like Madison Cawthorn and Matt Gaetz; people who only want to go on TV to fight about Dr. Seuss. All the while, the country continues to battle a raging global health crisis.