After the election, Cawthorn quickly adopted Trump’s claims of fraud. In December, he spoke at a Turning Points USA event in Florida. “So, everybody, I’m telling you, I’m encouraging you, please get on the phone, call your congressman,” he said. “And feel free—you can lightly threaten them, and say, ‘You know what? If you don’t start supporting election integrity, I’m coming after you. Madison Cawthorn is coming after you. Everybody’s coming after you.’” He also spoke to the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6 before the riot, saying, “This crowd has some fight in it.” (He was right.)
In the aftermath of the riot, some of Cawthorn’s supporters suddenly got cold feet. Two Western North Carolina conservative activists who’d backed his run for office unloaded on Cawthorn on Facebook. “He has blood on his hands,” wrote Eddie Harwood. Erwin, a former sheriff who campaigned and vouched for Cawthorn and had been asked to be his district director, agreed. “I apologize to all of my law enforcement friends, other politicians, family and friends—I was wrong, I misled you,” he replied.
“I started to think, Okay, where there is some smoke, there has got to be some fire here,” Erwin told Blue Ridge Public Radio. He’s right, but the smoke was there all along.
Still, no condemnation has been as fierce as what former Senator Jack Danforth of Missouri had to say about Hawley, his erstwhile protégé.
“Supporting Josh and trying so hard to get him elected to the Senate was the worst mistake I ever made in my life,” Danforth told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Yesterday was the physical culmination of the long attempt (by Hawley and others) to foment a lack of public confidence in our democratic system. It is very dangerous to America to continue pushing this idea that government doesn’t work and that voting was fraudulent.”
Perhaps Danforth was fooled by Hawley’s résumé: Stanford undergrad, Yale Law School, clerking for Chief Justice John Roberts, professorships, and a book from Yale Press. But Hawley made clear during his 2018 Senate race that he would back Trump to the hilt, come what may—as well as that any ideological commitments were plastic and subordinate to his ambition. Cruz, who quickly switched from Trump critic to obsequious appeaser after the 2016 election, had shown his true colors long before January 6, too.
The professions of surprise and horror from allies of Boebert, Cawthorn, Cruz, and Hawley recall the early weeks of the Trump presidency. Despite everything that Trump said during the 2016 election, some Republicans continued to believe that he would moderate once in office. What he said on the trail was just what he said on the trail: campaign promises and nothing more. The gravity of his duty would be impressed upon him once he entered office, and even if it didn’t, he’d be easily controlled by his aides and by experienced politicians like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.
That is, of course, not what happened. Trump wasn’t just vamping for crowds (not that it would have excused his demagoguery if he were), and neither were these politicians. Their sin is that they did precisely what they said they would. Their staffers, donors, and mentors’ sin was refusing to believe them.