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Opinion Madison Cawthorn’s vile lies about Jan. 6 reveal a big truth about the right

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) in Dallas on July 9. (Emil Lippe for The Washington Post)
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Rep. Madison Cawthorn is under fire for predicting “bloodshed” if our elections “continue to be rigged” and “continue to be stolen.” The North Carolina Republican, speaking at a political event, appeared to be encouraging more violent insurrection along the lines of Jan. 6. Indeed, Cawthorn also hailed the insurrectionists as heroes, as “political prisoners.”

But as vile as that is, the subsequent clarification from Cawthorn’s spokesman captured something even more essential about today’s Trumpified right wing — about its continued ecstatic enthrallment to the lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, and about its broader radicalization and ongoing abandonment of democracy:

Luke Ball, a spokesman for Cawthorn, said in a statement Monday that the lawmaker was “in no way supporting or advocating for any form of violence.”
“In his comments, Congressman Cawthorn is CLEARLY advocating for violence not to occur over election integrity questions,” Ball said. “He fears others would erroneously choose that route and strongly states that election integrity issues should be resolved peacefully and never through violence.”

There you have the reigning ethos of today’s right wing laid bare: If we keep lying uncontrollably to our supporters about the totalitarian left’s repression of them, they just might resort to violence, and gosh almighty, wouldn’t that be just terrible!

The big truth captured here is that for many right-wing personalities, the lying about the left is prior and essential to their radicalization, abandonment of democracy and increasing embrace of authoritarianism. The former inspires and justifies the latter: Once you unshackle yourself entirely from any obligation to reality in depicting the leftist menace, it’s a short leap to envisioning and then justifying pretty much anything in response to it.

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The Cawthorn dust-up captures this nicely. His spokesman says he “fears” that “others” will “erroneously choose” violence, as long as “election integrity questions” remain unresolved.

But Cawthorn himself cheerfully does all he can to give life to those “questions,” even though they’re based in lies. He says our elections continue to be “rigged” and “stolen,” and that the only way to avert violence is to insist that “we have election security in all 50 states.”

We do have election security, of course. The 2020 voting was scrutinized to an extraordinary degree, subject to numerous intensive reviews by elections officials and litigated over in dozens of nationally watched court battles.

So at best, there’s a vaguely extortive element to this: If you don’t give us more election security — i.e., more voter suppression, more “audits” designed to cast doubt on the election’s outcome, more doubling down on counter-majoritarian tactics — the millions of Americans unfairly victimized by the last election’s outcome just might resort to bloodshed! And that would be just awful!

You see versions of this constantly from the right’s superstars. Remember when Tucker Carlson agreed that virtuous conservatives just might get pushed into fascism if and when the left’s excesses require it? This was justified by the invention that the left is already perilously close to this point, creating a perfect feedback loop of self-justification.

Similarly, when Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) flirted with political violence, she did so by seemingly agreeing with the need to combat various leftist tyrannies that were simply invented.

And when Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) sought to justify his lead role in trying to invalidate President Biden’s electors in Congress, he claimed to be merely giving voice to constituents who had doubts about the outcome. In reality, of course, he actively fed those doubts, and then used them to reverse-justify his effort to subvert the outcome, an effort that helped inspire Jan. 6.

Political theorist Laura Field has offered a conceptual framework for understanding all this. The ongoing slide of many Republicans and right-wing luminaries into authoritarianism rests on an essential foundation, a “justificatory schema” made up of lies.

In this telling, the lies about the election — from Cawthorn’s claim that voters are right to believe our elections are “stolen” to Hawley’s suggestion that his constituents have reasonable grounds for doubting the 2020 outcome — are at bottom lies about the left. They are lies about the true nature of our system of majority rule, and even about the true nature of the majority in this country that ousted Trump:

The main problem isn’t the GOP’s disbelief in democracy, troubling though that is. The main problem, or in the very least the corollary problem, is all the misinformation and lying about the majority. Right-wing leaders are constantly peddling falsehoods about the threat posed by the majority, and these — which range from distortive hyperbole to manipulative lies — form the justificatory foundation of their anti-democratic efforts.

As Field concludes, the increasing comfort with “overturning the system” takes its justification from “distortive lies about the left.” As a result, to fully reckon with this slide into authoritarianism, “it’s crucial to keep the lying front and center.”

I think something like this helps explain why so many of these right-wing personalities often seem to be inhabiting a gray area hovering just on the edge of explicitly endorsing stealing future elections and even political violence.

While they take care to publicly condemn such extreme measures, on some level they have conjured up a way to manufacture a core of righteousness to the cause of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. And the unsettling truth of the matter is that for them that cause, in some form or other, endures, and very well may be used to justify far worse in the future.