Indistinct radio chatter. Restlessness from elected officials. Tension among law enforcement officers. Doors locking. Representatives donning gas masks. Staffers crouching on the floor behind bulletproof seats.
“Wow, this is real,” Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-Hendersonville, said to himself.
The insurrection that ensued was indeed real, born of an alternate reality where feelings matter more than facts.
President Donald Trump has felt all along that the Nov. 3 election was “stolen” from him; in the weeks after his loss, he encouraged supporters to travel to Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6 to “stop the steal,” despite a stunning string of courtroom losses — more than 60 — and officials from his own party and administration contradicting him with factual evidence.
Before the shock of seeing democracy’s greatest monuments befouled by a violent swarm had even worn off, condemnation of the president began to emerge over his role in inciting the violence by pushing discredited election fraud theories since before the election itself.
Days later, after calls for his resignation, Trump was banned from Twitter and is again facing impeachment, or removal through constitutional process, with less than a week remaining in his term.
Trump now sits quietly at the nexus of culpability, but those who supported his false election narrative are also facing great public disdain, or worse, and elected officials from Cawthorn on down are being called upon to decide — do words really matter?
Cawthorn was hustled off the floor of the House but it wasn’t easy, as the 25-year-old mobilizes with the aid of a wheelchair. He told The Smoky Mountain News less than 24 hours after it happened that fellow North Carolina congressmen Ted Budd, R-Greensboro, and Richard Hudson, R-Fayetteville, helped him navigate some steps and move furniture that had been used to blockade doors.
Sheltering in a congressional office, Cawthorn looked out the window.
“I opened the blinds — and not to make a pop culture reference — I felt like I was watching Lord of the Rings when the orcs were taking over the last stronghold of man,” he said of the mob he later called disgusting and pathetic. “I have no problem calling that out, even though a lot of those people probably would’ve voted for me. No problem calling that out, because I just, I can’t support that.”
Fortunately, Cawthorn said, he was armed, although he’s not yet said where or how he came to be. Laws on gun possession by members of Congress on Capitol grounds are rife with loopholes, but Cawthorn’s probably most lucky he didn’t actually have to use it.
At that very moment, a horde of insurrectionists had already penetrated the Capitol building. Barreling down hallways. Rummaging through empty offices. Smearing their own feces on the walls.
President-elect Joe Biden subsequently delivered remarks from Delaware.
“At this hour, our democracy is under unprecedented assault, unlike anything we’ve seen before,” Biden said. “You’ve heard me say before in different contexts, the words of a president matter, no matter how good or bad that president is. At their best, the words of a president can inspire. At their worst, they can incite. I call on President Trump to go on national television now, to fulfill his oath and defend the Constitution and demand an end to this siege.”
Trump responded with a backhanded plea for peace that focused more on his feelings about the election than the fact that a shirtless man wearing a horned fur cap and brandishing a spear was currently lording over the Senate rostrum.
“I know your pain. I know you’re hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election, and everyone knows it, especially the other side. But you have to go home now. We have to have peace. We have to have law and order. We have to respect our great people in law and order. We don’t want anybody hurt. It’s a very tough period of time,” Trump said in a video that’s since been pulled from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. “There’s never been a time like this where such a thing happened where they could take it away from all of us – from me, from you, from our country. This was a fraudulent election. But we can’t play into the hands of these people. We have to have peace. So go home. We love you. You’re very special. You’ve seen what happens. You see the way others are treated – that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel, but go home and go home in peace.”
Five people are now dead, including an insurrectionist who was shot in the throat by U.S. Capitol Police as she attempted to climb through a shattered window, and a Capitol Police Officer, Brian Sicknick, who was dragged from an archway and beaten with the pole of an American flag.
Scores were injured and arrests around the nation continue, but the transformation of the otherwise peaceful demonstration into a murderous throng is being blamed on Trump’s continuing denial of his election loss to Biden.
On Dec. 19, 2020, Trump tweeted out a call to action.
“Big protest in D.C. on January 6th,” he said. “Be there, will be wild!”
Several more times before Jan. 1, he repeated this invitation.
Cawthorn signaled early on that he’d contest the Jan. 6 certification results, and issued a tweet of his own shortly before he was forced to flee for his life.
“I was elected to serve the people of Western North Carolina, on January 3rd I took an oath to protect the Constitution. Today I will fulfill both obligations when I object on the House Floor to the electoral votes from key states.”
He’d been on the job three whole days at the time, but had spent almost his entire campaign aligning himself with the president. That didn’t end with Trump’s loss and Cawthorn’s victory on Nov. 3.
On Jan. 6, Trump held a “stop the steal” rally in a park just south of the White House. Along with other speakers, Cawthorn decried what he felt was election fraud on the part of Democrats before Trump took the stage.
Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-Hendersonville, speaks at a “stop the steal” rally on the morning of Jan. 6. C-SPAN screenshot
“Our country has had enough,” Trump said at the outset of his 70-minute speech. “We will not take it anymore, and that’s what this is all about. To use a favorite term that all of you people came up with, we will ‘stop the steal.’ Today, I will lay out just some of the evidence proving that we won this election and we won it by a landslide. This was not a close election.”
Trump’s closing remarks are now being intensely scrutinized in the form of an article of impeachment presented by House Democrats on Jan. 11, alleging incitement of insurrection.
“So we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. I love Pennsylvania Avenue, and we’re going to the Capitol and we’re going to try and give … The Democrats are hopeless. They’re never voting for anything, not even one vote,” Trump said. “But we’re going to try and give our Republicans, the weak ones — because the strong ones don’t need any of our help — we’re going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”
When asked the next day about whether or not he thought Trump’s remarks contributed to the violence that occurred after the rally, Cawthorn was succinct.
“I think you’d have to be pretty ignorant to say that they didn’t play a role in it,” he said.
When asked about his own remarks at the very same rally and their role in the insurrection, Cawthorn was a bit more ambiguous.
“I don’t necessarily think it did because I think what I was doing was saying, ‘Although most Republicans are not going to fight for you, you do have someone who’s defending you and I am fighting for you within the Capitol right now,’” he said. “The main purpose of that was to say that the reason you elect representatives like me is so that you don’t have to go take things into your own hands.”
Like Trump, Cawthorn has recently lost support from some longtime allies. Former Henderson County Sheriff George Erwin Jr. was slated to become Cawthorn’s district director, but backed out and told Blue Ridge Public Radio’s Lilly Knoepp that he’d heard “no calming words” from Cawthorn.
“You can’t talk about you support blue lives matter and support the blue when you are firing up people who are harming law enforcement officers,” Erwin said.
Also like Trump, Cawthorn is now facing calls to resign, or to face removal. A petition on www.change.org had more than 16,000 signatures as of Jan. 12, and another one on www.moveon.org had more than 3,000.
Neither are significant in terms of the number of votes Cawthorn received last November, but a letter from the Democratic chair of his North Carolina district to Speaker Nancy Pelosi may carry more weight as it attempts to tie Cawthorn’s behavior to Trump’s.
“On behalf of the Democratic Party of North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, we respectfully request action to address the seditious behavior of our newly elected Congressman, Madison Cawthorn, on or before the insurrection of January 6, 2021,” reads the letter, signed by District Chair Kathy Sinclair and others.
The letter goes on to mention Cawthorn’s tweets and his speech at the rally and asks for an ethics investigation followed by expulsion from the House, or censure.
A request for comment from Speaker Pelosi’s office by SMN went unanswered, but Cawthorn’s office did respond to the letter, telling WLOS-TV in a statement that unlike Democrats, Cawthorn condemns violence no matter who’s behind it.
“NC-11 Democrats were silent when left-wing mobs attacked civilians, businesses and law enforcement in Asheville. They have no moral authority to speak up now when they were silent then. Cawthorn has condemned the abhorrent violence on January 6,” it says. “He has criticized President Trump for directing protestors toward the Capitol and repeatedly told protestors that the legal pathway to address their concerns was through debate on the house floor, by their elected representatives, not violence in the streets of the Capital. Principled conservatives disagreed about the 2020 election. But debating whether Congress should accept or reject electoral votes in states that may have ignored their own laws was entirely appropriate and legal under our Constitution.”
Late on the evening of Jan. 6, after the building was cleared, Cawthorn returned to the House floor with colleagues to complete the task that had begun hours earlier, pre-insurrection — the certification of electoral votes. As promised, Cawthorn objected to Pennsylvania’s submission.
“We were using every legal means necessary available to us,” Cawthorn told SMN the next day. “I contested [electors from] five different states, and it wasn’t because of fraud, because I can’t personally prove fraud and I have really not seen an overwhelming amount of evidence for it, but what I can prove is that the Constitution was definitely subverted and circumvented. We were fighting that legal battle and then I think a lot of the rhetoric that’s been used for the past couple of months has led to people being ready to get up and go and try and take things into their own hands.”
With Biden’s certification coming in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 7, it quickly became clear that the insurrectionists, fed a steady diet of QAnon-level conspiracy theories by Trump and others, had failed to subvert the democratic process.
Now, the focus shifts to the local level. On Jan. 7, elected officials from across Western North Carolina were asked to weigh in on what transpired, what caused it, and where we — as a nation — go from here.
“I ask every person of honor and faith in our constitutional republic to repudiate these acts in the strongest terms,” said Sen. Kevin Corbin, R-Franklin. “We pledged our lives and our sacred honor to preserve and protect the Constitution of the United States. We honor our institutions by respecting them.”
Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers, a Democrat, likewise condemned the insurrection and demanded prosecution to “the fullest extent of the law,” but was the only elected official to call out Cawthorn’s role in the mayhem.
“I believe in giving people chances. I especially believe in honoring elections and giving folks a fair shot. That is the attitude that I had when our new congressman, Madison Cawthorn, took to the capital,” Smathers said. “Unfortunately, it seems our new representative is more comfortable dealing in division and falsities rather than uniting and truths. Representative Cawthorn rallied supporters to come to Washington saying the very ‘fate of the nation’ rested on their shoulders, telling them they needed to come show backbones made of steel and fight. He reveled when he spoke to the crowd that stormed the Capitol, when he observed they had ‘fight in them.’ He can try to pass the buck all he wants but we heard his words, we saw his actions. Leaders lead, leaders unite, leaders understand the power of their words, leaders take responsibility. I am asking Representative Cawthorn to do better.”
While leaders like Corbin and Smathers — local elected officials from both sides of he aisle — came together to propose a path forward, others continue to advance the rhetoric that led to the insurrection in the first place.
“While I believe our local media is fairly balanced, the national media is not,” said Kevin Ensley, Republican chair of the Haywood County Board of Commissioners. “The Hunter Biden story, biased coverage of President Trump and ignoring valid election irregularities have added to the mistrust of the mainstream media from conservative Americans.”
Republican Rep. Mark Pless, a former Haywood commissioner who’s just been elected to the North Carolina General Assembly, echoed Ensley’s “election irregularity” sentiments, but also said it was time to move on and accept the results.
“I will forever feel this election was not conducted fairly in the United States, however that doesn’t change the outcome,” said Pless. “I feel we as residents of Western North Carolina should set an example for North Carolina and our nation to follow. The election is over. Time to focus on the needs of the people.”
As a weary nation now looks towards healing, the debate over facts and feelings won’t be settled by any one person, any time soon. Regardless of which side prevails — evidence-based information or amateur YouTube machinations — the words spoken in defense thereof won’t soon be forgotten.
“The events at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., this past Wednesday, Jan. 6 highlight what we have been taught since childhood — words have consequences,” said Canton Alderwoman Gail Mull. “Once said, they cannot be unsaid. Compare it to toothpaste — once it is out of the tube, it cannot be put back. The rioters were there because they had been told a lie — that the election had been stolen through massive voter fraud. This lie has been disproven dozens of times in the weeks since the November election.”
In the interest of transparency, all responses from local officials regarding the Jan. 6 insurrection have been published online, in their entirety. Find them at www.smokymountainnews.com/news/item/30588.