Madison Cawthorn and the Privilege of Being “A Fighter”

According to his campaign website, 24-year old Madison Cawthorn is the CEO of a real-estate investment company and motivational speaker. Despite that, his candidate financial disclosure form discloses no income from his current employment, just 1.5 million dollars in assets. His Instagram is filled with photos of Cawthorn galivanting around Europe, lounging on a Mediterranean yacht, and being interviewed by Tomi Lahren in front of his backyard stone fireplace…this will all prove important, so hold tight.

Per his website, Cawthorn’s a “proven fighter” who’s running for congress where I reside in North Carolina’s 11th congressional district. If elected, he’ll be the youngest serving member of congress ever. He’s being positioned as the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the right, probably because no self-respecting Republican would want to compare him to the the former youngest Republican congressmen turned media darling .

I mostly know Cawthorn as the gentlemen whose rich-kid-in-a-CW-show visage greeted me everyday from his campaign sign as I drove into my apartment complex, but he’s more widely known for winning a surprise primary this past year, his aforementioned youth, and for surviving a car accident that’s left him paralyzed and wheelchair-bound, hence his fighter mantra.

Cawthorn is one of those people who describe themselves as a “Constitutional Republican,” but all you need to do is YouTube a few clips of the lad speaking to know he can’t properly articulate what that means. But I’m not here today to nitpick what Cawthorn knows or doesn’t know about the constitution. I’m not even going to get into the controversies surrounding his enthusiastic visit to Nazi strongholds or sexual misconduct escapades. This or more or less criteria you need to be a Republican congressman turned media darling in Trump’s America. What I’d like to do is air a personal grievance based on my own niche experience, compare it to Cawthorn’s, and thus prove how disheartening it is that he (or someone on his team) has decided to use the “proven fighter” narrative to discuss his overcoming a physical challenge.

I know firsthand the fight you need to overcome a physical disability. I don’t want to take anything away from Cawthorn in terms of what I’m sure is a powerful drive inside him. He’s obviously a fighter based on the chances he’d survive, much less thrive, after his accident. What’s dangerously navel grazing, flagrantly ignorant, hugely hypocritical, and completely misleading is the way he’s positioned this accomplishment.

Per Cawthorn’s website, “Madison’s ordeal built his faith, made him a fighter, helped him appreciate every day, and inspired him to help everyone he encounters overcome whatever adversity they face in their daily lives.” While again, it’s commendable what Cawthorn has been able to achieve, what’s bullshit is that faith and a fighting spirit were what propelled Cawthorn to overcome his barriers and achieve success. It’s not as big a load of bullshit as Trump positioning himself as the Cat’s-in-the-Cradle-version of Superman, but it’s in the same family. It’s also a load of bullshit that he helps everyone he encounters overcome whatever adversity they face. 2020 Republicans just don’t do that.

Cawthorn’s website also states his, “courage has been tested in ways very few will ever face, ” positioning his case as rare and unique. According to the Reeve Foundation, 5.3 million people in the US are paralyzed (over a million of those are from spinal cord injuries). Of those millions of people, 28% come from a household that makes less than $15,000.00 a year. To put that in perspective, a battery powered wheelchair costs approximately $2500.00. Per the Reeve Foundation website, “On the employment front, 15.5% of individuals living with paralysis are employed versus 63.1% who are not living with a disability. Additionally, 41.8% of those living with paralysis indicated they were unable to work.”

Contrast those employment facts with Cawthorn, who at 24 is a “CEO” and “motivational speaker,” but doesn’t actually make money on either of those pursuits. Those 63.1% of 5.3 million Americans whose paralysis means that can’t work? I bet there’s a lot of fighters in that group. I bet there’s people filled with faith that everyday will be the day things get better. There’s probably individuals who dream of being CEOs one day too! But without the money, privilege, and born-on-first base status Cawthorn has, sometimes being a fighter isn’t enough.

Let me be more direct: It’s easy to be a fighter when you have money and the “right” family. Cawthorn fits both those descriptors. Read this 2014 article excerpt from Blue Ridge Now about Cawthorn’s return home from hospitalization after his accident:

“Cawthorn’s friends and family made numerous trips to visit him in the hospital in Daytona, Fla. and continued to visit once he was moved to The Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Ga., which specializes in spinal injuries. On Wednesday, Cawthorn returned to Hendersonville for the first time since the accident and asked his parents if they could stop by Chick-fil-A, where he has worked since he was 14. Owner Joel Benson said he had a hard time keeping it together as they waited. As Cawthorn rolled through the doors, every person in the restaurant stood, cheering him on. Employees came out from behind the counter to hug the teen. Benson leaned over, burying his face into Cawthorn’s shoulder. As he pulled back, tears rolled down his face.”

There’s a couple of key points I want to highlight here:

“Cawthorn’s friends and family made numerous trips to visit him in the hospital in Daytona, FL.” Daytona is an 8 hour drive from Asheville. It’s an average $300.00 roundtrip flight. That’s great that Cawthorn was able to get that sort of support, but contrast that with someone who goes through the same ordeal, but whose friends and family can’t afford the time or money it takes to go to the hospital and keep their spirits up. What Cawthorn’s family and friends were able to do is amazing. It’s great. It’s altruistic. It is not the norm.

Then there’s the fact that when Cawthorn came into a restaurant for the first time, everyone cheered for him. His family’s obviously well regarded in that community. Again, not a bad thing. But it’s not the norm either. Plenty of people get into accidents and don’t have full Chik Filet’s give them standing ovations. Think about the kid you know from high school whose family existed on $15,000 a year. Do you think that student would receive the same welcome home? I’d bet good money they wouldn’t, and have had two solid personal experiences I think make this a winning hypothesis:

  1. I taught high school for five years. During my five-year tenure, I was witness to a number of accidents, illnesses, and tragic deaths involving students at the district I taught in. This isn’t an anomaly. Anyone teaching for that amount of time in a large enough district will witness the same. I can tell you that by and large the students that received the big community support, the big welcome homes, the outpouring that can change an individual’s attitude, came from the “right” families. The students from the wrong (or just not “right”) families? They got sympathy, sure, but they weren’t lifted up the way the Cawthorns of the world are.
  2. Lest you think I’m projecting some sort of jealous resentment on Cawthorn for his privileged upbringing, I’m one of him. I also grew up a privileged, middle-class white kid from the right family whose circumstances allowed me to be a fighter. I was born with a bone condition called pseudarthrosis (so obscure it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry!). Without getting overly technical, I was born with my fibula bent at an almost 90-degree angle. I looked like I had an elbow in my shin. I had a series of major surgeries when I was in 1st grade and was unable to walk without the use and support of a protective leg brace until I was 18. If you saw me now, you would probably never guess any of this. I’m pretty well built, I go hiking almost every weekend, and I don’t talk often about my ordeal, because truth be told, it’s far from the defining aspects of my upbringing. The the family and circumstances I was born into allowed pseudarthrosis to be a hurdle, not a barrier. I’m well aware how much support, love, money, education, and luck went into allowing me to be a fighter, and how easily the outcome could have been VERY different had I been born to a family without the resources mine had. I was born lucky in other ways too. I was also lucky I had parents who didn’t overstate how special I was, taught me that not everyone has the same opportunities I have, and to empathize with those who don’t have what we did.

The CDC states that, “People who have limited mobility or who cannot avoid coming into close contact with others who may be infected, such as direct support providers and family members,” are at increased risk for contracting COVID-19. Keep that in mind, as well as the fact that statistically those people are also more likely to be living in poverty and thus potentially not able to afford care if they do get sick, when I tell you that Madison Cawthorn has said multiple times that masks should be a personal choice. Keep in mind that those of us with full use of our legs can also choose to be or not be around people who choose not to wear masks, but those with physical disabilities are sometimes beholden to the choices of their caretakers and the people near them.

Betsey Devos, who Cawthorn supports through his devotion to Trump, has been quietly chipping away at funding for special education and The Special Olympics, something Cawthorn never seems to address or be asked about. His Instagram though, is also full of pictures of him on jet skis, working out, and ATVing with accommodations, things he can readily do since pulled funding isn’t an issue for him.

Cawthorn pulled a stunt during the RNC where he “stood up” for our country. “I say to people who feel forgotten, ignored and invisible: I see you. I hear you,” he said. If you want to read a much more eloquent version of why this was manipulation and not empathy, I implore you check out this article from The Mighty entitled, “Before You Call the Candidate Who Stood Up From His Wheelchair ‘Inspirational’” by disability travel blogger Karin Willison.

If you’re considering voting for Cawthorn in November because he inspired you in some way, just remember that people like Madison Cawthorn are more or less always going to be ok. It wasn’t the power of prayer that healed him. It was the circumstances he was born into. He’s a fighter sure, but a fighter born on first base. And unfortunately, like the president he’s swearing his feudal loyalty too, I’m getting more and more convinced that people like Madison Cawthorn only stand up for themselves. Cawthorn hasn’t done or said anything to convince me otherwise, which is a real shame, because there’s many people without the resources he’s had he could’ve been a real fighter for.

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