May 18, 2022 - 8:00am

Congressman Madison Cawthorn, stunningly defeated last night in a party primary contest for his rural North Carolina district, was America’s Icarus. In 2020, he defied all odds and became the youngest congressman elected that year, even beating the Trump-backed candidate and Mark Meadows’ chosen successor. He had movie star good looks, a disability that brought compassion even from his critics, and for many seemed like the Republican answer to Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. How did it come to this?

Within weeks of being sworn into office, Cawthorn had become a political lightning rod. From his presence at the January 6th rally before the Capitol Riot to comments that Ukrainian President Zelensky was “a thug,” he seemed to find himself under intense media scrutiny.

As a member of Congress, he voted with the more nationalist and populist wing of the GOP. During his short tenure in office he voted against sending $40 billion in aid to Ukraine and co-sponsored legislation against illegal immigration but failed to champion any particular issue. He became more known for his personal scandals than being a warrior for the “America First” cause.

Reports emerged that both his account of the car accident that left him paralysed and his recruitment to the naval academy were extremely embellished. An eight-month long marriage, nude videos, claims of being overly flirtatious with young women, and accusations he had been invited to a drug-fuelled orgy with 60- and 70-year old Congressmen followed him over the next two years. It seemed that Cawthorn, like many other members of his generation, aspired to be a social media influencer more than a statesman; he was better-known for attending youth conferences than working on legislation.

Cawthorn’s political career didn’t end because of a single fatal blow, but a thousand paper cuts. His endless personal scandals may have been damaging to him; but it was the mismanagement of his district office, lack of legislative action, accusations of insider trading, attempts to run in a neighbouring district, and his feud with North Carolina’s Republican Senator Thom Tillis that ultimately cost him his House seat.

Amassing a gigantic social media following and having pictures taken of you at Mar-a-Lago is not enough to avoid the fury of the voter for all these missteps. Like Steve King before him, it all became too much for voters to tolerate and as one voter in his district told me, “he makes me feel embarrassed for my hometown.”

The defeat of Madison Cawthorn does not mean that the election night was a complete loss for the nationalist and populist wing of the GOP. Candidates who are sceptics of endless wars and mass immigration claimed victories in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. They are not alone: J.D. Vance and J.R. Majewski also won their respective primaries in Ohio weeks before and more candidates in that vein are expected to claim victories as the year continues.

The future of the “America First” movement will be decided if the candidates that run under their banner are more concerned with the issues ahead of being an internet celebrity and cable news pundit. To paraphrase the poet Jack Gilbert, maybe Cawthorn’s electoral loss wasn’t the end of his political career, but just him coming to the end of his triumph. He was an internet celebrity and maybe that was enough for him.

Ryan James Girdusky is a writer and political consultant based in New York City. He’s the author of “They’re Not Listening: How the Elites Created the Nationalist Populist Revolution.”