Twenty five-year-old North Carolina GOP congressional candidate Madison Cawthorn is on the defensive over photos on his Instagram page that show him in 2017 visiting Adolf Hitler’s vacation house in Germany known as the “Eagle’s Nest.”
The caption refers to Hitler as “the Fuhrer” and says that a visit to the site – a popular tourist destination documenting the horrors of the Nazi regime – had been on his “bucket list for awhile” and “did not disappoint.”
“Strange to hear so many laughs and share such a good time with my brother where only 79 years ago a supreme evil shared laughs and good times with his compatriots,” the caption states.
Cawthorn captured national attention in June when he scored a stunning political upset, winning a Republican primary runoff for an open House seat as a political newcomer at the age of 24. He defeated the candidate backed by President Donald Trump and his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, to secure the GOP nod for the western North Carolina seat Meadows vacated.
When Cawthorn won his primary, he said that the President called him shortly after his victory to congratulate him. A staunch conservative who supports Trump, Cawthorn was partially paralyzed in a 2014 car accident. He is a motivational speaker and filed to start a real estate investment company last year. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the 11th District as Solid Republican.
If elected in November, Cawthorn would become the youngest member of Congress – a title currently held by Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the progressive upstart who took office when she was 29. Cawthorn has even been referred to by some as “The AOC of the right.”
Moe Davis, Cawthorn’s Democratic opponent in this fall’s general election, seized on the Instagram post this week, tweeting on Monday, “Hitler’s vacation retreat is not on my bucket list.”
In an interview with CNN, Davis stopped just short of calling Cawthorn a white nationalist, saying, “I think collectively when you put all the pieces together, it paints a pretty clear picture of someone that’s at least comfortable in that environment.”
Cawthorn denounced white nationalism in a recent interview with WLOS News 13. “I completely and wholeheartedly denounce any kind of white nationalism, any kind of Nazism. We fought a war where the American people went to war to end the scourge of Nazism across this country and I’m very thankful for that because it’s evil and its vile,” he said.
And Cawthorn pushed back against his Democratic opponent’s assertions, accusing Davis in a statement to CNN of promoting “conspiracy theories” and of “bigotry.”
“My Democratic opponent is pushing conspiracy theories to hide his radical agenda,” Cawthorn said in the statement, adding, “His belief that conservatives in his district are guilty of being white supremacists until proven innocent is dangerous to our democracy. His suggestion that I, a man in a wheelchair, would celebrate a regime that would have had me exterminated is offensive to every thinking person in western North Carolina. He actually doesn’t believe any of these things, which makes his bigotry even more repulsive.”
Cawthorn has also taken to social media to defend himself, writing on Twitter Tuesday, “Another fake news controversy: When our soldiers were photographed at the Eagle’s Nest in 1945 they were clearly celebrating the Allies triumph over one of the greatest evils in human history. They weren’t celebrating evil; they were celebrating their victory over evil.”
On Facebook, he reiterated that message and added, “When I visited the Eagle’s Nest this was the history I had in mind. It was a surreal experience to be remembering their joy in a place where the Nazi regime had plotted unspeakable acts of evil.”
Davis is also alleging that the Instagram post is just one of many “dog whistles” he believes Cawthorn is sending.
“The name of his company – SPQR – which is a symbol associated with white nationalists, he often does interviews in front of the Betsy Ross flag, which again is used by white nationalists (to) symbolize the good ol’ days when white men ruled the country,” Davis said, saying that those things “paint a pretty clear picture of someone that’s got some explaining to do.”
In his statement to CNN, Cawthorn said, “My Democratic opponent is pushing conspiracy theories to hide his radical agenda and support for policies like the Green New Deal, government-run health care and releasing terrorists. Demagogues always have something to hide. In his case, it’s the details. His policies are too liberal and too radical for western North Carolina.”
He added, “I’m not hiding symbols. He’s hiding policies.”
SPQR is an abbreviation for Senatus Populusque Romanus, a Latin phrase that translates to the Senate and the Roman People.
Cawthorn has defended the name, saying in a statement responding to Davis’ claims in the Charlotte Observer newspaper, “SPQR is a term for Rome,” adding, “We can’t let extremists on any side hijack or rewrite history because those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.”
The Betsy Ross flag is an early design of the US flag, which features 13 stars in a circle for the original 13 states.
Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said in an interview with CNN that he has seen some instances where the Betsy Ross flag and the term SPQR have been used by white supremacists, but said that in most cases their use by people is innocuous and not associated with extremism in any form.
The Betsy Ross flag is typically used as “a traditional patriotic flag,” Pitcavage said, and SPQR is “a pretty innocuous term that is basically short-hand for the Roman republic or the Roman republic and empire.”
He cautioned that it would be risky to assume that any association with either means a person is an extremist.
Pitcavage also highlighted the fact that the Instagram post from Cawthorn that has come under scrutiny uses the term “supreme evil” in describing the site. “He made it clear in that very same post that he was not sympathizing with the Nazis. So I didn’t see there was much merit to that accusation,” Pitcavage said.
Adding to the attention Cawthorn faces over the social media post, there are now new questions about his educational claims.
His website states that he “was nominated to the U.S. Naval Academy by Rep. Mark Meadows in 2014. However, Madison’s plans were derailed that year after he nearly died in a tragic automobile accident that left him partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair.”
But in a deposition related to the accident obtained first by AVL Watchdog, a non-profit news service, Cawthorn acknowledged that he was rejected by the academy before his accident.
Asked if he was notified by the Naval Academy that he did not get in, Cawthorn replied that he was. When he was then asked if that was before the accident, he responded, “It was.”
In the interview with WLOS News 13, Cawthorn contended that he was not misleading.
“I never said I was appointed or accepted to the academy, I knew that I’d only been nominated at that point,” he said, adding, “I fully expected to be accepted and to be appointed, but at that point I hadn’t received it. So I’ve been very careful never to mischaracterize who I am as a person.”
CNN’s Kate Sullivan and Ryan Prior contributed to this report.