RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A young Republican congressional candidate in North Carolina says suggestions from his rival and others that he has an affinity for white supremacist causes are ridiculous and based on a lack of historical knowledge.
“I don’t run in those circles, so I don’t know those people,” Madison Cawthorn said in an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday. “I think racism is disgusting.”
Cawthorn is running for the 11th Congressional District seat most recently held by Mark Meadows, President Donald Trump's chief of staff. Cawthorn once worked for Meadows and is a Trump supporter. The district, in the North Carolina mountains, leans Republican but is less so since a 2019 redistricting.
Cawthorn, 25, defeated Trump's preferred candidate in an upset in the June GOP primary runoff. He would be among the youngest members of Congress ever if elected in November.
Democratic opponent Moe Davis and others posting on social media have questioned photos that Cawthorn posted of his 2017 visit to Adolf Hitler’s mountaintop chalet in southern Germany. He wrote at the time that the trip to Eagle's Nest, a popular tourist attraction, “has been on my bucket list for years. And it did not disappoint.” A Cawthorn post referred to Hitler both as “the Fuhrer” and “supreme evil."
U.S. soldiers entered the Eagle's Nest at the close of World War II to celebrate their victory over Hitler and Nazi Germany. Cawthorn mentioned that such a celebration was portrayed in the television series “Band of Brothers.” Expressing disdain for the Nazis, Cawthorn said they'd have had little use for a man with a disability — he is paralyzed from the abdomen down after a 2014 automobile accident in Florida.
Critics "want to try and twist it to where I am some kind of Nazi sympathizer, when I’m a man in a wheelchair (and) ... these cowards and these bastards would have killed me,” Cawthorn told the AP. He said he won't take down the posts “because we’re not going to back down to this leftist mob.”
Davis, a retired Air Force officer and former chief prosecutor of military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, said Wednesday that the Eagle’s Nest photos, combined with Cawthorn's use of other phrases or images that he contends are associated with white supremacy, are troubling.
Among them: a campaign photo showing Cawthorn with a gun holster emblazoned with a Spartan-style helmet; a photo in which he appears in front of a “Betsy Ross” flag, an early U.S. flag with 13 stars; and the name of his real estate company, SPQR Holdings, with the SPQR being the abbreviation for a Latin phrase that translates to “the Senate and People of Rome.”
“If it was maybe one (incident) you could dismiss it as a coincidence,” Davis said in an AP interview. “When it’s four or five indicators, it tends to paint a pretty clear picture.”
But Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow for the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said the Betsy Ross flag, the SPQR abbreviation and Spartan helmet are not included in the league's database of hate symbols. Pitcavage said while there are examples of their use by white supremacists, or in the case of the helmet by antigovernment or firearms activists, they are used “just as much or more often by nonextremists than extremists.”
Without specifically evaluating Cawthorn, he said: "Based on those specific things, I don’t think someone can make a good case that the person (using them) is an extremist.”
Regarding the name of his real estate company, Cawthorn said he took Latin while home-schooled, and interprets the phrase denoted by SPQR as a call to combat consolidated power. He says it carries no racist intent on his part.
Associated Press reporter Michael Kunzelman in Silver Spring, Maryland, contributed to this report.