On the night Madison Cawthorn became the youngest person elected to the 117th Congress, he tweeted three simple words: “Cry more, lib.” It was the perfect bookend for the North Carolina Republican, whose ability to make a name for himself had to do less with his campaign platform and more with his general ability to fuel the flames of grievance on the right, first through social media and then in the conservative major leagues of Fox News and beyond.
The meteoric rise of Cawthorn and his fellow congressional freshmen, Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, can be explained by the fact they are part of a cadre of social-media-savvy lawmakers who know how to brand themselves for maximum effect. They are plenty aware that their nebulous policy agenda is secondary to the effect their extremist beliefs and performative lib-owning can have on voters inside and outside their districts. “These three people trolled their way to prominence,” said Michael Cornfield, a political scientist and professor at George Washington University who studies politicians’ use of social media. “By saying outrageous things, they pleased the platforms’ algorithms.”
In the age of the attention economy, blasting through the doors of the political scene by being blatantly scandalous pays off. Notoriety on social media leads to notoriety on news media and among establishment figures. Suddenly, voters know your name. Greene, a QAnon supporter, achieved this by employing the same combative online language as disgraced former President Donald Trump, with plenty of conspiracy theories sprinkled in between, including but not limited to delusions that the Parkland school shooting was staged and claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election. The 46-year-old has been extremely active online for years. Prior to her congressional run, she suggested in social media posts that Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, should be executed. “It’s a crime punishable by death is what treason is,” she said in a video posted on Facebook. “Nancy Pelosi is guilty of treason.” She once also posted an edited picture of herself holding an assault rifle with photos of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar — all of whom, alongside Massachusetts Rep. Ayana Pressley, constitute the “Squad” faction of the Democratic Party — with a caption vowing to “go on the offense” against them.
Boebert and Cawthorn’s online presence similarly combines Trumpian combativeness with opinions on imagined culture wars, showers of praise for fellow conservatives, and the occasional conspiracy theory. Take how Boebert tweeted “Today is 1776” on the morning of the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol that left five dead or how she once liked a post calling former President Barack Obama a “Kenyan terrorist.” It was pure red meat for her rural, deeply conservative base — and it was a smart election strategy. The population of Colorado’s third district, which Boebert now represents, is bigger than that of some states. Reaching more than 750,000 constituents with just a few abhorrent keystrokes, and getting enough media attention in the process, was good business — especially as her opponent barely had any online presence at all.
At this point in their political careers, it is unclear what the trio wishes to accomplish with their notoriety — other than ride the being-infamous wave to fame and fortune.
At 25, Cawthorn angled to become the new face of Republican politics. (Or the same face, if you look at the infinitely long line of young, white, classically handsome Republican men with similar political outlooks who preceded him.) A padded resumé full of half-truths — and lies by omission — did the trick when combined with a firebrand spirit online. He defeated the Trump-backed candidate in the primary and went on to make history as the youngest Republican ever elected to Congress.
Taking cues from the former president, who played the role of the nation’s biggest troll until he was deplatformed at the end of his term, the trio knew that to acquire power, they needed to evoke strong emotional reactions. Triggering conservatives’ culture of grievance and tribal identification was just as important as horrifying liberals who are quick to quote-tweet someone and call them a disgrace. All engagement, in this view, is good engagement. “Emotional posts are sticky. In politics, the most important emotion — and this was the case before social media and afterwards — is anger. Anger gets people into action, and by action I mean donating money, volunteering, or in the ultimate case, attacking the U.S. Capitol,” Cornfield said. “If you’re an impresario of anger, if you know how to push people’s buttons, you’ll do better on social media.”
The trio’s social media reach ballooned — with more than 200,000 Twitter followers for Cawthorn and Greene and upward of 400,000 for Boebert — but they are still a fraction of what some Democratic lawmakers were able to amass in their first months in the public eye. No political newcomer on either side of the aisle has been able to recreate the massive following of progressive darling Ocasio-Cortez, who has accumulated nearly 12 million Twitter followers and on any given day can have upward of 100,000 people tuning in to her Instagram Live chats. The only people to even come close are her fellow Squad members Rashia Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar — and even then, their total followers make up about a third of AOC’s.
The progressives’ inescapable online and offline presence, as well as their strong influence on public discourse, led four Republican freshmen — Reps. Nicole Malliotakis, Carlos Gimenez, Maria Elvira Salazar, and Victoria Spartz — to position themselves as their conservative counterweight by naming themselves the Republican “Force.” Offline, Malliotakis and Gimenez voted against the certification of the Electoral College results, just like Greene, Cawthorn, and Boebert did. But members of the Force have not engaged in the same extreme online language, and as a result, their self-made moniker has failed to catch on. Moderation is not the name of the game if you want to achieve infamy.
Said infamy has real-life consequences, too. If there were any impulses to dismiss the trio’s rhetoric as fringe even after four years of Trump, the attack on the Capitol should have erased the last trace of them. They are no longer private citizens — they are government officials now, and their words carry even more weight.
“[The right] created sustained and consistent propaganda that would move people towards action — people going to the Capitol and being insurrectionists is the endpoint. This is what Trump did for four years. The next wave is picking up where Trump left off,” said Jennifer Grygiel, a social media expert and assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University. “It’s a political tool. I use the term ‘dangerous memes’ because it is dangerous rhetoric. It’s propaganda for political means. It’s not done through transparent means, not done through facts or arguing about policy. It’s unethical, and it’s dangerous.”
Though Republicans are the worst offenders, Grygiel cautioned that Democrats’ liberal use of social media to circumvent the free press is disturbing as well. “When your government is able to reach their own audiences directly there is a propagandization effect,” they said. “QAnon is an issue, but you know what else is an issue? Nancy Pelosi’s Twitter, AOC’s Twitter.” Grygiel added that Republicans engage in overt propaganda, especially after Trump’s rise to power, but Democrats do it too in a much more covert way. “We have not realized that after four years of Trump and propagandization.”
Short of deplatforming Greene, Boebert, and Cawthorn, it’ll be nearly impossible to rein them in. At this point in their political careers, it is unclear what the trio wishes to accomplish with their notoriety — other than ride the being-infamous wave to fame and fortune. Over her first month in Congress, Greene introduced bogus articles of impeachment against President Joe Biden, which she is currently using to fundraise for her reelection. Boebert has made a show of wanting to carry a firearm in the halls of Congress despite rules prohibiting her from doing so. She, too, is fundraising on the back of the controversy. And Cawthorn spoke at the rally that preceded the insurrection, only to sort-of backtrack but not really. Democratic lawmakers have called for the trio and other lawmakers who voted to challenge Biden’s Electoral College results to be removed from Congress for helping incite the attack on the Capitol. And you guessed it—Cawthorn is now raising money to fight against the “mob” calling for his ouster.
Cornfield points out how the Squad has used their social media prominence to help them build power within the Democratic Party and the House. That’s not the case with Greene, Cawthorn, and Boebert — at least not yet. “Their capacity to build power doesn’t only rely on how well they tweet,” he said. “They might build power in a conventional way, or they might be content to just make headlines and get clicks. There’s a longstanding difference, for people who watch politics, between show horses and workhorses.”
Workhorses might get things done, but the problem with show horses is that they can kick democracy in the face, too.