Madison Cawthorn scandal exposes how the GOP depends on right-wing media to delude their base
Madison Cawthorn on Facebook.

In a world where so much news is just plain depressing, it's an unexpected delight to watch the Republican establishment pull out their bag of dirty tricks and rat-f**k one of their own. And boy, it couldn't be happening to a nicer guy: Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, part of the freshman class of Republicans who work more as full-time trolls than traditional lawmakers. Man, Republicans really hate this guy.

In just the past week, the efforts to destroy Cawthorn have included GOP-funded attack ads against him, a push to have his alleged financial crimes exposed, and, what's most fun of all, an "oppo dump" of embarrassing photographs. First, Politico published photos of Cawthorn at a party, drinking and wearing lingerie.

JUST IN: New photos obtained by @politico appear to show Madison Cawthorn wearing women's lingerie. Cawthorn recently accused fellow Republicans of attending cocaine orgies. pic.twitter.com/YNKB0qyivd
— No Lie with Brian Tyler Cohen (@NoLieWithBTC) April 22, 2022

RELATED: Madison Cawthorn's cocaine-and-orgies brouhaha blows up the GOP's QAnon plan

When he blew that off, another bit of blackmail was leaked to the Daily Mail, this time a video of one of Cawthron's male staffers patting him near the crotch.

they are coming down so hard on this guy that i half wonder if the cocaine orgies are real https://t.co/TaWXLR3Jz9
— b-boy bouiebaisse (@jbouie) April 29, 2022

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As New York Times opinion columnist Jamelle Bouie is alluding to, the reason that Republicans appear to be pulling out all stops to destroy Cawthorn has nothing to do with Cawthorn's flirtations with Nazism, his regular run-ins with the law, or his unsubtly inciting language. Nah, it's because he went on some podcast run by something called the "Warrior Poet Society" and declared that Republican congressmen in their 60s and 70s invite him to orgies and do cocaine in front of him.

The Cawthorn scandal is a hilarious good time and no one should feel bad about laughing over it.

Considering that breathless urban legend-style stories are the lingua franca of right-wing media, one would think that Republicans would just blow this one off as Cawthorn doing what he usually does, which is talking smack to get attention. But nah, the party has gone all-out to destroy him, which only has the effect — as Bouie noted — of making the story seem truer, by dint of their extreme defensiveness.

RELATED: What is a "warrior poet"? The neologism that connects New Agers and Madison Cawthorn, explained

Republicans are plenty media-savvy, especially around dirt-flinging, so there's little doubt that they understand the dangers of the Streisand effect. This anti-Cawthorn campaign suggests that they are willing to make a trade-off, however: Keep the story alive in the mainstream media in order to destroy Cawthorn's reputation in right-wing media. In other words, as silly as all this is, there's actually a substantive takeaway here: This story shows just how much more Republicans depend on an elaborate and often subterranean conservative media system than they do the mainstream media. They're way more worried about cocaine-and-orgies talk on a Christian podcast — one few in the legacy media had even heard of — than what's printed in the New York Times.

The GOP has been incredibly successful at convincing their voters to reject all forms of reality-based information in favor of existing in a bubble of right-wing disinformation. Worse, that bubble isn't just composed of, or even primarily composed of, major media outlets that ordinary news consumers have heard of, like Fox News. Conservative media consumers are embedded in an infinite-seeming number of smaller and often independent outlets that fly under the radar of most people who aren't in the bubble. Until this scandal, the "Warrior Poet Society" was totally unknown to outsiders. But outlets like that are the primary media diet of many people inside the conservative bubble. That show has over a million YouTube subscribers! And, on the rare occasion right-wingers do interact with mainstream media sources, these voters have been inoculated against accepting those sources by being told that it's "fake news."

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It is not exactly shocking news to consumers of mainstream media to hear Republicans on Capitol Hill like to tie one on. New York Magazine published photos and details in 2017 of one of the infamous parties at the D.C. townhouse of former Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon. True, neither sex workers nor cocaine was mentioned in the article, but a reader walks away with a strong sense that Republican parties get pretty wild, especially by the standards of their Midwest Christian voters.

This anti-Cawthorn campaign suggests that they are willing to make a trade-off, however: Keep the story alive in the mainstream media in order to destroy Cawthorn's reputation in right-wing media.

But neither Bannon nor his guests cared much. Why should they? None of that information will penetrate the information bubble Republican voters have constructed for themselves, of fundamentalist YouTubers and Facebook personalities like Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens. Inside that bubble, the image of Republican politicians is very different: That they're all pious, clean-living Christians who spend their Saturday nights in prayerful reflection instead of sucking down overpriced cocktails at the bar in Trump's D.C. hotel. Indeed, the image Cawthorn was trying to construct of himself on the "Warrior Poet Society" podcast was as a teetotaling naif who cannot believe the deviance he's exposed to in the big city.

RELATED: Fellow Republican rips freshman GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn over "insane" threat of "bloodshed"

That's why the leakers of these photos and video believe that it will damage Cawthorn. It shows he isn't the wide-eyed Christian ingenue who is shocked that people stay out past 10pm. Even more telling is how tame the content of the oppo dump is. The lingerie photos clearly are clearly just a goof. The supposed crotch-touching video is really more of a leg-touching video, only really scandalous to men who are so homophobic they think any physical contact between men is gay. But for people who live inside the conservative media bubble, this sort of stuff could easily be read as Satanic decadence.

The Republican goal here is clearly getting Cawthorn out of Congress and, more crucially, out of the right-wing media ecosystem. There's little he can say to mainstream reporters that impacts them. However, there's an ever-present danger that his need for attention will cause him to blow up their spot on the only media outlets they care about, which are these unknown-to-outsiders right-wing sources.

RELATED: Can Fox News viewers be deprogrammed? Paying them to watch CNN makes them less gullible

Recently, a study was released by Yale and U.C. Berkeley researchers showing that, if Fox News viewers are paid to switch to CNN instead, their engagement with reality dramatically increases. They were better at understanding scientific information and more cognizant of facts. But as soon as they returned to Fox News, they slipped right back under the waves, living in a world of right-wing fiction that has no relationship to reality.

Imagine how much worse that effect is for the millions of Republicans — the most energized and active members of the base — whose media diet is largely made up of YouTube shows and right-wing podcasts and Facebook personalities. For those folks, Fox News is the "mainstream" source that they watch to validate the even more delusional crap they get off their internet buddies. Keeping those people ignorant and fired up about nonsense is the backbone of the Republican political strategy. That's why the GOP is so intensely worried about what their politicians say on YouTube shows, and not so much about what they say on cable news or to the Washington Post.

None of which is to deny that Republican voters have autonomy. They actively choose to live in the world of right-wing fantasy. They could turn on CNN or read a newspaper if they wanted. They prefer stuff like "Warrior Poet Society," because it flatters their basest instincts. They want to be ignorant, and their leaders want them to stay that way.

The Cawthorn scandal is a hilarious good time and no one should feel bad about laughing over it. But it also speaks to this darker truth of how much Republicans depend on voters who self-insulate from reality — and what lengths they will go to in order to keep their voters inside that right-wing media bubble.