Opinion by Michael D'Antonio
Updated: Sun, 20 Mar 2022 01:55:40 GMT
Editor's Note: Michael D'Antonio is the author of the book "Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success" and co-author, with Peter Eisner, of the book "High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Rookie Congressman Madison Cawthorn is paying for his unforced error and proving how difficult it is to play Trump-style politics. It turns out there's more to it than simply flinging nasty rhetoric and sitting back to gloat while others cry foul.
Cawthorn, in a play for a big score, insulted a genuine hero. "Remember that (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelensky is a thug," Cawthorn said in a video Raleigh, North Carolina TV station WRAL published earlier this month. "Remember that the Ukrainian government is incredibly corrupt, and it is incredibly evil, and it has been pushing woke ideologies."
Cawthorn, facing criticism from a number of Republican lawmakers, has since taken a different tone, tweeting, "The Ukrainian people's resilience in the face of Russian aggression has inspired the world. The commitment they have shown to the preservation of their sovereign nation is extraordinary."
His spokesperson also tried to clarify Cawthorn's stance, telling CNN while the congressman supports Ukraine, he "does not want America drawn into another conflict through emotional manipulation."
It didn't stop Cawthorn's original comments about Zelensky from being featured on Russian state TV, along with clips of Fox News Host Tucker Carlson, according to NBC foreign correspondent Raf Sanchez.
In attacking Zelensky, Cawthorn went after a leader whose courage in the face of missile strikes, bullets, and bombings is admired across the political spectrum. The same can be said for Zelensky's democratically-elected government, which so far has checked an unprovoked invasion by a much-bigger power led by a dictator. Cawthorn's incendiary choice of words -- calling the Ukrainian president a "thug" and his government "evil" -- is akin to describing Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his wartime cabinet as bully aggressors during the Blitz.
To be fair, even the master of the trolling game misplayed the war at the start. In the days leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, former President Donald Trump called Vladimir Putin's strategy "savvy" and "genius." But the former president has since changed his tune, backing off on praising Putin and focusing more on his belief that America's leaders are "dumb." He also called the invasion a "crime against humanity" and praised the Ukrainians for being "brilliant fighters."
Cawthorn, of course, isn't entirely out in the cold, having joined the ranks of Carlson and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. Carlson has called Zelensky a "dictator," while Greene has parroted Russian propaganda, misinformation and other falsehoods in an attempt to take shots at President Joe Biden, among others.
Together, Trump, Cawthorn, Carlson and Greene show just how outrageous and muddled the more extreme factions of the Republican Party have been in response to the war in Ukraine.
Some of their comments may have gone a few steps too far even for those on the right. In an NBC report, several Trump followers said they were in favor of doing more to support Ukraine, even if it meant higher gas prices. This sentiment was reflected in a Quinnipiac University poll earlier this month, which found two-thirds of Republicans and 71% of all Americans favored a ban on Russian oil.
Of course, there are pro-Putin sentiments among right-wing extremists, many of whom identify with the Russian leader's conservative, nationalist and homophobic views and see him as an "anti-woke" hero. And a conspiracy theory that supports Putin -- based on false claims the US had been developing bioweapons in Ukraine -- has gained traction among some online communities formed around QAnon.
To set the record straight, there are biolabs in Ukraine, but the US has funded these institutions to prevent the development of biological weapons. This didn't seem to matter to Carlson, who insisted the opposite is true and aired clips of Russian and Chinese officials to support this notion.
It's likely Cawthorn, under the influence of Carlson and the others on the right, misjudged how his comments might be received more broadly. Regardless, the Russians certainly welcomed him into the club of anti-Ukraine voices to trot out.
Meanwhile, the man he called a thug is galvanizing his nation and receiving standing ovations from Congress and the British parliament. As for Cawthorn, even House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy came out and said the freshman lawmaker was "wrong," while the editorial board of the Winston-Salem Journal slammed his comments and called him "North Carolina's gift to Crazytown."
And with Cawthorn's election rivals pouncing on his unforced error with an eye toward the primary in less than two months, he hasn't got much time to sharpen his attack dog skills.