When Madison Cawthorn sort of went to a sort of college

When Madison Cawthorn sort of went to a sort of college March 1, 2021

Mini-Trump wanna-be first-term U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn only spent a little more than one semester as a student at Patrick Henry College, but in that brief time he made a lasting impression on his fellow students — a Very Bad lasting impression: “‘Danger Warning’: Women Say Madison Cawthorn Harassed Them in College.”

The broad strokes of this story are familiar — the 21-year-old freshman who, because he’s older and drives a fancy sports car, quickly becomes a campus celebrity, discipling classmates into his aggressive, bullying douchebro posse. You know, That Guy. A dick. You probably remember That Guy from your own time in college, or as the villain from countless ’80s comedies. That Guy rarely makes it all the way to graduation, either because he flunks out or because he agrees to leave school to avoid getting the police involved in whatever it was that the Dean’s Office hushed up and cleaned up.

A Patrick Henry College student sings a favorite hymn during chapel services.

It’s interesting that Addy Baird and Brianna Sacks’ painstaking, detailed report of Cawthorn’s ugly partial year of college doesn’t state exactly why he left the school. An (Asheville, N.C.) Citizen Times report from last year cites Cawthorn himself as saying he dropped out after getting poor grades — mostly D’s — in that first semester, but that same report documents numerous examples proving that Cawthorn’s own accounts of his young life cannot be trusted. So maybe he dropped out on his own or maybe he was encouraged to do as the school’s way of dealing with all the allegations in this Buzzfeed report and those in this one from ultra-conservative Christian outlet World magazine. (School officials refused to comment for either report, even though the World reporter was herself a Patrick Henry graduate.)

Maybe you’re reading this an thinking it’s all a bit much to go back to some politician’s freshman year of college to dig up dirt on the guy. But Cawthorn is just 25 years old. If he hadn’t “dropped out,” he’d still be a student at Patrick Henry instead of a seditionist Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

And you also have to understand the context of that college to fully appreciate how significant it is that dozens of his former fellow-students were willing to go on record with Buzzfeed and World to express their concerns about Madison Cawthorn. Or to appreciate the full meaning of this:

In October, more than 160 members of the Patrick Henry community signed an open letter detailing “gross misconduct towards our female peers, public misrepresentation of his past, disorderly conduct that was against the school’s student honor code, and self-admitted academic failings,” including that Cawthorn “established a reputation of predatory behavior.”

This wasn’t 160 students from some large state university. It was 160 students from a school with a current enrollment of 304. Cawthorn attended this school for less than a year and more than half the student body from his time there felt strongly enough to go public to condemn him as a dishonest, dishonorable sexual predator.

And those students are not a bunch of “social justice warriors” from Oberlin — they’re all Patrick Henry College students, which is to say they are all ultra-conservative ultra-partisan Republicans. That’s why they went to Patrick Henry, a tiny niche school designed to train young Republicans to go to work in Washington as Republicans. See, for example, the biographical note at the bottom of that World piece:

Harvest Prude is a political reporter for WORLD’s Washington Bureau. She is a World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College graduate. Harvest resides in Washington, D.C.

Just about the only Patrick Henry graduates who don’t reside in Washington, DC, working for Republican organizations there are the ones who instead get jobs as legislative assistants back in Republican legislators’ district offices. That’s why both articles include statements like “World is withholding the woman’s name because speaking to media would jeopardize her current job in the federal government” and “a fellow PHC alum who asked to remain anonymous due to her job that prevents her from speaking publicly.”

The uniquely partisan and political nature of Patrick Henry College isn’t fully captured in either of those scrupulously thorough articles. If you weren’t already familiar with the place, you might get the misleading impression that it’s just another “Christian college,” someplace like Wheaton or Calvin, or like Moody or Liberty. But it’s not like those Christian colleges and it’s not really like any other place you think of as a college.

Kristin Rawls makes that point and provides necessary context in this long Twitter thread. She covers the (very short) history of PHC as it grew out of the the far-right Reconstructionist movement and the HSLDA. (The Homeschoolers Legal Defense Association is a litigious group opposed to any regulation of Christian nationalist homeschooling. It’s own history includes the sordid sexual abuse scandals of people like Doug Phillips, which seems relevant to PHC’s handling of Madison Cawthorn.)

I’d describe Patrick Henry College as something like a more pretentious version of Bob Jones University — one designed specifically for Christian nationalist homeschoolers. It’s less an academic institution than it is a vo-tech school for far-right Republican apparatchiks — a dominionist training ground where kids who grew up indoctrinated in white Christian nationalist patriarchal homeschooling are sent to prepare for careers enforcing white Christian nationalist Herrenvolk democracy.

It would not be fair or accurate to categorize all conservative white Christian homeschoolers as part of that movement, but it is only fair and accurate to acknowledge that the form of homeschooling that culminates in Patrick Henry College is exactly that. Patrick Henry is a creepy, creepy place. It is a “college” intended and designed to continue the hermetic bubble of Christian nationalist homeschooling in the hopes that children sealed in that bubble for their first 22 years of life will never leave or escape it once they enter adulthood.

Fortunately, this doesn’t work. It fails, not because the school’s methods of sheltered indoctrination are ineffective, but because the ideology it promotes is not true and cannot be sustained outside of the bubble that shields its inhabitants from reality and truth and flesh-and-blood other people. Which is to say, again, that Patrick Henry College is like a more pretentious version of Bob Jones University.

Bob Jones is famous (or infamous) as an ultra-conservative white fundamentalist school. It has also been, for generations, an efficient machine for the mass-production of atheists. The fundamentalism it teaches is so rigid and brittle that it cannot bend, and when it breaks it often shatters completely. The school’s goal of teaching graduates to live out the values of its epistemic/sub-cultural bubble in the larger world outside of that bubble turns out to be impossible. That’s why the graduates it holds up as success stories are people who earned their diplomas from Bob Jones and went on to long, successful careers working at Bob Jones itself (or, at most, at one of its feeder churches).

Patrick Henry College, similarly, takes kids from homeschool bubbles, shelters them in a campus bubble for the next four years, then sends them forth into satellite bubbles in select congressional offices, religious-right activist groups, or sectarian DC PR-tanks. PHC grads and BJU grads who head out into the actual non-bubble world are on a collision course with the crisis of faith they’ve avoided up until then only due to the bubble. That crisis will leave them wholly disillusioned. Some emerge from it as anti-fundie atheists, some become cynical hypocrites who exploit their former belief for power as they now realize their former mentors did, and some few begin the hard work of recovery and deconstruction, eventually finding some new, more sustainable form of belief that is compatible with the real world.

(Part of that brittle bubble at Patrick Henry, by the way, is that it teaches young-Earth creationism, which is why the “college” is accredited, sort of, by a sectarian accreditation racket established by the Institute for Creation Research.)

That inevitable crisis of faith is a fascinating subtheme in both the Buzzfeed and World reports. In all those interviews with recent PHC students you can hear their building suspicion that the school’s ideology isn’t at all interested in their dignity or human thriving. You can see them beginning to realize that its toxic purity culture is willing and eager to throw them under the bus while defending obnoxious bullies like Cawthorn if that’s what it takes to slightly increase its political power.

The transparently hypocritical BS at the heart of Patrick Henry is exposed in several anecdotes from these reports, perhaps especially in their account of D-student Cawthorn’s invitation to speak at a chapel service. Here’s Buzzfeed:

School officials invited the first-year student to speak in chapel in January 2017, a rare honor usually reserved for seniors. During his address, of which BuzzFeed News obtained audio, Cawthorn told the entire student body, as well as some professors and staffers, a compelling and terrifying story about the day his life changed: a car crash on the way back from a spring break trip in 2014 that left him paralyzed and questioning God. In his telling in the chapel, Cawthorn said that his best friend, his “brother,” escaped and ran to safety, leaving him unconscious to die “in a fiery tomb” with flames licking his legs. The crash, he said, also ruined his plans of attending the Naval Academy. Heading to Annapolis to serve the country was an integral part of his story and eventually became a prominent line in multiple interviews, campaign speeches, and ads.

But the students didn’t find out he was misleading them about his life-changing moment until last year, when Asheville Watchdog published the 2017 deposition in which Cawthorn said he had been rejected from the academy before he was injured and that his best friend had actually pulled him out of the car and saved his life.

Both Petree and Coulter said that after their private encounters with Cawthorn, it was tough to sit in the chapel in 2017 and listen to him talk about his relationship with the Lord and get emotional about his purpose as a Christian.

It was already “tough” for those students to be told to admire Cawthorn due just to his reputation or to their personal experience with That Guy. And then soon after those same students learned that his whole “personal testimony” was a lie — a self-aggrandizing distortion of what really happened. Most of the students/graduates interviewed are still within the bubble and haven’t yet come to see that life affords any other possibilities or any other options. But even if the life planned and promised by Patrick Henry College still seems to them to be the only option, we can see them beginning to realize that it’s not a very good option.

In any case, how did a 25-year-old who flunked out of college after convincing more than half the student body that he’s an untrustworthy predator manage to get elected to Congress? White grievance is a hell of a drug.

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