Port: The perverse incentives of modern politics

From Rep. Madison Cawthorn's coke orgy fabulisms to the chaos in the NDGOP around Rick Becker's Senate campaign, we are seeing what happens when we reward spectacle over competence.

Photo: Rick Becker table stunt
State Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, set up a table and asked citizens to challenge his argument against North Dakota mask mandate.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service, via Twitter
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MINOT, N.D. — It wasn't that Rep. Madison Cawthorn, Republican from North Carolina, called the Ukranian president currently leading a courageous resistance against the bloody aggressions of Russia's Vladimir Putin a "thug."

It wasn't the routine threats of violence , or his specific incitements to violence at Donald Trump's notorious Jan. 6, 2021, rally, or the allegations of sexual misconduct , or the lies about his background, including the events that led up to his confinement in a wheelchair , or even the racist website he created .

No, what finally earned this Trump world darling the substantive rebuke of Republican leadership in the House was his utterly unsubstantiated claims about cocaine-fueled sex orgies engaged in by members of Congress.

"He's lost my trust. He's going to have to earn it back," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has said , adding that Cawthorn's comments were "unbecoming."

Wake up, Rep. McCarthy. Unbecoming conduct has been the defining characteristic of Cawthorn's nascent and ignominious political career.


I guess it took him accusing his congressional colleagues of "key bumps" to get McCarthy to take notice.

If our congressional delegation isn't paying attention to the Jan. 6 committee, if they're dismissive of its revelations, then they are derelict in their duties to our state, and our country.

But here's the thing: Madison Cawthorn doesn't care about McCarthy's disdain. I'd argue that Trump-era Republicans like Cawthorn, and Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, and even state Rep. Rick Becker in North Dakota (more on that last in a moment) invite the scorn of so-called "establishment" Republicans on purpose.

They're not landing themselves in hot water. They're using a calculated tactic. When they earn the rebuke of the "lamestream media" or the "establishment" they can go running back to their legions of social media followers and get more likes and retweets and, most importantly, raise more money for their campaign to keep themselves in office where they can perpetuate more shenanigans.

These people aren't elected leaders. They're social media influencers, except instead of doing the latest Tiktok challenge, they're heckling the president of the United States , ranting about Jewish space lasers , or inventing wild stories about septuagenarian politicians getting coked up for sex parties.

And, ostensibly, they're responsible for making important decisions about taxes and spending, education and public safety.

Which is terrifying, isn't it?

More terrifying is that our present political environment has created a perverse incentive for this kind of behavior that may very well produce more crackpots like Cawthorn, Boebert, and Taylor Greene in office.

The goal of these politicians is to stay in office, and in a better sort of world would what keep an elected leader in office is competent policymaking. Unfortunately, in our world is a feedback loop, driven by the internet and partisan media that rewards obnoxious behavior.


Cawthorn doesn't have a thing to fear from the "establishment" Republicans or his critics in the news media. All he has to worry about is his political fan base. As long as he's keeping them entertained with the sort of antics that were once the sole provenance of crass reality television programming, then he has nothing to worry about.

It's not unlike what's happening in the NDGOP.

Much like Cawthorn, Rick Becker, the U.S. Senate candidate challenging incumbent Sen. John Hoeven in the state party's primary, is an entertainer. He started as a serious-minded policymaker, but morphed into something else when he realized that his anti-establishment shtick would get him more attention than principled issue stances.

The goal isn't fair competition aimed at electing a competent leader for our state. The goal is chaos and bombast that will titillate his base of political support.

When will this change?

When the voters supporting people like Cawthorn, Boebert, Taylor Greene, and Becker starting wanting something better.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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