Not since Princess Di and Prince Charles has a deteriorating marriage attracted the level of interest lavished on Kellyanne and George Conway. It has become the nation’s favorite reality TV show; a show aired not just on one station, but on every single news outlet, whether cable or network or print.
The three stars of the show are Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, her husband, prominent securities law attorney George Conway, and her boss, President Donald Trump.
Once upon a time, all three were happy together. When Trump stunned the world by winning the election, George, wearing a MAGA hat, reportedly wept with joy, and happily boasted of his wife: “She did it! She did it! She made history.” Following the inauguration, he was under consideration for an appointment to at least two high level Justice Department positions.
But in time, George’s attitude toward his wife’s boss soured. By May 2018, George was emailing critics with advice on how they might improve their arguments. In November 2018, George organized a group of Federalist Society lawyers called “Checks and Balances,” to encourage their fellow conservatives to speak out against what they saw as Trump’s attacks on constitutional principles. Days later, he gave an interview in which he compared the Trump administration to “a s***show in a dumpster fire,” and said he would rather move to Australia than vote for him again.
Trump responded to George’s growing barrage of negative comments by tweeting that George “often referred to as Mr. Kellyanne Conway … is VERY jealous of his wife’s success.” He attributed George’s criticism to resentment over failing to get a Justice Department appointment. He concluded by calling George “a stone cold LOSER & husband from hell.”
George responded: “You. Are. Nuts.” and announced that Trump suffers from “a narcissistic personality disorder and malignant narcissim.”
The next day, President Trump told reporters that George was a “whack job.”
And then things went downhill.
Publicly, at least, Kellyanne has sided with her boss. In an interview with the Washington Post, she said of George’s tweets: “I think it’s disrespectful. I think it disrespects his wife.” Then, putting her husband in his place, she added: “Nobody knows who I am because of my husband. People know of my husband because of me.”
She recently supported her boss’s attacks on her husband in a Politico interview: “The president is obviously defending me.” She compared her husband’s work unfavorably to her own: “Yesterday George spent the day tweeting about the president. I spent my day doing two one-hour briefings with press and intergovernmental affairs people, agency people from all over the country, and then over an hour briefing that I led in the Oval Office with the president and first lady and the cabinet on opioids … So this is what I do here.”
Some pundits see the story as a kind of national portrait. Mark Leibovich of the New York Times, referencing what he considers our “intensely performative culture,” grandly concludes: “We are all the Conways.” Dahlia Lithwick, writing in Slate, finds the “real message of the Conways’ marriage debacle” to be the perils of complicity. She believes George had to speak out because “attempting strategic silence becomes soul-destroying to the point that giving voice to it is the only ethical option.”
There is a simpler, less cosmic explanation. Kellyanne and George Conway personify different wings of the modern conservative movement, a movement deeply riven by Donald Trump. Their personification is both stylistic and substantive.
In style, Conway represents the traditional conservative wing of the movement. He grew up in the comfortable Boston suburb of Marlborough, the birthplace of Horatio Alger. He graduated from Harvard College and Yale Law School. He has pursued a career as a securities litigator at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, a firm noted for having the highest profits per partner of any American law firm.
Kellyanne was raised by her mother and grandmother, after her father abandoned the family when she was three years old. Her grandfather, Jimmy “the Brute” Natale, was identified by a New Jersey Organized Crime Commission as a mob associate of the Philadelphia crime family. When football team members bullied her cousin for being overweight, she told them to stop. They did. She worked summers at a blueberry fame and won the New Jersey Blueberry Princess pageant.
When George and Kellyanne attended President Trump’s inauguration, a scuffle broke out between two tuxedo-clad men. Kellyanne, not George, stepped between them to stop it. When they kept at it, she punched one of the men in the face three times, and that ended it.
George inherited the suave civility of William F. Buckley, Jr. Kellyanne projects the belligerence of Rush Limbaugh.
In substance, George represents the Republican Party of the Bush family (none of whose members voted for Trump). The wing supports free trade. It is generally pro-immigration. It is suspicious of executive power, whether wielded by a Democratic or Republican president. It supports NATO, and favors a robust American presence abroad.
Kellyanne’s wing of the movement welcomes a nationalist trade policy that includes tariffs and protectionism. It is generally anti-immigration. It supports the use of executive power, at least when wielded by President Trump. It considers NATO a drain, and is anti-interventionist abroad.
Kellyanne’s wing of the party commands the allegiance of most sitting Republican congressmen. George’s wing commands the allegiance of only of a few Republican senators, and most of them are dead or retired: John McCain, Jeff Flake, and Bob Corker. Though weak at the national level, at the state level George’s wing encompasses Republican governors who manage to win in blue states, such as Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland.
The views of Kellyanne’s wing are articulated in the marketplace of ideas by Newt Gingrich, Victor Davis Hanson, and Michael Anton. Those of George’s wing find voice in the commentaries of George Will, Bret Stephens, and Bill Kristol. She is Fox News. He is National Review.
It will not do to exaggerate the differences between the two wings. Their shared positions and values outnumber their disagreements. Both wings of the movement support low taxes and deregulation. Both support judicial nominees who adhere to the philosophy of judicial restraint. Both disdain the identity politics prevalent in the Democratic Party. Both support Israel, and are unafraid to condemn the anti-Semitism underlying a growing share of the criticism of that country. Both view with contempt the woke orthodoxy that has taken over most of academia and the entertainment industry.
In a sense, these shared values are like children caught up in the marital conflict. As much as the wings of the movement may resemble bickering parents, neither wants to see their offspring endangered.
George and Kellyanne Conway are devout Catholics, fiercely protective of their four children. Divorce is unlikely. Their clashes will probably simmer down in time, transformed from heated public exchanges to a more private Cold War. And, as happened with the real Cold War, the two sides will likely find their own personal path to peaceful coexistence.
But whatever happens to George and Kellyanne, the larger domestic war within the conservative movement will continue, at least as long as Donald Trump remains in office. His divisive influence may not be enough to split the Conways, but it has created lasting fissures within the movement. It will take more than the cancellation of a reality TV show to heal them.