John Harris loves his dad, and he loves his mom.
The assistant U.S. attorney told North Carolina’s election authority as much — even as he testified that he had warned his father, Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris, that a political operative he was considering hiring for his campaign had seemingly previously committed fraud to win votes. The board has now declared a redo election.
As John spoke on Wednesday, his voice cracked. Mark wept.
The Harris family feud is so compelling because the members of the family may not actually be feuding. The son is an officer of the court, called on to tell the truth. He is also a son. The conflict was enough to move him almost to tears.
For others, breaking a family bond has been easier. A series of lapses in loyalty have dotted the past year in politics. And those rifts betray a great irony of Trumpism.
Last summer, a top-ranking House Republican’s son accused dear old dad on Twitter of “political grandstanding” that ruined a civil servant’s career. The day before, he announced he had donated to a Democrat trying to turn his father’s seat blue after his retirement.
An Arizona GOP representative was probably taken aback last fall when he turned on his television to see an attack ad on him — featuring his brother. And his sister. And his four other brothers and sisters.
Stephen Miller’s uncle penned a piece in Politico Magazine last year declaring his nephew an “immigration hypocrite.” He started with the family history — from a shtetl in what is now Belarus to a haberdashery in western Pennsylvania that became a successful business — and ended with a paean to dreaming the American Dream.
George Conway subtweets the president while Kellyanne Conway spins for him. The lies George Conway condemns on Twitter are the same ones his wife tells on television. He’s not under oath, or fulfilling any official obligation to the state. If anything, he’s fulfilling an obligation to his own conscience.
Maybe it’s honorable truth-telling, maybe it’s self-promotion. Sometimes it’s likely both. But the ties that bind do not seem to be bound quite so tight in politics today, and the simplest explanation is the same one pundits throw around to analyze all manner of deviations from the norm: President Trump.
The desperate times argument is a familiar one. People didn’t speak up before because they didn’t have to. Now they do. Morality does not demand that we denounce the people who raised us for supporting lower taxes on the wealthy. It might, however, demand that we denounce the people who raised us for putting children in cages, or rubbing shoulders with anti-Semites, or destroying democracy itself.
Trump’s rise, along with the hyperpolarization that helped cause it and that it is now helping to cause, has surely pushed some Americans who would otherwise stay silent to open their mouths — and even turn their words against relatives. The Thanksgiving table has never sagged so low with the weight of turkey and tension.
Yet blaming the supposed breakdown of father-son or brother-brother relationships on the president alone misses the bigger picture. Blood may be thicker than water, but it had started to thin long before Trump. American society has, over time, moved away from the concept of clan loyalty.
Some of this has to do with the country’s animating ideology: Liberalism has various strains, but it is always a blood-thinner. When you can rely on some combination of the market and the government to provide and protect, relying on relatives becomes that much less essential. Some of the change has to do with technology, which has expanded the neighborhood where every child grows up. But no matter the diluting agent, the ancestral commitment to the blood-based collective has weakened.
This weakening is exactly what “family values” conservatism reacts against. It’s what Trump’s tribalism reacts against, too, even more explicitly and even more virulently. People who are not like us, he argues, are worth less than us. Many of them do not deserve to be here at all. We owe loyalty to our own and to no one else.
Yet this strategy defeats itself. By taking his atavistic appeals to the extreme, the president has prompted such a backlash that the same tribal ties he seeks to promote are starting to come undone. Those siblings, husbands, uncles and sons are suddenly saying something because they no longer feel they have a choice. These people may love their dads, and they may love their moms. But they also love a set of values they feel are under threat. Trump, and those who share his distaste for enduring democratic ideals from tolerance to fair play, are forcing a confrontation they may not want to have.