Despite her quick exit just ahead of the 2020 election, there is no disputing the central role Kellyanne Conway played in paving the way for Trumpism to take hold in the Republican Party. Through a mixture of illogical arguments, strange comments and an almost undying devotion to defending Trump at all costs — including her own credibility — in many ways what’s on the ballot in November will bear her fingerprints, for better or worse for the party.
Conway was named Trump’s campaign manager late in the 2016 election, emerging as a rare establishment Republican in a campaign full of fringe figures. Both during the campaign and then through the early part of the Trump presidency, she served as a bridge between Trump’s controversial political methods and the more traditional party brand. Eventually she helped merge the two almost completely — to the point where the GOP’s 2020 platform is essentially whatever-Trump-says.
More often than not, this involved Conway pitching Trump’s actions in inexplicable ways and contorting herself to explain his falsehoods.
Most infamous was Conway’s explanation that Trump’s advisers have “alternative facts.” Conway used the phrase to explain then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s utterly false and easily disprovable claims about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd — comments clearly meant to bolster Trump’s own false claims and ego.
“Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck,” Conway told NBC News’s Chuck Todd when he noted that the White House basically began the Trump presidency with these falsehoods. “You’re saying it’s a falsehood, and they’re giving — our press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave alternative facts to that."
A charitable reading would be that Conway was simply inartfully referring to the evidence the White House had to dispute the reporting. But there really was no disputing it. And Conway’s tenure as White House counselor would very much follow in the vein of “alternative facts.”
Shortly before the “alternative facts” comment, Conway urged the media to be less critical of Trump and to instead rely upon the highly subjective method of peering into his soul.
“Why is everything taken at face value?” Conway said unironically while defending Trump’s mocking of a reporter’s disability. She added: “You can’t give him the benefit of the doubt on this, and he’s telling you what was in his heart? You always want to go by what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.”
Conway also defended Trump’s racist tweet urging minority congresswomen who were born in the United States to “go back” to their countries. She said Trump merely meant the congresswoman should go back to where their families were “originally” from, as if that was better.
In the course of that answer, she even asked a reporter, “What’s your ethnicity?” Conway said later that she simply meant the vast majority of Americans descended from immigrants, but again it’s not clear how that was in service of a valid point.
At some junctures, she would cast criticism of Trump as unpatriotic and the refuge of sore losers who couldn’t reconcile Trump’s 2016 win. She played up Trump’s record in dubious ways, including by noting that no other president had gotten a Supreme Court justice confirmed in his first 100 days. (Conway ignored that very few presidents even had vacancies in their first 100 days, much less walked into office with both a vacancy and control of the Senate, as Trump did.)
When Trump said he was targeting Iranian sites including those “important to Iran & the Iranian culture,” which would have run afoul of international law, Conway again stepped forward to argue the unarguable. She explained that the country had many “strategic military sites that you may cite are also cultural sites.”
When Trump falsely claimed he won the 2016 popular vote because fraudulent votes deprived him of it, Conway was asked whether it was presidential behavior.
“Just because the president does something doesn’t make it presidential,” CNN’s Jake Tapper responded.
“Yes, I wasn’t saying otherwise,” Conway replied — except that’s exactly what she was saying.
Trump’s trampling of political norms has perhaps been best echoed by Conway’s own conduct. Conway has been found on multiple occasions to have violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits government officials from political activity while serving in their official roles. A government watchdog even said it was so blatant and repeated that she should be fired. Conway responded by suggesting that it was an attempt to stifle her free speech.
“This is my First Amendment right,” Conway said, ignoring that there is a clear restriction on specific types of speech by government officials like her. “They want to chill free speech because they don’t know how to beat [Trump] at the ballot box.”
She responded to the allegations at another point by saying, succinctly, “Blah blah blah.”
That example, while lower-profile than some of the others, is instructive. In it, Conway took what seemed to be a pretty cut-and-dried — if unenforced — violation of the law and reframed it as persecution. It diverted attention from the specifics of the case and instead focused on furthering an allegation that Trump’s supporters latched onto, however implausibly. The details and facts mattered less than the narrative, which is a pretty apt distillation of Trumpism today. Everything must be boiled down to nefarious people trying to bring down the president, no matter how oversimplified that case, because litigating the actual details and facts is a futile battle. “Blah blah blah,” indeed.
The logical lines in Conway’s defenses of Trump were almost always difficult to follow, if not utterly nonexistent. She was willing to say the kinds of dumbfounding things that Trump’s most ardent social media supporters would say. But these things were coming from a unique place: a longtime establishment Republican figure who provided at least a veneer of this being normal GOP politics.
It wasn’t, but it has become so. Politics is inherently a game in which people take liberties with the truth and logical consistency, but the degree to which Conway took it was often unparalleled among Trump aides, even in the White House press briefing room. By virtue of that, along with her high-profile role in the final months of the 2016 Trump campaign and then her tenure in the White House, which lasted longer than most any other top adviser, Conway played a massive role in the upheaval of a major American political party.
Whether that’s the kind of party the American people actually want will apparently be decided with one of its architects sidelined.