The Dawn of the Intra-Family Political Attack Ad

The trend reveals how partisan schisms in the Trump era are dividing families.

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Like many Americans, David Glosser has a lot of opinions about politics. When I spoke with him on the phone, he paused his diatribe against the Trump administration only to cough. But unlike most Americans, Glosser—a retired physician who lives in Yardley, Pennsylvania, which hugs the state’s border with New Jersey—is closely related to one of President Donald Trump’s most influential aides. His nephew is Stephen Miller, the White House senior policy adviser known for his hawkish views on immigration, who is helping craft the policies that his uncle so detests.

In August, Glosser published an essay in Politico magazine chiding his nephew by sharing the family’s own immigration story as Jews who fled the shtetls of Eastern Europe. “I have watched with dismay and increasing horror as my nephew,” Glosser wrote, “an educated man who is well aware of his heritage, has become the architect of immigration policies that repudiate the very foundation of our family’s life in this country.”

Ahead of the midterm elections, a shocking number of political figures’ family members have taken the severe step of publicly rebuking their kin. Most notably, in September, six siblings of Representative Paul Gosar—a Trump acolyte who represents a vast swath of western Arizona—renounced their brother in a television ad for his opponent. Then, in late October, 12 relatives of the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Nevada, Adam Laxalt, wrote an op-ed opposing his candidacy. The brother of Randy Bryce, a Democrat running to fill the House seat that Paul Ryan is vacating in Wisconsin, also attacked his candidacy in a TV ad. And the parents of the erstwhile GOP Senate candidate in Minnesota, Kevin Nicholson, who lost in the Republican primary in August, maxed out on donations to his Democratic opponent. (A spokesman for Adam Laxalt, the only candidate mentioned in this story who returned a request for comment, referred me to another op-ed in response—this one co-authored by 22 of Laxalt’s relatives who support his candidacy.)

Family feuds over politics are surely as old as politics itself. Strained relationships between relatives with different views can affect private family gatherings, especially during election season: By one measure, political disagreements cut Thanksgiving dinners short by a collective 34 million hours in 2016. Still, the recent spate of people publicly excoriating their politician family members appears to be a new phenomenon altogether. And it seems to reveal something about how families are dealing with the country’s deepening partisan schisms in the Trump era. “This probably couldn’t have occurred in 1985,” says Kent Tedin, a University of Houston political scientist who studies how politics affects families. “This could only have happened in 2016 or after.”

Surely, many political candidates have a disapproving relative or two who stay silent behind gritted teeth, or who argue with them behind closed doors. But to publicly denounce a relative, someone must feel that the stakes are so high that speaking up is worth the cost of tattered family ties. “These people feel strongly that the politics is really consequential,” says the UC Berkeley political scientist Laura Stoker. “They feel really strongly that [their relative] is making a terrible mistake.”

Democrats, as members of the party out of power, seem to be feeling those stakes more acutely. Egged on by discontent with Trump’s presidency, Democrats are poised to turn out in higher numbers than in any other midterm election in at least a decade, according to reporting by The New York Times. A record number of Democrats ran for Congress this year as well: In one congressional district in rural Virginia, no Democrat had staged a campaign in 20 years. This year, four people ran in the Democratic primary. It’s no coincidence, then, that this micro-trend is being driven mostly by disapproving family members of Republican candidates: Of the five examples of this phenomenon that I could find, just one involved an attack on a Democratic candidate.

Indeed, that feeling of discontent is what spurred David Gosar to join five of his siblings in a viral TV ad eviscerating their Republican congressman brother. “He’s been a congressman for eight years,” Gosar told me. “For seven of those years, we kept quiet, but he kept pushing it and pushing it.” The breaking point came, David said, when the representative, in an interview with Vice, appeared to suggest that the liberal billionaire philanthropist George Soros was behind the violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year—a popular right-wing conspiracy theory. “That was just it—it broke the camel’s back,” Gosar said. “This has everything to do with him being a cruel, hateful person to others.”

David Glosser, Stephen Miller’s uncle, told me that the Trump administration’s short-lived practice of separating asylum-seeking parents from their kids prompted his essay. “When I saw the images, I was horrified,” he said. “That’s what finally pushed me over the edge to go to a broader public.”

These public family feuds are even more notable because most of the time these days, families share their politics. In fact, people often figure out their political views through their families; especially in the early years of kids’ lives, parents are the most important factor that shapes their affiliations, according to Stoker. “It’s a process that’s tied to social approval,” she says. “Kids want to be similar to their parents. It produces better relationships.” Yet as the country has become more politically polarized, families are becoming even more homogenous than before: According to one study, 82 percent of spouses share the same partisan affiliation, and 74 percent of kids share their parents’ views, up from 68.6 percent in 1965. Even more astonishingly, researchers found that in 1960, just 4 percent of parents were upset by the prospect of their child marrying someone from the other party—but by 2010, that figure had jumped to one-third of Democrats and one-half of Republicans.

“The general experience is that families in the polarized era have built a fortress around themselves and that they’re all on the same page,” Tedin says. “People really want to keep domestic harmony in the family.” While it has become less common for families to diverge politically, “if you ultimately come to disagree, it really frays family relationships,” Tedin adds. “There’s solidarity in the family, and if you’re on the wrong side of that, it becomes a lot more important.” Today, when family members disagree politically, they may be less likely than they were in earlier eras to put the discord past them to maintain their relationship.

Indeed, David Gosar is quick to tell me that his falling-out with his brother has everything to do with his brother’s political views: They were close as kids, and rarely talked about politics until 2010, when Paul Gosar first ran for Congress. “We have a nonexistent relationship,” David Gosar told me. “I don’t want anything to do with him. The last time I saw him was two and a half years ago when I went to [his daughter’s] wedding with the explicit condition that he wasn’t to talk to me or approach me.”

Kevin Marie Laxalt told me she hasn’t cut off all ties with her nephew Adam, the Republican candidate for governor in Nevada, even after she co-authored a recent op-ed in the Reno Gazette-Journal criticizing him. But she says that his political views have led them to grow apart. “To see his entitlement to governing Nevada created a clash between us all,” she says. “Had there been a spirit of building bridges on his part, this would not have been an issue.”

Since publishing his essay, Glosser says he has avoided talking to his famous nephew, and has exchanged only a stray email or two with Miller’s mother, his sister. “For the sake of family peacefulness,” Glosser says, “it would have been easier for me to do nothing and to just keep it to myself.”

Whatever the results of the midterms, it’s nearly unimaginable that the country’s partisan divide could be healed by 2020, when Donald Trump will be up for reelection. And now that a precedent has been set by these intra-family attack ads, when the next election heats up, it’s reasonable to think that others may try that tactic.

But the embattled politicians themselves are starting to cobble together a playbook on how to respond to the criticism. Most have opted for silence or relatively anodyne statements, perhaps hoping to preserve any lingering family ties, or perhaps suspecting that airing their family’s dirty laundry wouldn’t improve their image. But Representative Paul Gosar jumped right in to the family feud. “To the six angry Democrat Gosars,” he tweeted, “see you at Mom and Dad’s house!”