The Real Message of the Conways’ Marriage Debacle

How they share a dinner table matters much less than what’s compelling George Conway to attack Trump.

Kellyanne Conway and George Conway
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and her husband, George Conway. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images and Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Ah, the Conways.

Let’s first agree: It is probably an act of profound and essential self-care to ignore whatever is happening between George and Kellyanne Conway, just as it’s important to avoid getting dragged into the daily affairs and alleged spats of the grown Trump children. The only thing more soul-destroying than the reality show that is the Trump White House must be the reality show that is the Conway’s reality show about the Trump White House. That said, it’s entirely possible that somewhere at the heart of the endless twists and turns of Conway v. Conway lies something worth considering closely. In a sense, George and Kellyanne Conway may well be doing the very opposite of mindlessly performative politics. What’s unfurling between the two of them might just be what happens when performance art becomes too real to bear.

Kellyanne has mastered the role of Trump attack dog, insisting at every turn that not only is the emperor wearing clothes, but that his clothes are the best clothes, the smartest clothes, and also that Rep. Adam Schiff should resign for doing the same thing former Rep. Trey Gowdy did, but with more results. This weekend, she cheerfully defended Trump’s claim of “total exoneration” in the Barr summary of the Mueller report from a deeply skeptical Chris Wallace, who repeatedly told her, “That’s just not true.”

No surprises there. This is, after all, the woman who gave us both “alternative facts” and the “Bowling Green Massacre.” On the other side of the ledger, her husband is putting on a kind of clinic about messaging the conservative resistance. Last fall, he helped found Checks and Balances, a conservative group dedicated to preserving the rule of law. He now almost daily attacks the president’s integrity, competence, and mental fitness for office. Amid cute corgi photos come ever-louder claims that the president is profoundly mentally ill and a pathological liar.

It might have just festered on indefinitely, except the president thought he’d get involved in the game by tweeting that George Conway was “often referred to as Mr. Kellyanne Conway by those who know him,” and “is VERY jealous of his wife’s success & angry that I, with her help, didn’t give him the job he so desperately wanted.” (Kellyanne, to her credit, debunked that on Sunday). For good measure, the president reassured us that “I barely know him but just take a look, a stone cold LOSER & husband from hell!” prompting Kellyanne to side with the misogynistic president and call it an act of feminism. (That was funny). After this three-way spat, the Conway marriage might just be the best metaphor for something universal—perhaps a stand-in for all marriages beset by political strife, or, as Mark Leibovich put it this weekend, maybe their open acrimony proves that basic comity and civility are no longer possible, and “We are all the Conways.”

There are many, many theories out there attempting to explain why the Conways have decided to allow the president to intrude upon their marriage and the raising of their children. One holds that this is a kind of elaborate setup of a Mary Matalin/James Carville–style one-stop shopping for a pair of quirky branded pundits. The idea seems to be that they are hedging their bets, with one on each side, so that if they survive the coming conflagration, they can still get invitations to the swanky Georgetown cocktail parties.

As theories go, I find this one dubious. After all, if the coming conflagration is as bad as George Conway and I seem to believe, there aren’t going to be a lot of cocktail parties in the future for any side. But more to the point, given that Jared and Ivanka and Sean Spicer still get invited to the cocktail parties, the notion that there will be a great social purge at the end of Trumpism seems fanciful. I just don’t buy it. Nobody likes Georgetown cocktail parties that much.

Another theory is that Kellyanne, like Trump, simply enjoys the drama. It gives her an easy way to cash in on her constant claim that it’s sexist of anyone to question whether telling lies for a liar is a moral path. She recently told the Washington Post’s Ben Terris that “I feel there’s a part of [George Conway] that thinks I chose Donald Trump over him. Which is ridiculous. One is my work, and one is my marriage.” She lit into Chris Wallace on Sunday for probing into her personal affairs: “What are you, Oprah now? … am I on a couch and you are a psychiatrist? …. I think it’s a really inappropriate question.” And surely she is not wrong—their marriage is nobody’s business. Except: They can’t seem to stop making a national spectacle of it. Meanwhile, her supporters, from Eric Trump to Trump’s reelection campaign, manager Brad Parscale, do not shy from using their “private” feud to imply that Kellyanne is the talent in the family, further fueling the story of Kellyanne Conway as feminist gladiator whose husband can’t stand the heat and wants her back in the kitchen.

I am evermore inclined to respect the Conways’ privacy and to accept that they are not doing this elaborate session of three-way marriage counseling with the president for tactical or branding purposes, and more that they are simply trapped in an epically crap situation, in which her job is to spout alternative facts for the president and he can’t quite accede to that in silence. We tend to eat this kind of stuff up; John and Martha Mitchell’s break over his role in Watergate remains the thing of legends. And truth be told, I am less interested in why the Conways are airing their marital laundry in public than I am curious how they will manage to keep it together as this escalates by the week.

Because one of the most striking qualities of Conway v. Conway is that, unlike Carville v. Matalin, it’s grown viscerally ugly, in the manner of anything that touches Trump. Kellyanne wants you to know that she’s too busy raising their children and doing “substantive” work for the president to keep up with her husband’s tweets. And George Conway is openly saying that his wife works for a mentally ill criminal. This isn’t adorable workplace banter à la Sam and Diane. These are potshots that diminish the other in the eyes of the public.

More and more, it seems they are simply stuck: George famously told the Washington Post that he uses his Twitter feed as a kind of pressure valve to allow him to be civil to his wife at home: “It’s so maddening to watch,” he said. “The mendacity, the incompetence, it’s just maddening to watch. The tweeting is just the way to get it out of the way, so I can get it off my chest and move on with my life that day. That’s basically it. Frankly, it’s so I don’t end up screaming at her about it.” The implication—that he’s only calling out the president to save his own sanity (and his marriage)—is more than a little depressing. Does it mean he’d tolerate all the mendacity and incompetence if he were married to someone who didn’t work directly for Trump? Or is their marriage a kind of inside-out version of the broadly known phenomenon of Republicans supporting Trump in public while grousing about him to their spouses?

What if what the Conways are performing is just painfully, brutally real? What if there is a rest stop, just past empty political theater, in which you genuinely cannot live with your partner’s complicity? I have been obsessed with questions about complicity and enabling almost since the inauguration, and I continue to fail to understand how Trump’s key enablers get to swan back-and-forth between the public sector, the academy, the media, and the White House, even while decrying his other enablers for their enabling. But the Conway marriage has become an example of something different. It’s a natural experiment in what can happen when attempting strategic silence becomes soul-destroying to the point that giving voice to it is the only ethical option. It’s precisely because his wife props up the false claims about Mueller and “total exoneration” that George Conway seems to feel that his silence, were he to maintain it, would mean tacit acceptance.

Truthfully? I have no idea how the Conways are managing to do what they do and still share a dinner table at home. That part is none of my business. Where their spectacular public performance of “I love you but you’re giving cover to pure undistilled evil” does become our business, though, is in the proof it offers of what can happen once you’re convinced that the opposition is truly doing enormous harm and that your partner is aligned with them. What we can learn from the Conways has less to do with the Conways themselves and more to do with the national rupture that threatens to swallow us all if we continue to believe that what we’re living through right now is just “politics” or no different from other administrations. It is a reminder that being silent and being neutral are not the same thing. So maybe the Conways are less a cutting-edge reality show than an agonizing reminder that what’s currently happening is reality, and that nobody can emerge unscathed.