How Daughters of High-Profile Republicans Became Progressive Icons
I should probably give up trying to convince my dad to vote for Joe Biden in the November election. He has made it abundantly clear by now that while he considers Trump a “buffoon,” he will never vote for “bigger government.” A Reagan Republican to the bitter end, my dad has decided to simply ride out the Trump era until things get “back to normal,” whatever that means, and remains completely confident that such a return is imminent.
Politics have taken a more deeply personal turn than usual this year, as the president’s cruelty, corruption, and ineptitude over the past four years has led to thousands of preventable COVID-19 deaths and imperilled the lives of millions more. Any support of such a president, whether active or passive, must require a suspension of empathy, right? But this moral reasoning is difficult to square when it comes to my own father.
So when I see Claudia Conway, daughter of Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway and Lincoln Project founder George Conway, post TikTok videos opposing her parents’ conservative politics; Mitch McConnell’s daughter Porter McConnell leading Take On Wall Street; or the daughter of a Michigan congressional candidate publicly implore Michiganders on Twitter not to vote for her father, I feel a rush of fellow-feeling. It turns out we frustrated and disappointed Daughters of Republicans are everywhere, often taking on the emotional, weighty, and likely impossible task of changing our parents’ minds or speaking out.
I spoke to such daughters for this piece, and many said they feel a sense of responsibility or obligation to speak up — especially the children of politicians who feel uniquely positioned to appeal to their parents’ morals, and thus effect change. But our attempts at persuasion are also an attempt to access the righteous principles — indeed the soul — of our parents, because their politics do not align with the fundamentally good person we love.
Stephanie Hofeller made headlines in 2019, when she uncovered and released documents providing evidence that her father, Republican political strategist Thomas Hofeller, was engaged in gerrymandering scheme that would be “advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic Whites." NPR reported that Thomas pushed the White House to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, which hurts undocumented people and is potentially illegal.
Stephanie and her father fell out years before his death in 2018 after a deeply personal betrayal involving her allegedly abusive husband and the custody of her children, but she says their relationship didn’t have anything to do with her decision to speak out against his politics.
“Even if I hadn't personally had anything against him, I still would have disagreed with racism and classism and all that crap,” she said. “I would have wanted to release [the documents detailing his gerrymandering] because honestly, I was shocked at the way those maps looked,” she explained.
Stephanie said even as her relationship with her dad was unraveling, she kept pushing back on his politics right until the final blow. “Up until that point, I almost felt like it was my duty to try and [reason with] him when he had so much power,” she said. “And also I was concerned … I mean, he and I also don't have the same religious beliefs, and yet I cared for his soul.”
Stephanie told me she has a strict “no Trumpers” policy in her house — a move Trump supporters would likely point to as an example of “cancel culture” run amok. But it does feel increasingly necessary for the political left to draw harder lines, especially when it comes to social justice issues. So am I a hypocrite to condemn the Republican party as racist and amoral for their support of the president, but also believe my Republican dad is still a good person? Is this a “purity test,” or rather a test of character? The moral urgency of this moment in history forces a painful dissonance between righteousness and love for your family. This is especially acute when your parent’s politics are damaging to you specifically.
Genna Gazelka, who identifies as bigender and uses they/them pronouns, first spoke publicly in an interview in Minnesota’s Star Tribune newspaper after their father, Minnesota Senate GOP Leader Paul Gazelka, opposed a ban on conversion therapy camps. Gazelka themself was sent to therapy at Bachmann Associates, which has been widely accused of performing conversion or “reparative” therapy.
Because it was personal, because of the harm it caused to children and vulnerable adults, and because of their platform, Genna felt this was where they had to speak out, especially when they couldn’t get through to their dad. “I did end up talking to him a little bit and no, he did not listen. And that was part of the reason I was doing it, because I was trying to reach a wider public than my dad. Because I knew that his ears were closed, but I knew that I could reach more people and possibly have some kind of sway if I could get the story out there.”
Genna spent years estranged from their parents, and it was only after a “spiritual awakening” that they decided to attempt forgiveness and to reconnect. They extend remarkable grace toward their parents, who have begun, slowly, to apologize and make concessions of their own. Genna’s parents still will not use their pronouns, but their dad will refer to them as “my adult child” rather than “daughter.”
This tracks with Genna’s understanding of their dad as a “peacemaker” with a philosophy of compromise. “He told me this story about how everyone has to win some when it comes to legislation,” they said. “You can't have someone always losing otherwise they're gonna be sore about it and they're not gonna want to help you out in any way shape or form. Versus a small victory, then they might actually be more willing to be helpful.” They continued, “He is very patient and very kind. I do think he means to do what's right.”
Since the 1970s, conservative politicians have touted wholesome “family values” as a sacred cornerstone of their platform. So it’s a bit ironic to see this illusion routinely shattered by rebellious liberal children whose sense of what is right (at least temporarily) overrules family loyalty. But liberals seem to almost expect daughters (almost always daughters) to fight back against conservative political parents. When Trump was first elected, Ivanka was popularly imagined to exert some rationalizing influence over her father, as Stephanie and Genna attempted. Instead, her immense privilege has allowed her to simply float dreamily above the fray, as if she exists in an entirely different America (which, of course, she does). It’s clear Ivanka does not feel the same sense of duty to use her position to fight harmful GOP policies, which feels particularly cowardly considering how much Stephanie and Genna risked in speaking out.
This sense of obligation, whether self-imposed or not, was a common theme among the people I spoke to. People whose parents are not politicians have less leverage to directly affect legislative change, but the impulse to fight loved ones’ Trumpism is still powerful. We need proof of the good heart we know exists behind the MAGA hat.
Leila, who asked to use a pseudonym, said that her mother seemed to go from moderate conservative to virulently MAGA overnight following the 2016 election. “My freshman year of college I came home and my mom was very different,” she says, adding that it’s difficult to reconcile what she believes are her mother’s good intentions with the conspiracy theories and far-right viewpoints she now espouses.
“I know that she cares and I know that she’s a good person and she just wants the best for everybody,” she continued. “However, I know that some of the things that she believes — how she wants things to be done or how she thinks things should be — they will negatively impact some populations, and it does make me kind of question, like, are you [a good person]?”
Leila said she used to be very close with her mother, but now she doesn’t even like to spend time at home. “There were things that I wanted to talk about with her that were heavily related to social justice, and I could very briefly — and now I can’t.”
For some, a political confrontation risks creating a wedge between loved ones that cannot be undone. Lauren*, who lives in New York, said, “My dad is so far right I can’t even see him anymore.” She added, “I feel that if I stood up and shouted how I really felt about certain things that it would result in the kind of argument that has the power to destroy a family. The more I think about it the more sad it makes me.”
Trying to open a discussion with your parents and finding a brick wall was another shared experience — one I know well. I’ve tried dozens of angles, tones, and topics, but each time I try to broach the subject my father switches to Official Patriarch Mode and dismisses my arguments before I’ve even made them. On the rare occasions he does engage, just a little, it’s not uncommon to find ourselves shouting the same point at one another, about the role of government maybe, or personal freedom. And as my dad keeps arguing that I am not saying what I’m saying, that I’m actually saying something else entirely, I can’t help but feel a little hopeless.
The thing is, even if he’s wrong, it doesn’t mean my dad doesn’t genuinely believe in the principles his conservatism is based on. And it is when these shared values, like personal freedom and equal opportunity, are most at stake that the people I spoke to felt compelled to risk a fight and push back. Conservative parents may think they never got through to their liberal children but, it turns out, the truth is quite the opposite.
“Ironically it was the political ideals that [my dad] himself taught me that led me to the conclusion that I came to,” Stephanie said.
I’ve heard that it is no good to try and argue with a Trump supporter; that by this time, they are so far down the rabbit hole they no longer respond to logic or even human decency. But those who do believe it’s possible to change minds advocate starting from the values you share rather than the policies, politicians, or parties you belong to. And I don’t believe my dad’s party loyalty outweighs his faith in humanity. I still think I can reach his soul.
*Last name withheld for privacy.