In a series of political attack ads, six of Arizona Republican Representative and congressional incumbent Paul Gosar’s siblings have offered a full-throated endorsement of their brother’s opponent. The ads for Gosar’s challenger Dr. David Brill, which have garnered national attention, feature three Gosar brothers and three Gosar sisters suggesting their brother is not only bad for Arizona but also bad for their family name. In a spot titled “A Family Defends its Honor” the Gosar siblings explain how they are pained to campaign against their brother, but feel obligated to do so in the face of his ideology and policy prescriptions. One brother calls the ad an “intervention,” apparently for an addict of Trumpism.
The ads are singularly petty, but Paul Gosar is not alone in being called out as a political stain on his family name. White House political adviser Stephen Miller’s family members have come out against his harsh immigration policies. White House spokesperson Kellyanne Conway’s husband has criticized her boss and distanced himself from her message. And lest anyone believe it’s just a liberal thing, Randy Bryce, a Democratic candidate for Paul Ryan’s seat in Wisconsin, was recently the target of an attack ad featuring the harsh criticisms of his brother James.
There was once a belief that airing privately family rifts in public was an act of impropriety. Making the ugly family squabbles public could besmirch the family name. But even during the most politically tumultuous times, divergent politics didn’t necessarily reflect poorly on the family. What did stain the family name? Unwed teen mothers. Declasse alcoholism. Drug addiction. Infidelity. Indigency. These things put a black mark on the family because they were failings of morality that suggested some sort of inherited spiritual weakness. But as America has become less religious and more politically polarized, the notion of sin has changed. In politically charged times, a hard line public position can feel tantamount to family betrayal.
In the Trump era, political differences are fraught. Family members split down party lines reduce each other to ideological caricatures. Why? Largely because major political parties are cartoonish. We are the company we keep. But that’s also a bit of a false equivalency. The Trump administration has separated children from their parents and put them in detention centers that are little more than jails. Those that feel strongly about human rights — as the Gosar siblings seem to — speak up. And they have the means to do so publicly. Dr. David Brill found Gosar’s siblings because David Gosar maintained a Twitter account with the sole purpose of tearing his brother down.
The battle at the dinner table now feels like a battle for the soul of America. Individuals on both sides feel that there is nothing less than the future of their country at risk. And truth be told, the future is very much on the line. Conservatives, for instance, see a chance to end legalized abortion, which they view as a state-sponsored holocaust. For their part, liberals feel they are fighting a white nationalist uprising. It makes sense that bridges would be burned. Bridges get burned when a true enemy is perceived to be standing on the other side.
Ironically, the deep family divisions being aired on the internet, and on our TV screens, is completely antithetical to the image of America so many of us have held dear. We grow up being told that family is America’s strength. Family means everything. Sacrifices in wartime and in peacetime have long been understood in terms of filial duty. And the rhetoric has remained the same even as the message has shifted entirely. Now, to protect the family, it seems we have to destroy it.
If the Gosar ad tells Americans anything, it is this: The lead up to the 2018 midterms is going to be miserable for politically divided families. The preamble to the holiday season is set to be a dystopic mess. And, for many, Thanksgiving dinner conversation isn’t going to solve the problem.
Just look at the Gosars. “To the six angry Democrat Gosars — see you at Mom and Dad’s house!” Representative Gosar tweeted after the ad dropped. The tweet was a good reminder that even family members who disagree have a lot in common, but it was also a reminder that disagreements can’t all be sidestepped. Dinner in the Gosar household is gonna be awkward if not hostile. Going home doesn’t solve the current problem, it exacerbates it.