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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Claudia Conway's TikToks Can't Save Democracy

Last Friday, former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway sent out a tweet that seemed almost inevitable: “Tonight I tested positive for Covid-19.” As the latest in a cascade of positive tests from a White House outbreak that had already infected the president, her condition was newsworthy—but that news had already broken. Claudia Conway, Kellyanne’s 15-year-old daughter, had announced her mother’s diagnosis in a TikTok post earlier that same evening. She said that Kellyanne had lied to her about the test results.


A few days later, the younger Conway went on TikTok again to assert that Trump’s health was faltering. “Apparently he is doing badly lol and they are doing what they can to stabilize him,” she wrote. The high schooler also posted and deleted a video of her mother chastising her for her previous videos. “You lied about fucking Covid!” Kellyanne fumes, in a tone recognizable to anyone who has ever been a mother or a daughter. Claudia put up another new TikTok clarifying that her mom hadn’t lied to her after all—with Kellyanne in the background, urging her to make the clarification. While the conflict between parent and child had the patina of the familiar—teenager defiant, mother exasperated—its stakes have become a national concern.

Over the summer, Claudia attracted hundreds of thousands of followers on TikTok and Twitter for her blunt, cheeky criticism of Trump and support of progressive politics, her posts a spectacle of Gen Z rebellion. Now she was breaking vital news about his world. Through TikTok, she gave people hungry for information a digital glimpse at the turmoil within an opaque, frequently dissembling administration in crisis. For her efforts, supporters and media outlets are christening her as a new #Resistance hero. She’s the latest figure to fill the maybe-savior role temporarily inhabited by Robert Mueller, Stormy Daniels, and James Comey at various points since 2016. Could she take down Trump? As a story, it’s as gripping as a good YA novel: Brave teen exposes powerful liars, saves democracy, etc.

But that framing is all wrong. This is not a hero’s journey. It’s a sad family melodrama that happens to be taking place smack in the middle of a Venn diagram of overlapping crises in American culture.

The Trump administration is openly hostile to the press, and prefers that the president communicate directly with the American people, often via Twitter. With dashed-off tweets, Trump has signaled major policy and staffing changes; he fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson via Twitter, for example, and announced his decision to ban transgender troops in a series of tweets as well. In doing so, the president has inadvertently conditioned people into viewing social media accounts connected with his inner circle as conduits for knowledge about it.

Unlike her mother or Trump, Claudia Conway does not have a well-documented history of lying to the American people, and her bold public stances against her family and its politics bolster her credibility as someone who is not afraid to speak her mind to power. Accepting Claudia’s assertions about the president’s health is tempting for some because those assertions confirm what they believe to be true (that he isn't telling the truth about his health) or what they simply would like to be true (that he is suffering). But accepting a private citizen’s secondhand speculations about the White House outbreak as fact speaks to the brokenness of the American information ecosystem.

Claudia should not be in a position where people look to her for updates about a national emergency. Now that she is in this unfortunate role, though, it does no one any favors to ignore what she has to say. In recent years, a number of very young social activists have brought urgent messages to a broad audience; Swedish environmental advocate Greta Thunberg, for example, or the students at Parkland High School who survived a school shooting to stump for gun safety. Their youth does not diminish their seriousness of purpose or make their ideas less worthy of consideration. Likewise, the fact that Claudia Conway is a teenage girl does not discredit her. But idolizing her as a whistleblowing figurehead does her a disservice, as does taking her word as gospel.


Claudia is experiencing the distorting influence of a culture where politics and celebrity have converged into a singular swamp; she rose to prominence with an assist from TikTok, which serves up her distressed dispatches as consumable snippets. Perhaps she would have swum into the pundit class from another stream—think Meghan McCain, turning her blog into a talking-head career—but the accelerationist algorithms made sure she arrived swiftly, without a publicist, parental approval, or a framework for navigating the attention.

And the situation with her parents cannot be downplayed here. In addition to condemning the president and explicitly supporting Black Lives Matter, Claudia has also documented her rocky relationship with her mother and father over social media. The Conways had already established themselves as the most acrimonious political couple in a famously discordant milieu, with Claudia’s conservative columnist father George Conway establishing an anti-Trump PAC and openly criticizing his wife’s boss, and Trump himself tweeting insults at George while Kellyanne remained by his side. It was a tawdry, bitter little triangle, but one which initially didn’t involve their children. In August, though, Claudia announced that she was seeking emancipation from her parents in response to “years of childhood trauma and abuse.” Shortly thereafter, Kellyanne announced she was leaving the White House to focus on her children. “Less drama, more mama,” she wrote in a statement. George Conway also announced he was leaving his role. Claudia did not appear to change her stance, and received donations via Venmo from supporters who wanted to help her separate from her parents.

Nobody knows what has really gone on in that household. Regardless of what did, the present family crisis is all the more reason to avoid treating Claudia like an oracle. She doesn’t need the weight of those expectations right now. Even if she’d never signed up for any social media accounts, she’d still be facing this infection. Claudia has since announced that she too has tested positive for Covid-19. As a family member exposed to the virus, she’s experiencing the consequences of the cavalier, denialist attitude Trump’s inner circle has displayed towards scientifically-supported preventative behaviors. She’s not a savior; she’s a representative of the vast human collateral damage of this administration’s choices.

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