How James Murdoch and a Generation of Wealthy Heirs Are Flocking to the Left

Christel Deskins

Photo credit: Max Mumby/Indigo – Getty Images From Town & Country Photo credit: Peter Serling/2020 (Trump) ; Celeste Sloman (Disney) ; Getty Images (Murdoch) Hands up if you had Claudia Conway, the daughter of conservative power couple George and Kellyanne Conway, emerging as a liberal poster child on your 2020 […]

Photo credit: Max Mumby/Indigo - Getty Images
Photo credit: Max Mumby/Indigo – Getty Images

From Town & Country

Photo credit: Peter Serling/2020 (Trump) ; Celeste Sloman (Disney) ; Getty Images (Murdoch)
Photo credit: Peter Serling/2020 (Trump) ; Celeste Sloman (Disney) ; Getty Images (Murdoch)

Hands up if you had Claudia Conway, the daughter of conservative power couple George and Kellyanne Conway, emerging as a liberal poster child on your 2020 bingo card? Congratulations if you did. As chance would have it, the 15-year-old became as beloved on the left as universal healthcare thanks to a series of videos that she posted on TikTok in which she trolled the Trump administration, at one point urging her followers to leave “one star reviews on all of trumps restaurants, hotels and golf courses.”

The Conways made their eldest daughter delete her social media accounts, but like any tech-savvy teen she figured out a way to outsmart her parents and returned online with a vengeance. It was a public betrayal that Mom and Dad, a political Punch and Judy show for our schismatic times, might have seen coming had they put aside their performative bickering for a minute and paid attention to the culture. After all, hardly a news cycle goes by these days without at least one dynastic turncoat or class defector breaking ranks.

Take Mary Trump, a niece of the president, who set the DC commentariat abuzz, to say nothing of the rest of the country, with the publication this summer of Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, a tell-all book about her estranged uncle. Following a series of exposés by members of his inner circle, Mary’s book, with revelations that range from the innocuous (that the president and ex-wife Ivana gave her a three-pack of underwear for Christmas one year) to the incendiary (he allegedly used his influence to have his sister Maryanne Trump Barry nominated to a position as a federal prosecutor), is seen by many on the right as nothing short of perfidy. One peer, on the other hand, welcomed the infraction.

Abigail Disney shouted into the Twitterverse, “If you know Mary Trump, please put her in touch with me!!!”

Though she has not taken to social media or divulged any family secrets in print, billionaire Christy Walton, who married into the Walton clan (which owns almost half of Walmart), also raised eyebrows earlier this year, when it was revealed that she is a major donor to the Lincoln Project, a super PAC of Republican ­renegades (whose founders include George Conway) committed to ousting the titular head of their party.

Porter McConnell, the youngest daughter of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, may be a true apostate. She is not only the Take on Wall Street campaign director at the nonprofit coalition Americans for Financial Reform, she has been a vociferous critic of her father’s policies. At this point she’ll be lucky if she gets a Christmas card, let alone underwear, from him and her stepmother, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.

“The children, grandkids, and even great-grandchildren of the very wealthy are getting progressively more progressive,” says David Callahan, author of The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age and editor of the website Inside Philanthropy. “There’s a long history of it. I call it Rockefeller Syndrome.”

Callahan is right to point to the idealistic young second- and third-generation donors of the 1960s and ’70s who defied their archconservative families. Among them were Alida Messinger, a fourth-­generation heiress to the Rockefeller fortune; her ex-husband and former Democratic governor of Minnesota Mark Dayton, an heir to the Target fortune; and Charles Pillsbury, of the foodstuffs juggernaut, who became an antiwar activist in the Vietnam era and later ran for congress as a Green Party candidate. (He lost.) His father George S. Pillsbury, a staunch Republican, finally switched parties at the age of 87 to vote for Barack Obama in 2008.

Photo credit: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo credit: Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

And while he never had the deep pockets of a Rockefeller, Ron Reagan became a heretic in conservative circles for his outspoken disavowal of the GOP and embrace of atheism.

There were other rich rabble-rousers before them, of course: Nancy Cunard, the turn-of-the-20th-­century patron saint of rebel heiresses, who became an ardent antifascist and civil rights activist; author Jessica Mitford, the only red in a family of fascists; and Marion Barbara “Joe” Carstairs, the granddaughter of Jabez Abel Bostwick, one of the founders of Standard Oil and a devout Baptist.

Joe, who inherited a vast fortune, defied convention throughout her life and enjoyed affairs with Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich. When she settled in the Bahamas as the self-styled Queen of Whale Cay, she flouted segregated employment laws that persisted into the ’60s.

Photo credit: Slim Aarons
Photo credit: Slim Aarons

Rise of the Resistocrats

Undeniably, there are more of them today, and they don’t adhere to the old rule of appearing in the newspaper only for the big three milestones: birth, marriage, and death. Another beneficiary of Standard Oil money, David Kaiser, great-great-grandson of John D., was a climate change activist and critic of Exxon Mobil until his death at 50 in July.

Also in July, Disney and her brother Tim were among the 83 ultra-­affluent signatories of an open letter calling for a permanent wealth tax to help coronavirus relief efforts. But not everyone is as generous with their public statements as they are with their checkbooks. As one radical scion put it, declining a request for an attributable quote, “It’s 2020—regardless of how well intentioned you are, even the most innocuous comment will get you in trouble!”

Scroll through the Federal Election Commission filings, however, and there is no shortage of next-gen Pritzkers, Strykers, Gettys, and Simonses donating to candidates who support progressive causes to effect long-term political, societal, racial, and environmental change.

Photo credit: Matt Winkelmeyer - Getty Images
Photo credit: Matt Winkelmeyer – Getty Images

There’s even the odd Murdoch in the bunch. James Murdoch, who left one part the family business in 2018 after losing a succession battle worthy of HBO (a tale told in this summer’s three-part BBC documentary, The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty), and his wife Kathryn have recently used their considerable wealth to donate to Democratic Senate candidates and create the Quadrivium Foundation, which “invests in evidence-based solutions to some of society’s most urgent challenges,” especially climate change.

The opposite, in other words, of anti-science messaging from Rupert Murdoch–owned news media outlets, like Fox News and The New York Post. Not surprisingly, the younger Murdoch severed his last formal link to dad’s News Corp. a week ago by resigning from its board, citing “disagreements over certain editorial content published by the company’s news outlets and certain other strategic decisions.” Rupert responded with a brisk statement of his own, wishing his son “the very best in his future endeavors” like he was just some rank-and-filer who numbered among his employees. Still, it’s not like James won’t make it to family reunions: he is still a beneficiary of its trust, the New York Times noted.

“We are in the middle of a seismic generational transfer of wealth,” says Jason Franklin, founder of philanthropic consulting company Ktisis Capital and senior adviser to the Movement Voter Project, which connects individual donors with more than 400 organizations engaged in electoral rights. “We are seeing more money come into the hands of younger people who are increasingly connected to the kind of movement conversations that are bubbling up today.”

Perhaps none more than Leah Hunt-­Hendrix, an Occupy movement activist and the philanthropic powerhouse behind Way to Win, a donor collaborative that transcends candidate races by also funding progressive policies like the Green New Deal and expanding access to the ballot box through structural reforms. “The younger generation is more progressive in general, and so it stands to reason that younger donors are too,” she says. “We have raised $80 million in the last couple of years, and Way to Win and Solidaire”—another community of donors that she co-founded, in 2012, to provide resources to social movements—“are testament to the fact that there’s a set of philanthropists who are willing to dig into the root causes of the problems we face today.”

The New Gospel of Wealth

Photo credit: Slaven Vlasic - Getty Images
Photo credit: Slaven Vlasic – Getty Images

Hunt-Hendrix was born into the philanthrosphere. Though she is the granddaughter of Texas oil tycoon and ultraconservative donor Haroldson Lafayette Hunt Jr. (and niece of Nelson Bunker Hunt, who bankrolled a lot of the New Right in the 1970s, including the John Birch Society), she learned at the feet of her mother Helen LaKelly Hunt, who rebelled against her family, decamped to New York, fell in with the women’s movement, became friends with Abigail Disney and Gloria Steinem, and founded the New York Women’s Foundation and Women Moving Millions. “She’s an incredible organizer,” says Hunt-­Hendrix. “I have definitely followed in her footsteps.”

As Callahan notes in The Givers, “the swelling ranks of capable do-gooder heirs” brings to mind—and not without a hint of concern—the Guardians in Plato’s Republic, an unelected elite chosen at birth to serve the common good. But unlike Plato’s ruling class, who were scrupulously educated to fulfill their obligations, today’s genetic lottery winners—especially those not lucky enough to be guided by parents like Hunt-­Hendrix’s—are increasingly turning for guidance to networks such as One for Democracy, which asks pledgers to donate 1 percent of their assets to democratic efforts, and Resource Generation, which has 600 members, almost all under 35, who come from families with fortunes that put them in the country’s top 10 percent.

“I’m a huge believer in these networks,” says Hunt-­Hendrix, who temporarily ditched grad school at Princeton to go to the West Bank after she met an inspiring woman at a Resource Generation gathering. “Philosophically, I believe that you become who you surround yourself with, and these networks allow you to surround yourself with people who are on the same path, and share the same values. It’s very scary at first, though. It’s so strange to look around the room and worry that all we have in common is that we have wealthy parents.”

This story appears in the September 2020 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW

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