You’re Not Supposed to Understand the Rumors About Biden
To raise doubts about the Democratic nominee, right-wing-media smears don’t even need to make sense.
On Tuesday, Fox News’ Laura Ingraham broke some news: An “investigative journalist” named Matthew Tyrmand had uncovered a cache of 26,000 emails belonging to Hunter Biden’s disgraced business partner Bevan Cooney, who is now in jail. Tyrmand claimed that he had gotten hold of the emails via a person in the same facility as Cooney (a “federal work camp for white-collar infractions,” is how Tyrmand put it). Tyrmand explained that Cooney felt stiffed by Biden, the son of the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, and implied that Cooney had handed over his own Gmail password in an act of revenge.
Perhaps that’s what happened. Or perhaps not: I have good reason to doubt the reliability of the source. The last time I saw Tyrmand was in October 2017. I was speaking at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and he was in the audience. Security guards were keeping an eye on him after I warned them that he might show up: He’d come to another public lecture of mine the previous day in New York City, then had turned up in Boston and announced on Twitter that he was following me to Cambridge. His goal, I think, was to shout at me and draw attention to himself while waving a cellphone camera in the air, which is what he’d done in the past. But the lecture went off smoothly; afterward, a very gentle and very tall Harvard professor stood firmly between us, engaging Tyrmand in vigorous conversation so that I could slip away unharassed. I didn’t hear directly from Tyrmand after that—I block the social-media accounts of tiresome trolls. But I gather that, year in and year out, he continues to post obsessively about me and my husband, a Polish politician, including photographs taken surreptitiously in public places. I have no idea why.
A clue might come from a 2016 New Yorker story in which Tyrmand (who is described as an “investor,” not a journalist) plays a minor role in a ludicrously clumsy attempt to run a sting operation on the Open Society Foundations, which are funded by the prodemocracy philanthropist George Soros. The deception failed, according to The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, because James O’Keefe, the notoriously unprincipled leader of a group called Project Veritas, forgot to hang up the phone after calling the Open Society office. In a long voicemail, he inadvertently recorded himself plotting to embarrass Soros. These are people who think that smear campaigns are politics, harassment is journalism, and online stalking is something you do for fun.
For those trying to follow along at home, the emails produced by Tyrmand are not the same emails that originally appeared on a laptop that Hunter Biden supposedly left at a Delaware computer-repair shop, the laptop that then became a story in the New York Post (and whose contents, according to a report in Time, were circulating previously in Ukraine). This is a different cache, one that is even more tangential to the U.S. presidential campaign and even harder to understand. In order to even make sense of the messages’ content, the reader must learn the backstories of a whole new cast of characters, not just Cooney but two other convicted fraudsters named Devon Archer and Jason Galanis; the wife of the former mayor of Moscow, Yelena Baturina; and Chris Heinz, John Kerry’s stepson, who broke away from the group; as well as their relationships, their jokes (they refer to Baturina as the “USSR woman’s shot put champion”), and the rules of the ugly world they inhabit. In order to link them to Joe Biden, you have to turn somersaults, do triple flips, and squint very hard.
Those who live outside the Fox News bubble and intend to remain there do not, of course, need to learn any of this stuff. Judging by what has been published, the very worst thing that Tyrmand’s email cache could reveal (if it is authentic) is that some unattractive people sought to use Hunter Biden’s surname and connections to get business deals or score a visit to the White House for their clients. But we already know about Hunter Biden’s involvement with unattractive people, and his struggles with addiction; we also know that, under normal circumstances, dozens of people visit the White House every day. On the grand scale of misdeeds committed by politicians and their relatives, this kind of thing barely registers. Compare that with, say, the Trump family’s well-documented hotel deal with an Azerbaijani business family linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Or the Trump family’s blatant use of its status to funnel money to its own companies. Or the Trumps’ illegal abuse of their charitable foundation. Or the president’s secret Chinese business bank account. The Trump family is a living, breathing, walking conflict of interest—so much so that much of Donald Trump’s foreign policy is most easily explained through the lens of his personal greed and his hotel investments, not as the emanation of any kind of American national interest.
But this, of course, is not the point. In releasing the 26,000 emails, Tyrmand and his collaborator, the Breitbart News contributor Peter Schweizer, are not bringing forth any evidence of actual lawbreaking, or an actual security threat, by either Hunter or Joe Biden. They are instead creating a miasma, an atmosphere, a foggy world in which misdeeds might have taken place, and in which corruption might have happened. They are also providing the raw material from which more elaborate stories can be constructed. The otherwise incomprehensible reference in last night’s debate to “the mayor of Moscow’s wife,” from whom Joe Biden somehow got rich, was an excellent example of how this works. A name surfaces in a large collection of data; it is detached from its context; it is then used to make an insinuation or accusation that cannot be proved; it is then forgotten, unless it gains some traction, in which case it is repeated again.
As Americans learned during the 2016 presidential campaign, an email dump is an ideal source for this kind of raw material, not least because email communications are so often informal. When people speak or write to one another privately, they make jokes, they test out ideas, they use language they would not use in public. This does not necessarily make them duplicitous: All of us speak differently depending on whether we are talking to our friends, our families, or a large auditorium filled with strangers. In many languages, these different kinds of conversations require distinct forms of grammar.
But just as the misuse of grammar can make someone sound illiterate, a note meant for one person’s eyes can look jarringly out of place when it appears in, say, a newspaper. The change of context alters not just the weight of what was written, but the meaning. This is what happened in 2016 to the emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee by Russian intelligence and released by WikiLeaks. Those messages contained no actual scandals either—only the miasma of scandal. And that was all that mattered. But her emails was an effective phrase precisely because it was so amorphous. It was an allusion to a whole world of unnamed, unknown, and, as it turned out, fictional horrors.
Time and experience have taught many who work in the media to understand all of this better. In 2016, American journalists weren’t yet attuned to the many ways in which masses of irrelevant, hacked material could be used to waste their time. Now they are. That’s why relatively few people, other than Tyrmand (who must have a lot of time on his hands, considering how much of it he has wasted on me), have devoted much effort to the study of Bevan Cooney’s Gmail account or the material supposedly found on the waterlogged laptop. Yet these stories, which have miraculously appeared within a few days of each other, nevertheless have a purpose.
To begin with, these revelations are clearly timed to give the president something to talk about, other than the coronavirus, over the last two weeks of an ugly election campaign. By making wild references to the characters who have emerged in emails and texts, Trump hopes to undermine Joe Biden’s most important electoral asset: the impression, shared by even those who don’t like the former vice president, that he is a fundamentally decent person.
They will continue to serve a function after the election as well. If Biden wins, Foxworld will need some way to keep its audience focused on something other than the Cabinet he appoints, the new legislation he passes, and all the other events, decisions, and changes that used to constitute “news.” Instead of all that real-life stuff—laws and regulations, statistics and investigations, debates about the economy and health care—the leading figures of the right-wing conspiracy bubble will, over the next months and years, dip into the email caches to keep their followers focused on an alternate reality in which Joe Biden is a secret oligarch, his son is an important figure in the Chinese mafia, and LOL nothing matters. Just as you need to know the backstories of the stars in the DC Comics universe in order to understand the nuances of a Batman movie, six months from now you might also need to know all about Cooney and Archer and the wife of the mayor of Moscow if you want to understand Ingraham’s monologues. The extraordinary and completely unsupported insinuation, made by Wisconsin’s Republican senator, Ron Johnson, that child pornography was found on Hunter Biden’s alleged laptop also looks like an unsubtle attempt to persuade the followers of the QAnon cult to fold this story into their dreamworld as well.
As my colleague Franklin Foer has written, the email drops may also be a kind of psy-op, a cruel provocation designed to bully Joe Biden by hitting him in his weakest spot. Having lost a young daughter to a car accident and an adult son, Beau, to brain cancer, the senior Biden is known to be particularly sensitive about Hunter, his only living son. Voters got a glimpse of the pain he feels during the first debate, when Biden responded to Trump’s false declaration that Hunter had been dishonorably discharged from the military: “My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem,” he said. “He’s overtaken it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him. I’m proud of my son.”
In that instance, Biden recovered. Next time, he might not. By bringing up Hunter’s name over and over again, the Trump campaign may hope to make Biden emotional, or make him stumble, just as it hopes to provoke his stutter, or at least a gaffe.
By talking about Hunter Biden, the Trump family, especially the Trump children, also hopes to deflect attention from their own greatest weakness, namely the amoral, kleptocratic nepotism that they embody like no family ever before in American history. Their use of this tactic is not remotely subtle. Last summer, Donald Trump Jr. was in Indonesia to promote two Trump-branded properties; Eric Trump has traveled to Uruguay; Donald Trump himself has stayed at his own properties more than 500 times as president, using his presence as a form of advertising. And yet, days after authorities approved plans for a new Trump golf course in Scotland, Eric Trump took to Twitter to declare that “when my father became president we stepped out of all international business.” Only in the fantastical world of Fox can anyone hear that statement and not laugh out loud.
Last but not least, this kind of story also serves to provide employment, or at least activity, for rudderless, aimless, angry people such as Tyrmand. In a way, his own family’s evolution matches the evolution of conservatism itself, away from the seriousness of purpose that defined at least part of the movement during the Cold War, and toward the con games and conspiracy theories that entertain its members in the present. Tyrmand’s father, Leopold, was a famous Polish anti-communist writer, the author of a dark and brilliant diary written at the height of the Stalinist years. In the 1960s, he finally went into exile, and spent a couple of grumpy decades in New York, dying when his son was a small child and leaving him and his mother without much money. Matthew Tyrmand’s original ambition was, as he told a Polish journalist, to become “a wealthy Manhattan asshole.”
When those ambitions went unfulfilled, Tyrmand drifted to Poland instead, where he sought to become a kind of political Hunter Biden—somehow capitalizing on his father’s name, making some sort of public career despite speaking little Polish. He tried to ingratiate himself with the Polish far right; he made himself known for vulgar insults; he volunteered to advise the nationalist government, but when this connection became public, the foreign minister quickly broke with him. Eventually, he became the subject of mocking articles with headlines such as “The Charlatan With the Famous Surname.” He drifted back to America, back into the world of political sabotage, dirty tricks, and what was known in the Nixon era as “ratfucking.”
This trajectory is not unusual. Laura Ingraham herself has followed the well-trod path by which acolytes of Reaganism become accessories to ratfucking. So has Tyrmand’s colleague Schweizer. He co-edited a book, published in 1988, called Grinning With the Gipper: The Wit, Wisdom, and Wisecracks of Ronald Reagan; later, he wrote a book with former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. Now he is focused on Cooney, Archer, and the other characters in the Foxworld universe.
None of them can win using ideas anymore, because they don’t have any. All they can do is seek attention: gesticulate, wave their arms in the air, shout at the crowd, invent things, and try to attract the fame and attention they feel they deserve, even though they can no longer explain why they deserve it. As the gap widens further between the reality lived by most of the public and the “reality” presented by people such as Ingraham and Tyrmand on Fox News, they will need to generate even more noise and even more activity if they are to keep their audience’s attention. This fantasyland is now the business model of Fox and Breitbart, and it will be with us for a long time, whatever happens on November 3.