After 18 months of flogging the Hunter Biden story, what does President Donald Trump have to show for his efforts? His opposition research on former Vice President Joe Biden’s son culminated in his own impeachment. Despite railing against the scion’s alleged swampiness at nearly every rally, Trump’s convoluted narrative about Biden family corruption has taken root only on Fox News. At the very least, the accusation that Hunter leveraged his father’s high office to enrich himself has failed to measurably move the polls. Even Trump’s ardent supporters are now encouraging him to change the subject. Yet he remains obstinate in his obsession.
Without a coherent message or an affirmative vision for a second term, Trump has clearly been betting his reelection on what military planners would call a “psyop,” or a psychological operation. That is, he hopes to use gamesmanship to destabilize the mind of his adversary, forcing him into a moment of anger or incoherence that illustrates his lack of fitness for the office. (“Too old and out of it” is how Trump puts it.) His attacks on Hunter Biden should be understood as the pillar of this strategy.
Although Trump might not have deep reservoirs of empathy or much patience for understanding an opposing point of view, he does excel at one psychological discipline: He possesses a bully’s eye for an individual’s point of greatest emotional vulnerability. During the 2016 campaign, he distilled his diagnoses of his opponents into epithets that he would repeat until they stuck. Jeb Bush was “low-energy Jeb,” thus rendering his palpable ambivalence about his presidential bid and more ruminative style into evidence of fundamental patheticness. Marco Rubio was “little Marco”—or even “liddle Marco”—which conflated his physical stature and his immature tendency to strain for unreachable rhetorical heights. For Trump, these efficiently dismissive phrases were a point of pride.
But the locus classicus of this Trump strategy came in the second debate of the 2016 general election. In order to mess with Hillary Clinton’s head, he planned on bringing Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Juanita Broaddrick into the hall as guests. The idea was that as the Democratic nominee fielded questions about NATO and Obamacare, she would have to avoid locking eyes with women who had accused her spouse of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or rape. In the end, the Commission on Presidential Debates nixed the gambit and warned that security would prevent the women from entering. (To save face, Trump held a pre-debate press conference with them.) Still, the episode perfectly captures the essence of his political thinking.
When Trump hurls accusations against Hunter Biden, he instinctively knows that he’s pressing his current opponent’s greatest vulnerability, one achingly depicted in a profile of Hunter by The New Yorker’s Adam Entous. Having survived the car crash that killed his sister and mother, Hunter has lived with the scars that make everyday life a seemingly unwinnable affair. As a grown man, Hunter would hole up in his Washington, D.C., apartment, leaving only to buy bottles of Smirnoff. His father, then the vice president, would call several times a day; he would show up unannounced to prod his son out of his darkest confines, telling him, “I need you. What do we need to do?”
The subject of Hunter was a source of such profound sadness that many aides disliked ever raising it with the vice president, even if they might have had misgivings about the younger Biden’s professional dealings. One source told Entous that difficult conversations about family would cause Joe Biden to get “deeply melancholy, which, to me, is more painful than if someone yelled and screamed at me. It’s like you’ve hurt him terribly. That was always my fear, that I would be really touching a very fragile part of him.”
That fragile part of him is what Trump is furiously poking now. He’s cruelly lashing Biden, not to explain the relevance of an esoteric scandal that doesn’t directly indict the ethics of his opponent, but because he seems to hope that his raising the subject will induce an unbecoming outburst of emotion onstage. On Trump’s own terms, perhaps the strategy has some logic to it. Earlier this week, Biden responded to a CBS News reporter’s questions about Hunter with a burst of apoplexy.
Or more likely, the strategy will boomerang against Trump. When the president tried to raise the subject of Hunter in the last debate, he did manage to push his opponent into a moment of astonishing vulnerability. But instead of making Biden look disoriented or feeble, Trump’s attack evoked the sort of raw compassion and pure paternal love that campaign-advertising brains would kill to capture in a 30-second spot.
But as Rupert Murdoch’s outlets and the president himself continue to flog the scandal, spare a moment for Hunter Biden—a man who is recovering from addiction, a brother whose misery is the apparent shame of having survived his siblings, a son who is now the bludgeon that enemies hope will destroy his father. He is being sacrificed to a president who views the sadistic exploitation of a family’s tragedy as his own best hope of salvation. In its grotesqueness, this is a near-perfect closing argument, a presidency distilled.
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