What exactly is at the root of the right’s Hunter Biden obsession? At its simplest level, the Hunter saga is just a potential Achilles’ heel for a president they want to defeat in 2024, assuming Joe Biden runs. But that has never quite explained the manic quality of the drive to turn Hunter into the symbol and standard-bearer of the Democratic Party and of liberalism generally. It had to have something to do, I always thought, with the notion that Hunter represents the licentiousness with which conservatives associate liberals—his drug use, his sketchy affair with his dead brother’s wife, and now his entry into the effete and vaguely un-American Manhattan art world.
But this weekend, things got even weirder—and in ways that were so sordid it took me a while to even understand what was going on.
If you had the good fortune or sense not to crawl down this particular rabbit hole over the weekend, fear not, I won’t drag you into the depths that I descended. The briefest recap is this. On Friday, Elon Musk tweeted that he was going to reveal how Twitter supposedly covered up the Hunter Biden scandal in October 2020. Matt Taibbi (“the Tulsi Gabbard of Substack,” as The Bulwark’s Tim Miller icily dubbed him) posted some of the emails found on Hunter’s hard drive. Some showed the Biden campaign asking Twitter to refrain from posting certain material.
That’s basically it. In some quarters of the right, this is the biggest scandal in the history of the republic, because it allegedly proves that Biden used his governmental power (a neat trick for someone who, at the time, controlled no part of the government) to set fire to the Constitution. “If this isn’t a violation of the Constitution’s first amendment, what is,” Musk tweeted.
What this actually proves is two things about Musk. First, he is a constitutional illiterate. The First Amendment enjoins only the government from suppressing speech. During his 2020 campaign, Biden was a private citizen, so he had no means by which to violate the First Amendment at all. It also proves that Musk knows nothing about how politics and journalism work. Throughout history, media, and now social media, have gotten hold of material that might embarrass a campaign. The campaign learns of it, and the campaign pleads its case that the material is merely prurient and that publishing it would be gratuitous and not in the public interest.
Sometimes campaigns win that argument, sometimes they lose. I’ve had a few of those kinds of conversations myself over the years. They can get heated. But they never have anything to do with the First Amendment. They’re about exercising news judgment and defining what’s in the public interest. But it’s very easy for cynics to make idiots who don’t know what the First Amendment does and does not cover believe that they’re about the First Amendment.
Now: Here’s the psychotic part. As Miller put it: “The offending material that Taibbi revealed was removed by Twitter at the Biden campaign’s request turns out to have been a bunch of links to Hunter Biden in the buff.” And these photos revealed to the world that Hunter has … well, you know … let’s just say that he has been blessed by nature. The New York Post reported over the summer on its actual size. You can go look that up if you wish.
So here, clearly, is still one more thing for the right to hate about Hunter. Don’t laugh. Men don’t talk about it much in polite company, but this is something many men think about to the point of obsession. And isn’t it particularly acute among conservative men, all full of that macho swagger? Isn’t that swagger a form of compensation, like that bright orange Dodge Charger the 61-year-old balding man suddenly decides he can’t live without? And isn’t Donald Trump, who still smarts 30 years later from being dubbed “short-fingered” by Spy, the most insecure of all men along these lines? You surely don’t forget the time he actually made his penis a campaign issue in 2016. It’s not the kind of thing you can unremember.
OK, I’ll admit that I can’t look deep into the psyches of all these right-wing men and so I should not overgeneralize about them. I am not asserting that James Comer, the incoming chairman of the House Oversight Committee who has vowed to make the 118th Congress entirely about Hunter Biden, is thinking about how the first son holsters his Dillinger as he contemplates how he’s going to cut him down to—as it were—size. But I am saying, absolutely, that there is something strange and psychological about the Hunter obsession.
Perhaps it comes down to simply this: It’s all they have, and that makes them insane. Joe Biden has been in public life for half a century and has never been attached to a whiff of financial scandal. It makes the right, especially the Trumpy right, nuts. In Trumpworld, everyone is corrupt; that’s a given. Only schmucks aren’t out to cut corners and game the system. The only difference is between those smart enough to get away with it and those dumb enough to get caught.
So the right tried to connect Biden’s urging of the firing of that Ukrainian prosecutor to some notion that he was protecting Hunter from scrutiny, but that wasn’t true. Then, in 2020, the discovery of Hunter’s laptop in that Delaware shop, and its subsequent authentication, was touted as a huge scandal in and of itself. This was because most of the mainstream press was slow to acknowledge that the laptop really was Hunter’s. They were slow, in other words, to follow the lead of Fox News and the New York Post and Rudy Giuliani and Steve Bannon. Gee, I wonder why that would be.
Yes, it is his laptop (which I personally never doubted, so I for one was not in on the big liberal media “cover-up”). Various reports have appeared over the subsequent two years discussing its contents. But no one to this point has leaked word of Joe Biden saying to his son, “Hunter, buddy, cut me in on that China deal, and when I become president, I’ll make sure Huawei gets to put a listening device in every smartphone sold in America, and I’ll speak darkly of Taipei’s ‘provocations’ when Xi invades Taiwan.”
No one has turned up any evidence of anything like that. They still could! But remember, Rudy Giuliani had that laptop before the last presidential election. If something really incriminating about Joe Biden had been on there, it seems to me likely we’d have learned it then.
Here, however, is something that the authorities did find on the hard drive. It’s a voicemail message from father to son: “It’s Dad. I called to tell you I love you. I love you more than the whole world, pal. Got to get some help. You gotta get some help. I don’t know what to do. I know you don’t either, but I am here no matter what you need, no matter what you need, I love you.”
That is the Joe Biden we know—a decent and compassionate man, the man who helped that one boy overcome his stutter and who comforts those in mourning with such obvious sincerity. He’s the mirror image of the man the right has made its recent leader and hero, a man who would discard a drug-addicted child as a weakling in about five seconds and would humiliate a stutterer who had the misfortune to stumble into his dark presence.
And it is on these rocks that I suspect the GOP’s Hunter obsession may crash, in the end. Lots of families don’t have international wheeler-dealers trying to trade on their dad’s name, that much is true. But lots of families have black sheep, and millions of them are familiar with what it’s like to have loved ones who struggle with addiction. More Americans will look upon Hunter Biden with some measure of pity than Republicans think (aside from wondering why the hell they’re carrying on about him instead of trying to do something for middle-class families).
The Hunter crusade is thus driven not only by pursuit of scandal to hang around his father’s neck; it is rooted in the right’s antique and cruel values system, which most Americans no longer share. Should Republicans catch Hunter in some genuinely corrupt or illegal arrangement, so be it! Let him pay his debt to society. If they don’t, they will be left wondering why America doesn’t share their seething hatred of a man whom the Jesus they claim to worship would have counseled us to regard with compassion. These would-be Javerts with their weird psychosexual obsessions are the ones who are truly out of touch.