Republicans want Hunter Biden's trial to distract from Trump's crimes — but, so far, it's backfiring

It illustrates instead how Democrats aren't lying, getting defensive, or pushing conspiracy theories

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published June 7, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Hunter Biden, son of U.S. President Joe Biden, departs from the J. Caleb Boggs Federal Building on June 3 2024, in Wilmington, Delaware. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Hunter Biden, son of U.S. President Joe Biden, departs from the J. Caleb Boggs Federal Building on June 3 2024, in Wilmington, Delaware. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

For a study in contrasts, it doesn't get more stark than the partisan reactions to the 34 felony convictions of Donald Trump versus the ongoing trial of Hunter Biden, the son of the sitting president. Even though Trump was convicted in a New York state court by a jury of 12 ordinary people, Republicans rushed forward to defend Trump with a series of lies and conspiracy theories. Although President Joe Biden had no hand in the prosecution, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La. blamed the "Biden administration" for an imaginary "weaponization of our justice system." Attorney General Merrick Garland was hauled before Congress and sat through hours of Republicans blaming him for the verdict. While few Republicans are stupid enough to pretend Trump is innocent, they refuse to accept that the only man responsible for the convictions is the man who committed the 34 felonies: Donald J. Trump. 

What treatment of Biden's trial illustrates is the vast gulf between the two parties when it comes not just to respect for the rule of law, but whether they have a basic grasp on reality.

In contrast, Democrats just aren't defending Hunter Biden on charges that he lied on a gun application about his drug addiction. President Biden released a statement affirming that he has "boundless love" for his son, but that he "won't comment" further. He has since affirmed he will not pardon his son if he's convicted. When asked about it, Democratic politicians and progressive pundits mostly reaffirm faith in the justice system and leave it at that. The only politician defending the younger Biden appears to be Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who said (accurately enough), "I don’t think the average American would have been charged with the gun thing." Outside of the rabid conspiracy theory MAGA circles, the social media response has mostly been variations of, to quote one Redditor, "Dear weirdos. no one cares about Hunter Biden. Signed, normal America."

This was not how things were supposed to go. The sad saga of Joe Biden's only living son — the president lost a small child in a car accident in 1972 and his other son died of cancer in 2015 — was supposed to be the bright, shiny electoral gambit for the GOP. Republicans were going to use it to distract voters from the fact that their own presidential nominee is a career criminal who incited a fascist insurrection. As Roger Sollenberger of the Daily Beast wrote, every time someone points out Trump is a big-time criminal, Republicans "invoked a ‘whatabout’ defense to counter the charges with accusations about the sitting president’s son."

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But what about Hunter Biden? He isn't running for office. His misdeeds, as sordid as they may be, appear to have no victims outside of his friends and family members who have endured the fallout from his addictions. Trump, in contrast, has repeatedly conspired against the American people, from the election interference he was convicted for late last month to attempted coup at the center of two of his three still-pending trials. Even the much-discussed "low information" voters aren't so dumb as to confuse these two situations. 

No doubt the mainstream media, forever addicted to bothsiderism, has been lavishly covering Hunter Biden's trial, almost as if to make up for the heavy coverage of Trump's objectively more important criminal trial. I have no doubt, either, that there's a huge amount of audience interest. Heaven knows I found myself reading more than one article recounting the trial testimony about crack pipes and Cadillacs. Even on that level, Google Trends shows that it's hard for the gossipy aspects of the Biden trial to compete with the tabloidy aspects of the Trump trial.     

More importantly, the political relevance of these two stories can't really be measured by prurient interest. The case for why Trump's felony convictions should impact vote choice is clear-cut: His abiding interest in defrauding the public makes him untrustworthy as a public servant. No one can explain, however, why Joe Biden would be a bad president because his son struggles with severe mental health and addiction issues. 

What treatment of Biden's trial illustrates is the vast gulf between the two parties when it comes not just to respect for rule of law, but whether they have a basic grasp on reality. The Republican obsession with Hunter Biden speaks more about them than it does about either President Biden or the larger Democratic Party. In the grifting economy of right-wing media, there's plenty of money to be had with lazy propaganda films meant to titillate elderly MAGA viewers with scenes depicting Hunter Biden smoking crack and nuzzling the breasts of sex workers. But it's not at all clear that anyone outside of the already MAGA-pilled is worked into a froth over this. 

Hunter Biden's trial tells a story that all too many Americans, across the political spectrum, are familiar with: The pain of loving a drug addict. Prosecutors shared text messages between Hunter Biden and Hallie Biden, the widow of his brother Beau Biden. The two had an ill-advised affair amid their shared grief and at the time of Hunter Biden's application for a gun license. "I don’t want to live like this anymore. This is too much for me to handle," Hallie Biden wrote. It's a sad thing. It's a common thing. But it's hard to imagine this will get anyone so angry that they feel they have to vote for Trump to punish the Bidens. Even if you don't feel much about President Biden one way or another, it's hard not to pity him and his family at this moment. 

Readers can be forgiven if they forgot that, technically speaking, President Biden has been subject to an "impeachment inquiry" by House Republicans for nearly a year now. It's barely rated as a media event. Republicans even struggled to get much interest from the making-it-all-up-anyway right-wing press. "Those months of effort produced nothing of substance by the end of 2023, leading Comer and his colleagues to repeatedly attempt to exaggerate the importance of demonstrably nonsignificant findings," Philip Bump of the Washington Post wrote Wednesday.

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Unable to find even a shadow of a thread of evidence to demonize President Biden, the committee instead lamely requested criminal referrals of Hunter Biden and President Biden's brother. And even MAGA diehards don't really care about the brother, because of the lack of cocaine and strippers. These referrals will almost certainly go nowhere. After all, Biden's DOJ is already prosecuting Biden's son, a reality that cuts directly against Republican claims that Biden has politicized the department against his political enemies. 

In the end, it may be that the right's need for self-titillation was what doomed these efforts to make Hunter Biden their latest faux-scandal. Previous hoax scandals — such as "Benghazi" — worked because the false allegations towards Democrats involved a lot of complex inner workings of government that most people aren't going to take the time to understand. The obtuse nature of the conspiracy theory allowed people to assume whatever it is, it must be bad.

But a story of a man self-medicating his grief by acting out and abusing drugs? That's a story most of us understand perfectly well, and plenty of us have direct personal experience with. Such understanding makes it very hard to argue that Hunter Biden's troubles have some larger political meaning that should bother voters at all. Even if he gets convicted, which the evidence suggests is likely, it's hard to see how it makes much impact beyond reminding people that the Bidens, in their all-too-common tragedy, are much more relatable than the Trumps. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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