In one of those bits of synchronicity that are probably not accidental and which seem to occur on occasion in Washington, the Democratic minority on the House Oversight Committee and the supportive external group Congressional Integrity Project released deprecatory assessments Monday of the House Republican effort to intertwine President Biden and his son Hunter’s business activities.
That effort, led by Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) with an assist by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), has, in fact, been an investigatory dud. Comer, Jordan and others have worked feverishly to construct a circumstantial case linking Hunter’s business (itself framed as ungenerously as possible) with his father. Comer was central, for example, to the elevation of a claim that both Bidens had received multimillion-dollar bribes — a claim that was never substantiated to any significant extent.
But the lack of evidence — acknowledged by a handful of Republicans, as the new reports document — has not proved to be an impediment to the effort to impugn the president. Polling from CNN released last week found that 6 in 10 Americans think the president was involved in Hunter Biden’s business, with 4 in 10 thinking that involvement was illegal. That comports with similar findings from YouGov released last month.
There’s a simple reason this has gained traction. The allegation is difficult to disprove and easy to insinuate, as have been so many allegations in the past. This particular allegation, though, is also powered by a media-elite narrative of the type often disparaged by the right — but in this case, it’s the right that’s powering it.
This was made obvious to me last week when an interview I’d given got an unexpected — and dishonest — level of attention. At first, the outrage it generated was centered on my resistance to the idea that Hunter Biden business associate Devon Archer’s testimony significantly implicated the president, something I’d already written about. Then a snippet of the interview was taken out of context to suggest that I’d been so flummoxed that I’d walked out of the interview, something that I didn’t do (as the YouTube page for the interview admits). But I understood the appeal. Instead of acknowledging that, 75 minutes into a 45-minute interview, I was disinterested in speculating on something that was outside the purview of what I was there to talk about, it was much more appealing to suggest that the mainstream media was very scared by hard questions.
It was fascinating to watch the rhetoric unfold. I was cast as a clumsy defender of an imagined elite consensus — an indefensible consensus that I am duty-bound or income-bound or whatever-bound to protect at all costs. And I was cast this way for challenging the right’s elite consensus, slowly constructed by conservative media outlets and elected leaders such as Comer and Jordan.
From May through August, Fox News mentioned Devon Archer at least 1,100 times, according to a GDELT Analysis of Internet Archive closed captioning. They mentioned “bribe” or “bribery” in the context of Biden 1,300 times. And they mentioned Hunter Biden nearly 12,000 times, more than twice MSNBC and CNN combined. Archer’s exculpatory testimony before House Oversight, which is explicit and obvious, is rarely if ever entered into the mix.
In correlation, 90 percent of Republicans told CNN that Biden was involved in Hunter’s business, with three-quarters deeming it to be illegal. This level of enthusiasm for an idea on the right is telling in the Donald Trump era. His rise to the nomination in 2015 and 2016 was derived from his willingness to echo right-wing rhetoric and narratives, and his party and his allies soon learned that there was a lot more reward in doing the same (and in agreeing with Trump) than in challenging the status quo.
Such things become self-fulfilling, with the rhetoric powering the belief and the belief rewarding the rhetoric. The result is an environment in which the competition for attention centers on overhyping new developments, on being the one to identify the most recent smoking gun or to contextualize something in the most favorable light possible for what is already believed.
The parallels to the right’s presentation of the Russia investigation are obvious. The media was criticized endlessly — and at times with justification — for the way in which allegations about the Trump campaign’s overlap with Russian interference efforts were covered. Often, this depended on cherry-picking opinion journalism for examples or ignoring what was actually uncovered. But the central thesis — that there was a concerted-if-ad-hoc effort by media and those in power to malign Trump — is exactly what’s at play now for Biden. Even if, as remains possible, Biden is shown to have acted inappropriately in his interactions with his son.
This irony is ignored because it is at odds with another aspect of the right’s agreed-upon narrative: it’s necessarily only the left that controls institutions of power and influence. This has always been the contradiction at the heart of Fox News. The network that consistently reaches more viewers than its competitors nonetheless cast itself as sitting outside the world of media power brokers. This gambit works because the right has been successful in framing itself as the outsider to power, just as a billionaire from Manhattan was able to present himself as a figure of anti-elite fury.
In reality, there is also a powerful aggregation of figures in right-wing media and politics that work collectively (if only sporadically with intentionality) to frame political rhetoric. In the Trump era in particular, unity has been relatively easier to find and the rewards for agreement with that unity are more immediate.
Not all criticism of Biden is insincere by any stretch, nor has every question about Hunter Biden been answered. But the idea that it’s the mainstream media that is working in concert and dishonestly to protect the president seems less obvious than the idea that those in power on the right are working in concert to kneecap him.