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.