But what would it even look like for Biden to get rattled by Trump’s attacks on his son, and why would such an outcome, even if it happened, play in Trump’s favor?
If anything, this whole idea highlights our failure to take into account a subterranean dynamic that has surely helped Biden and harmed Trump: the contrast in life stories and temperament between the candidates.
“Mr. Trump’s advisers hope that he can get under Mr. Biden’s skin on Thursday at the debate,” the New York Times reports. But they’re also worried that Trump will botch this project:
The president has signaled he intends to focus on Mr. Biden’s son Hunter and his business dealings, after an unsubstantiated New York Post report on that subject. But some advisers fear he will not be able to control himself and will attack the younger Mr. Biden in a way that engenders sympathy for the Biden family, a dynamic that unfolded in the first debate when Mr. Trump mocked Hunter Biden’s history of battling drug addiction.
That suggests there’s some way to make this succeed. Focus only on Hunter Biden’s business dealings, not his personal problems, and Trump just might get under Joe Biden’s skin in a good way, without arousing sympathy for Hunter Biden over his problems or for his father over the years of pain they caused him.
As it is, Trump proved unable to resist attacking Hunter Biden’s personal problems at the first debate. That produced a powerful moment in which Joe Biden reaffirmed his love for Hunter and declared that he’s “proud” of his son for overcoming his struggles.
But even if Trump does refrain from going that route on Thursday night, it’s unlikely that an attack confined to Hunter Biden’s business dealings will be all that effective.
One could imagine a way Trump might spin this to successfully create the vague impression that the Bidens were co-conspirators in shady international self-dealing. But Trump is much more likely to talk about this in right-wing media-bubble vernacular. That will be white noise to swing voters.
What’s more, voters will likely see these attacks through the prism of Trump’s deep corruption. They’ve already seen Trump get impeached for trying to strong-arm an ally into helping make these narratives seem true. Voters understood that Trump and his co-conspirators, not the Bidens, were the corrupt parties in that whole affair.
We’ve also already seen Trump angrily demand that his attorney general investigate Hunter Biden. Yet it isn’t happening, and voters understand that Trump is desperate for a Hail Mary and that he’s willing to stoop to any low to get one. It’s likely this will look like more of the same.
The voters Trump must win back — educated Whites, women — are unlikely to believe Joe Biden engaged in corrupt dealings on his son’s behalf. Once the details are seen as unimportant, any such attacks will likely come across as assaults on Biden’s family, undertaken for desperate reasons.
Indeed, those voters will likely see these attacks as exactly what they have been advertised to be — an effort to rattle Biden. As Franklin Foer writes, at bottom this will constitute an effort at psychological warfare.
But the very act of waging this psychological warfare will likely be seen in the context of voters’ broader understanding of Biden’s life and relationship to Hunter. As Foer notes, this is a wrenching story:
When Trump hurls accusations against Hunter Biden, he instinctively knows that he’s pressing his current opponent’s greatest vulnerability … 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.... 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.
It’s not clear how acquainted with these details most voters are, but my bet is they will grasp those basic dynamics.
General impressions of the life stories and character of candidates matter to voters. They often matter very deeply. In this case, voters understand that Biden’s family losses — and his son’s struggles — are a source of great pain to him, pain that he’s wrestled with for years.
They also understand that Trump delights in self-imagined dominance, emotional bullying and sadistic provocation. Trump won’t be able to disguise that these attacks — even if he manages to keep them confined to Hunter Biden’s finances — come in part from that dark, ugly, seething place. And that isn’t going to help him.
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