You're not supposed to understand the Hunter Biden smear. Chaos is the point
Acclaimed journalist and historian Anne Applebaum understands the universe of propaganda as well as anyone alive today. Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, she has devoted the past three decades to studying Russia and Eastern and Central Europe, with an emphasis on disinformation and propaganda so acute that she was herself targeted—by a Russian-originated smear campaign in retaliation for her writings about Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea. She now contributes her cache of knowledge to The Atlantic, among other publications.
For someone so well-versed, analyzing the blatant behavior of propagandist right-wing media outlets such as Fox News is something akin to a chess master analyzing the strategy of Tic-Tac-Toe—simple, and even relaxing. So after watching the antics of Donald Trump during his final debate with Joe Biden, she wrote a piece for The Atlantic on Friday that explains what millions of Americans are still shaking their heads in bewilderment about today: the source—and more importantly, the purpose—of Trump's bizarre accusations about Hunter Biden and his allegedly nefarious dealings with certain obscure individuals.
Of course the direct conduits of this nonsense are what we in the sane world regard as the fever swamps of paranoiac right-wing conspiracy thinking, most visibly manifested on the Fox News channel. As Applebaum notes, the actual storyline, spun out of whole cloth, is purposefully designed to be opaque, leading someone trying to divine the actual facts to become frustrated and give up trying to make sense of them. In fact, as her article's title suggests, "You're not supposed to understand the rumors about Biden."
Because the story is not intended to make sense, but to create a fog of doubt.
Just like the fictional legend these same people wove around "Hillary's emails," the Hunter Biden fiction also concerns emails—these ones allegedly kept by a former business partner of Hunter Biden, and miraculously disclosed to a peripheral former and supposed "investigative journalist" named Matthew Tyrmand. Tyrmand, notably, was formerly (and peripherally) associated with the right-wing fraudster and provocateur James O'Keefe.
That piece of critical information would lead most knowledgeable people to immediately shelve the unfounded Hunter Biden scheme in that mental compartment where bad ideas go to eventually die. But the Fox News audience is by definition anything but "knowledgeable people." On that network, the Hunter Biden nonsense is not something analogous to the disappointingly empty caverns of "Al Capone's vault," but rather an ever-opening flower, chock full of conspiracy-thinking goodness.
In releasing the 26,000 emails, Tyrmand and his collaborator, the Breitbart News contributor Peter Schweizer, are not bringing forth any evidence of actual lawbreaking, or an actual security threat, by either Hunter or Joe Biden. They are instead creating a miasma, an atmosphere, a foggy world in which misdeeds might have taken place, and in which corruption might have happened. They are also providing the raw material from which more elaborate stories can be constructed. The otherwise incomprehensible reference in last night's debate to "the mayor of Moscow's wife," from whom Joe Biden somehow got rich, was an excellent example of how this works. A name surfaces in a large collection of data; it is detached from its context; it is then used to make an insinuation or accusation that cannot be proved; it is then forgotten, unless it gains some traction, in which case it is repeated again.
Applebaum provides some basic background for the uninformed and uninitiated (i.e., normal Americans).
Those who live outside the Fox News bubble and intend to remain there do not, of course, need to learn any of this stuff. Judging by what has been published, the very worst thing that Tyrmand's email cache could reveal (if it is authentic) is that some unattractive people sought to use Hunter Biden's surname and connections to get business deals or score a visit to the White House for their clients. But we already know about Hunter Biden's involvement with unattractive people, and his struggles with addiction; we also know that, under normal circumstances, dozens of people visit the White House every day. On the grand scale of misdeeds committed by politicians and their relatives, this kind of thing barely registers.
Applebaum then helpfully includes a laundry list of Trump's corruption that puts to shame whatever the right hopes to spin out of this email concoction. As readers of Daily Kos, you're more than familiar with these.
But there is a purpose lurking here in the mind of Fox News mogul Rupert Murdoch. The first and most obvious? To assist Trump in deflecting attention—for these final 10 days—from his horrific malfeasance in the face of a pandemic whose vicious resurgence is soon likely to be the sole focus of the nightly newscasts. The second reason is to provide a ready well of sludge to draw upon in the seemingly likely event (as Murdoch himself has acknowledged) that the polls turn out to be correct, and Trump loses the election.
They will continue to serve a function after the election as well. If Biden wins, Foxworld will need some way to keep its audience focused on something other than the Cabinet he appoints, the new legislation he passes, and all the other events, decisions, and changes that used to constitute "news." Instead of all that real-life stuff—laws and regulations, statistics and investigations, debates about the economy and health care—the leading figures of the right-wing conspiracy bubble will, over the next months and years, dip into the email caches to keep their followers focused on an alternate reality in which Joe Biden is a secret oligarch, his son is an important figure in the Chinese mafia, and LOL nothing matters. Just as you need to know the backstories of the stars in the DC Comics universe in order to understand the nuances of a Batman movie, six months from now you might also need to know all about Cooney and Archer and the wife of the mayor of Moscow if you want to understand Ingraham's monologues.
Applebaum, a rapt student of propaganda, knows that outside of hosting the inevitable guest appearances (between court dates) that Donald Trump will insist on during the next four years—assuming he loses—the Fox News yappers need something to talk and talk about, and it certainly isn't going to be Republican policies. So this fictional narrative serves the interests both of Fox News—whose main concern is keeping its soon-to-be demoralized audience content and soporific—and also helps to deflect the inevitable horror stories that will be uncovered by a Democratic-controlled Congress investigating the Trump crime family's vast trail of detritus throughout our government.
By talking about Hunter Biden, the Trump family, especially the Trump children, also hopes to deflect attention from their own greatest weakness, namely the amoral, kleptocratic nepotism that they embody like no family ever before in American history...
None of them can win using ideas anymore, because they don't have any. All they can do is seek attention: gesticulate, wave their arms in the air, shout at the crowd, invent things, and try to attract the fame and attention they feel they deserve, even though they can no longer explain why they deserve it.
Put simply, assuming Joe Biden wins this election, we should all gear up for four long years of Fox News-inspired fantasy programming.
Of course, there's always the mute button.