The all-in-the-family approach to political attacks has a long history

Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of "Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics." She co-hosts the history podcast "Past Present" and "This Day in Esoteric Political History." The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)In the closing days of the 2020 election, allies of President Donald Trump tried to reenact the 2016 version of the election, right down to the suspiciously derived emails and dark suggestions of corrupt dealings that never entirely made sense. This time around, instead of targeting President Trump's opponent, his allies and surrogates moved all in on a set of stories about Joe Biden's son, Hunter. They allegedly first peddled the story to The Wall Street Journal, but when reporters needed time to authenticate the evidence and verify the details, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani gave it to the New York Post instead.

Nicole Hemmer
Nicole Hemmer
Rather than celebrating a repeat performance of the Hillary Clinton email distraction, some Republicans in recent days have lamented that the Hunter Biden story has failed to catch on outside of conservative circles. They've attributed that failure to changes in journalism (more outlets are opting to verify before choosing to amplify) and in social media (Facebook and Twitter throttled the spread of the dubious New York Post story published last week, though Twitter later apologized for blocking links to the Post's story). Both actions led to widespread outrage on the right, with accusations of bias and election interference, and even Republicans essentially re-purposing a congressional hearing as a grilling of executives about the social media companies' actions.

But those explanations overlook a more fundamental flaw that hampered the would-be scandal: it focuses on a Biden family member, not Biden himself.

That is by design: The Trump allies' gambit is more than a partial rerun of itself -- it's the latest iteration of a historical pattern. Attacking family members as a way of generating scandal-by-proxy has a lengthy history in American politics, and especially in modern conservative politics. Sometimes those attacks are ancillary. During Lyndon Johnson's 1964 reelection bid, for instance, an anti-Johnson book dedicated a chapter to his wife, suggesting she was involved in nefarious business deals and shared "Lady Macbeth's consuming ambition for the growth of her husband's power." And, of course, there were the attacks on Hillary Clinton when she was first lady in the 1990s, subject to endless investigations in right-wing media and Congress.

When Clinton ran for president, the conspiracies about her once again had an all-in-the-family feel, focusing on both her and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, blurring the distinctions between the two. Nowhere was this truer than in the bestselling book Clinton Cash by Peter Schweizer. The book, written with help from the think tank he co-founded with then-Breitbart chief executive Steve Bannon (later chief strategist and senior counselor to President Trump), argued that Bill and Hillary Clinton had enriched themselves by trading favors with foreign governments, laundering their ill-gotten gains through the Clinton Foundation. Mainstream sources picked up the story, writing their own versions of the "Crooked Hillary" storyline that would dominate the campaign.

The Clinton story broke out of the conservative media ecosystem in part because right-wing media had been churning out conspiracies about Bill and Hillary Clinton since the early 1990s, conspiracies regularly amplified in mainstream newspapers. The Wall Street Journal editorial page gave oxygen to the conspiracy that Clinton staffer Vince Foster had been murdered (he died by suicide) and The New York Times treated a book promoting the conspiracy to a serious look in its book review section. In concocting a new story that played into all of those firmly held beliefs about the Clintons, Schweizer found a ready audience for his attacks.

With no Clintons left to attack, in 2018, Schweizer developed a more systematic approach to going after candidates' family members in his book "Secret Empires." In it he argued that the way political elites enriched themselves was not by lining their own pockets, but their families' and friends'. It was a convenient theory, because it immediately expanded the universe of possible bad actors, or at least suspicious characters, that Schweizer could write about. Hunter Biden was one of these (Mitch McConnell was also included). In "Secret Empires" and at Breitbart, where he is a senior editor, Schweizer detailed his theory of Hunter Biden's -- and by extension, Joe Biden's -- corruption.

Two years later, he expanded that idea into "Profiles in Corruption," which is essentially oppo research disguised as a book. "Profiles" reflected Schweizer's new argument against what the book's subtitle deemed America's "progressive elite" and their "abuse of power": that the real political scandals are those carried out by family members. Schweizer devoted chapters to eight prominent Democrats and their families. In its pages you'll find a rehash of the Hunter Biden stuff, but also attacks on Bernie Sanders's wife, Elizabeth Warren's daughter and son-in-law, Sherrod Brown's brothers and Kamala Harris's husband. Notably, the Trump family, with its overlapping business, political, and personal interests and well-documented corruption, was not included.
But the Biden conspiracies show the limits of Schweizer's approach. Attacks on candidates' family members only work when they reinforce beliefs voters already have. That's what happened in the late 1950s, when reporters began writing about Richard Nixon's brother Donald, who received a $205,000 bailout from Howard Hughes while Nixon was vice president. The suggestion that these funds were part of a political favor stuck in part because Nixon had already been tied to a slush-fund scandal a few years earlier.
When conspiracies about family members clash with voters' sense of a candidate, though, they tend to fall flat. Jimmy Carter's brother Billy had a habit of causing issues for the President, but never more so than when he freelanced as a foreign agent for Libya during the Carter administration. Billygate, as it was dubbed, entranced the Washington press corps, but Carter was able to distance himself from it in part because of his reputation as an incorruptible politician. The Republicans did try to make it an issue in the 1980 elections, even going so far as to hold Senate hearings, but Carter's support had already collapsed by the summer of 1980 due to the combined weight of the Iran hostage crisis and economic downturn. (In fact, Carter's numbers rebounded some during the hearings.)
The Hunter Biden conspiracy seems to have hit a similar barrier. Corruption-by-association really only works when voters already suspect there's something shady about the politician involved. Joe Biden has been around for a very long time -- that's part of the Trump campaign's knock against him -- and while he's acquired a negative reputation on some fronts, corruption has never been one of them.
Even though the Hunter Biden pseudo-scandal has fallen flat, we can expect to see future returns to the family corruption well again and again. That's because many on the right seem to have absorbed Schweizer's approach -- as Bannon put it in an interview, to "flood the zone with sh*t" -- to politics. Understanding that approach and adapting everything from campaign coverage to social media protocols to deal with it, is the only way to defang it.

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