A skilled entertainer, Donald Trump has a natural instinct for pleasing hardcore fans who never get tired of old favorites. If he has a joke that gets a laugh, he’ll tell it again and again. If a nickname like “Crooked Hillary” or a slogan like “lock her up” works up the crowd, he’ll keep hammering at it with no fear of being tiresome. His rallies often seem less like political events than entertainment extravaganzas, where groupies eagerly hang on his words waiting for the greatest hits to echo again. This repetitive quality makes Trump all the more annoying to his political opponents. But his willingness to work within the narrow ambit of a limited repertoire of catchphrases has served him well.
What works for rallies, though, might not apply to messaging aimed at a broader audience. In keeping with his entertainer’s habits, Trump has tried to make 2020 a close sequel to 2016, ignoring the fact that the country has changed under his watch. The goal of mimicking the success of 2016 is most clearly visible in the manufactured scandal around the son of rival Joe Biden, Hunter.
Last Wednesday, the New York Post published an article claiming that the paper had obtained explosive e-mails and text messages from a laptop allegedly belonging to Hunter Biden. These documents purportedly showed the Biden family profiting from corrupt practices in Ukraine. The article cited two sources, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.
Trump was quick to adopt the story and connect it with his campaign message. In two unusually deft and pointed tweets on October 17, Trump wrote:
Joe Biden is the living embodiment of the corrupt political class that enriched itself while draining the economic life and soul from our Country. For the last 47 years, Joe Biden shipped away your jobs, shut down your factories, threw open your borders, and ravaged our cities…
…while sacrificing American blood and treasure in endless foreign wars. Joe Biden is a corrupt politician — and the Biden family is a criminal enterprise. This makes Crooked Hillary Clinton look like amateur hour!
These words were a striking echo of his closing argument in the last weeks of 2016: that Hillary Clinton was the personification of a corrupt elite that profited from globalization that impoverished ordinary Americans.
Some Trump allies used the alleged laptop revelations to resuscitate another facet of his 2016 campaign: the false allegations of child sexual abuse against Clinton and her circle. On Sunday, Fox News host Maria Bartiromo claimed that an FBI agent who investigates child pornography had subpoenaed the laptop. She asked Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin to “connect the dots.” He replied, “Well, I just think you made the connection.” On social media, right-wing provocateurs are more explicit about trying to turn this lurid smear into Pizzagate redux. Wayne Root, a reactionary pundit, tweeted, “BREAKING NEWS. My sources- as high up as it gets- watched videos on Hunter’s laptops TODAY. Just told me point blank…no rumor…they saw Hunter raping & torturing little Chinese children…Chinese govt has the same videos…Biden is compromised. Blackmailed. Can NEVER be Prez.” As of Sunday night, his tweet got more than 25,000 retweets.
So all the elements of the 2016 smear campaign are in place: hacked e-mails; allegations of an FBI investigation, of Democratic self-dealing and corruption, and of depraved sex crimes against children; and the machinations of Bannon and Giuliani.
Despite these similarities, it is unlikely that this pseudo-scandal will have the same impact as those that targeted Clinton. One crucial difference is that Bannon and Giuliani have been much less successful at covering their tracks. Bannon’s real coup in his previous caper was understanding how to plant stories in the mainstream media so they would get credibility.
In 2012, Bannon and journalist Peter Schweizer created the nonprofit Government Accountability Institute (GAI), a think tank allegedly investigating corruption. Schweizer used the resources of the GAI to write the book Clinton Cash. The findings of this book were reported in The New York Times as if they were news. Clinton Cash was later subjected to devastating criticism, but it had already achieved its objective of spreading the idea that the Clinton Foundation was corrupt.
Bannon had found a cunning way to exploit the financial crunch faced by many news outlets, which no longer had the resources to carry out as many investigations as they would like. “The modern economics of the newsroom don’t support big investigative reporting staffs,” Bannon told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2015. “You wouldn’t get a Watergate, a Pentagon Papers today, because nobody can afford to let a reporter spend seven months on a story. We can. We’re working as a support function.”
As Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Joshua Green observed, the GAI found “the secret to how conservatives can hack the mainstream media.”
The contrast between Clinton’s various e-mail pseudo-scandals and the one around the laptop is striking. The new pseudo-scandal appeared not in The New York Times but in the New York Post, a partisan tabloid. Giuliani told the Times he gave the story to the Post because “either nobody else would take it, or if they took it, they would spend all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out.”
Even within the Post, the story was regarded with suspicion. A Times report makes clear that the article appeared in the Post only after strenuous internal battles: “The New York Post’s front-page article about Hunter Biden on Wednesday was written mostly by a staff reporter who refused to put his name on it, two Post employees said. Bruce Golding, a reporter at the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid since 2007, did not allow his byline to be used because he had concerns over the article’s credibility, the two Post employees said, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.” The byline was given to two other writers, one a former Fox News producer who had never had a byline in the Post before and the other a staff writer who learned that her name was on the article only after it was published.
The shifty origins of the article in the Post show why the current pseudo-scandal is unlikely to gain mainstream credibility. The genius of the Trump campaign’s 2016 mudslinging was that Trump’s team figured out ways to do it behind the screen of trusted allegedly neutral parties: mainstream newspapers like Times, the FBI, even WikiLeaks. None of these institutions were seen as partisan.
The fact that the Trump campaign can’t find neutral validators is in no small part related to the difference between Clinton and Biden. Clinton had in the course of her political career become subject to suspicion and sometimes hostility from the mainstream media and the FBI. This animus was motivated by a mixture of misogyny as well as political disagreements. Biden, for better or worse, is seen as a less disruptive figure than Clinton, certainly not someone to shake up gender hierarchies. A Washington fixture, he’s accepted as one of the good old boys, in every sense of the term.
The Trump campaign’s current mudslinging is similar in style to 2016’s—but it has gotten much sloppier. It is treated with much more suspicion by the mainstream media, which has been subjected to criticism for laundering Trump’s smear jobs in the past. No longer able to hide behind the mask of nonpartisan allies, the Trump team will have a harder time reaching the persuadable voters they need.