“Hunter Biden latest video,” Fox News host Sean Hannity tweeted in September 2022. “Nude water slide riding with hookers at 4K per night Malibu rental.”
Hannity’s post got almost 20,000 replies, and predictably riled up conservatives looking for ways to villainize Joe Biden by way of the actions of his son. But for a small group of people — most of whom could be described as chronically online leftists, sometimes of the self-proclaimed dirtbag variety — Hunter represents something else. Look no further than a subsection of the comments on Hannity’s original post: “Y’all gotta stop making Hunter Biden cooler and cooler.” “tbh this sounds lit.” “Legend.” “Well I guess that answers the question to what I would do if my dad was president.” “Homie ballin outrageous.”
Welcome to the Hunter Biden Fan Club. Ideology: Hunter Biden is cool. He is “based.” Membership requirements: a disaffected leftism (often of the self-described “dirtbag” variety), shattered hopes after two failed Bernie Sanders campaigns, interest in irony-poisoned podcasts (either as a host or listener with vague plans to start one). Theme song: 21 Savage’s 2018 hit “Ball w/o You” (members will be aware that the president’s son sent that tune to one of his lawyers). Drinks: free, of course.
Hunter’s various scandals are now obsessively well chronicled. After a plea bargain fell apart, he may well be forced to go to trial for multiple tax-related misdemeanor charges and a felony firearm charge. There is a seemingly endless trove of lewd images of him online, some of which Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) displayed at a House Oversight hearing last month. Photographs of him smoking crack are splayed across the website of a major American newspaper. A former business partner testified in Congress that Hunter tried to use his father’s influence to boost his career. Without question, in most circles Biden the Younger is a serious political liability as his father begins his reelection campaign in earnest.
But the fan club stands ready, often on the website formerly known as Twitter, prepared to defy that conventional narrative. The half-ironic, one-sided love affair between Hunter and leftists who have little love for his father might seem like a surprising pairing. Yet, if you view the American political project as irredeemable, if you think democracy is in decay, if you look askance at political families using their status to enrich themselves (Hunter denies he broke ethics rules) then Hunter is the perfect avatar. Like Hannity, this crowd of leftists revels in how Hunter tarnishes the image of his father and the Democratic Party writ large. (Though unlike Hannity they aren’t turning around to then defend Republicans.) But at the same time, his foibles and travails, including his longtime crack addiction, are familiar — perhaps even relatable — to many of these people, making him a sympathetic figure too.
“You have a generation of American men who found themselves incapable of continuing the tradition of engagement, success or whatever that they had been bequeathed,” says Matt Christman, one of the hosts of Chapo Trap House, the podcast leading the way on Hunter-loving-for-leftists. “If you don’t have money, that means you stay in your parents’ basement. If you do, it means you get corrupt fake jobs and do the most crack anyone has ever done. But the basic deficiency, the ill-suitedness for thriving is the same. So that’s where the recognition comes in.”
“Hunter proves the rot is at the heart,” Christman says. He might not mean to, but the president’s son is taking down shibboleths about propriety in Washington, confirming the disaffected leftist worldview that beyond the stump speeches and the glossy magazine profiles, politicians’ families are just as lost as the rest of us, if not more. To his fans, he is the id of American excess. What’s cooler than that?
The “failson” is an increasingly common trope throughout American culture. An evolution of the former trope of the “Large Adult Son,” the concept is pretty simple: your parents, often your father, made a lot of money or a big name for himself, but you, his progeny, don’t need to work for anything. Despite living on a gifted platter of boundless opportunities, you are somehow incapable of accomplishing even a modicum of success. You might be feckless, entitled, wild, profligate, heartless, dull or some combination thereof.
These failsons (not exclusively, but most often male) exist far beyond politics. It’s very possible that one of them owns your favorite sports team. You’ve seen them on television. They might take their parents’ fortune and make remarkably ugly shirts or start a country blues and rock band.
In the political realm, our current and previous presidents can claim some of the more quintessential failson cases, but they’re not alone. Neil Bush (George H.W. Bush’s son and George W. Bush’s brother) had his own run-ins with the law, and once insisted during a deposition that while he was traveling in Thailand, women knocked on his hotel room door, unprompted, had sex with him and left without any money changing hands. FDR’s son Jimmy inappropriately used his family connections to secure insurance business deals and was investigated for mail fraud. The trend goes all the way back to John Adams II, the son of John Quincy Adams, who got kicked out of Harvard and got into a public scuffle in Washington with a newspaper editor after insulting him.
Donald Trump Jr. and Hunter are the obvious failsons of our era. In 2020, some of the same people who today stump for Hunter were cheekily calling for a “sons’ debate.” As one Twitter user put it, while including a photo of Hunter in an open denim jacket with sunglasses on, “Starting a super PAC called Horny 4 Hunter, with a singular goal: Sons Debate.”
So, what makes Hunter in particular more than a garden variety failson? Why is he more interesting, especially to people who see his father as insufficiently devoted to their progressive politics?
What’s most immediately obvious is Hunter’s excess. Some on the left have joked that Don Jr. occasionally exudes cocaine-user energy; Hunter literally has photos on his computer of himself smoking crack. He allegedly deducted a sex club membership from his taxes; during a particularly dark few weeks he left his apartment only to buy Smirnoff vodka. For the super-online lefties who can find spectacle in anything, divorcing it from reality or sincerity, he’s ventured further down into various addictions than anyone else so closely connected to a U.S. president; there’s something thrilling about that.
“He’s not just doing key bumps or anything like you might have at some urban yuppie party, he’s out there, getting guns put on his head to do crack,” Christman tells me. “Which means, in street parlance, he’s a real one.” (Hunter says he’s been clean since 2019.)
On the subreddit r/redscarepod, dedicated to a vaguely irony-poisoned podcast hosted by Dasha Nekrasova and Anna Khachiyan that started in the pro-Bernieverse but has morphed into a show friendly with the New Right, a user posted “Hunter Biden go on Red Scare” with two photos (one of Hunter with a cigarette, another of Hunter with a crack pipe in his mouth in bed). Comments include “at least one person in the Biden family turned out all right [sic]” and “Not even his dead brother’s widow could resist.” (Hunter dated his brother’s widow, Hallie.)
Then, there’s Hunter’s seemingly insatiable need to document everything. There was a point in his life when Hunter was taking more selfies than a TikTok influencer looking to expand their brand deals. It’s a strange affliction for a 53-year-old who didn’t grow up in the internet age, but it explains both why we know so much more about his misdeeds than the average screw up (physical evidence) and partly why he looks familiar to a mostly younger audience.
But beyond the overindulgence and the obsessive documentation, the quality that keeps Hunter front of mind for a group of people who already have little faith in the U.S. government is how damaged he appears to them.
“[With Don Jr.] you don’t get a picture of comprehensive human frailty like you do with Hunter,” says Felix Biederman, another Chapo Trap House host. “With Hunter, I think you do get a bit of a more complete picture of the pain and the yearning.”
To many of the people interested in his story, he’s a tragic figure. His mom and sister were killed in a car crash when he was a small child, his brother died when he was a troubled adult. Many of the joking, over-the-top defenses of Hunter come from people who recognize something in his story: a death in the family, for example, leading to or heightening addiction issues or depression.
“There’s something very tragic and human about his story in a time where I and most people I know are depressed,” says Sarisha Kurup, a 24-year-old who strongly supported the Sanders campaign and who’s spent many afternoons combing through Hunter’s story and his old trove of emails (and, full disclosure, is a friend of mine). “It’s pretty legible how a person ends up where he ends up — beginning with tragedy and turning into a total hedonist.”
In that way, he shows some humanity in a stultified political culture. It can be strangely refreshing, allowing the online leftists to see something of him in themselves or their family and friends.
“Considering how alien most political figures seem, and the way their ambition sort of vacuum seals them away from the rest of humanity, the humanity leaks in from their inability to raise children who can rise to the occasion,” Christman says. “And specifically with Hunter … he probably couldn’t bring himself to do the stuff necessary to follow in his father’s footsteps. That’s not necessarily virtue, but he represents sort of a basic weakness. And that’s a weakness that I think is recognizable, and therefore sympathetic.”
What’s not quite so relatable are the many resources that Hunter had to get clean (he told a judge in Wilmington he’s been in inpatient rehab “close to six” times over 20 years, which doesn’t include all of the outpatient care he’s received). As Chapo’s hosts said on a recent episode of the podcast, “He’s the Van Wilder of rehab … a super senior at Promises.”
He’s also managed to avoid any serious consequences for his behavior. “He’s the GOAT [greatest of all time], dude,” said Hasan Piker, a well-known lefty Twitch streamer, reacting half-ironically to the news of Hunter’s recent plea deal (which has subsequently fallen apart). “He dodged [serious charges] … he’s just a bigger baller than he was prior.” On a later stream, Piker did say he thinks Hunter should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
He’s aspirational, but only to a point. On the same recent episode of Chapo, host Will Menaker said of Hunter, “Am I jealous of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to ‘quit drugs’ by keeping doing them? … Yes. But yes, he is a rotten guy.”
It’s an important distinction from a group of people that can be irony poisoned enough that it’s hard to determine when exactly they’re fully joking. Unironically, they find Hunter funny. They think parts of his life are cool. They think his existence confirms parts of their worldview and that some of his failures make him relatable. They think he’s more respectable than Trump Jr. “The big difference to me is only one of them murders charismatic megafauna, which does in my mind confine you to the deepest ring of hell,” Christman says, referring to Don Jr.’s pastime of trophy hunting.
But they’re not being serious when they winkingly call for Hunter Biden 2024, for example. No one is ridin’ all the way for Hunter.
Instead, they’re using him as evidence for an America in decline, led there by the establishment figures on both the right and left. He is the fallible scion of an American political dynasty, to them a symbol of the country’s perfidy and decay. If you examine Hunter’s misdeeds and escapades from just the right angle, they can be viewed as illuminating the hundreds of little cracks in the foundation of the American empire. For people who aren’t buying what America has sold, that’s heartening.
“[Hunter’s situation] is, for a lot of people, reassuring in a weird way,” Christman says. “Because otherwise, there would just be this alienating machinery of domination, that we have no chance to pretend to defeat in any way. But here we have the presidential family with this seeping open wound because there’s still some things that can’t be managed and can’t be messaged.”