July 30, 2021

Keeping it in the family is a political tradition nearly as old as America itself. John Adams, our second President, spawned an entire line of public servants including a son, John Quincy Adams, who was elected POTUS in 1824. The first Kennedy entered office in 1895, and the family has been supplying the country with legislators, ambassadors and other federal elected officials pretty much continuously ever since. The Bushes have been in politics for four generations, and the Cheneys seem primed to follow in their footsteps (that is, if Liz can survive her attempted ousting by the Republican party’s Trump Loyalist faction).

It’s also a tradition that extends beyond the halls of government. Members of famous political families who don’t run for office still tend to crop up in other influential positions: the upper tiers of journalism, or the media or the arts. Jenna Bush Hager, one of George W.’s daughters, has, since 2009, been an anchor for NBC — which counted Chelsea Clinton among its special correspondents between 2011 and 2014. In 2017, Malia Obama interned at The Weinstein Company. Even the also-rans bestow a certain kind of dazzle on their children: Meghan McCain, daughter of the John, who lost out to Malia’s dad, has had a prolific career as a TV host.

And historically, Americans have always been fairly fine with this — we keep voting them in and watching their shows and buying their books. Despite being founded on the explicit rejection of hereditary monarchy — on the notion of power conferred by birth — we are also a nation that thrives on the inherited wealth of self-made men. As long as you can trace your family dynasty to the hardscrabble origin story of an enterprising striver, who built something from nothing and then passed it down the line to his children and grandchildren, that’s not nepotism: it’s the American dream.

And if your family business is politics, there’s still the spectacle of public elections to offer the pretence of fairness: even with all the money and name recognition in the world, the only way to hold elected office is for the people to put you there. It’s perhaps because our leadership has to regularly win the hearts of the public in a nationwide popularity contest — with the most expensive, most televised, most exacting campaigns in the world — that the U.S. has always conferred a sort of second-tier celebrity cachet on its presidents. And, by extension, on their families.

The latest presidential progeny to make headlines by cropping up in a position of cultural prominence is Hunter Biden, who announced earlier this month that he’d be showing — and selling — his paintings in a solo exhibition at a New York gallery in October. The elder of the President’s two surviving children, Hunter has no formal artistic training. He had also been keeping a relatively low profile since October 2020, when emails from an old laptop of his surfaced under mysterious circumstances that threatened to torpedo his father’s shot at the presidency.

While the serious allegations of corruption that emerged from the laptop scandal ultimately amounted to nothing, the incident was still embarrassing to Hunter, who has always been a bit of a black sheep. Before his foray into painting he was a lawyer, investor, lobbyist and, briefly, naval officer (he was discharged from the position after less than a month, after testing positive for cocaine). Harsher critics have accused him of being a shady businessman and shameless grifter, using the Biden name for his own benefit. And indeed, the asking prices for Hunter’s paintings are astronomically high for an unknown artist — which only serves to highlight his peculiar brand of celebrity. His work will fetch a high price for the same reason that people pay thousands of dollars to own a teacup stained with Lady Gaga’s lipstick or a jockstrap once worn by Russell Crowe: the little thrill of knowing that a famous person touched it first.

Hunter Biden’s foray into art has been met with some criticism, including a subdued but disapproving editorial in the Washington Post. But the media response to him stands in stark contrast to that received by the large adult Trump children, whose every foray into public life was met with generalised outrage, breaking the age-old tradition of accepting that the ambitions of presidential progeny will always be supported. From Ivanka’s fashion line to Don, Jr.’s books, nobody wanted the Trumps to become as culturally and politically ubiquitous as the Kennedys.

But that’s only because nothing about the Trump administration, including this, was business as usual. Trump’s first family was in itself unprecedented: never before had a U.S. president boasted five children from three different marriages, most of whom were already at least a little bit famous by the time their father took office. By the standards of previous presidents, it was semi-scandalous if not outright trashy — and worse, Trump’s audacious offspring seemed to share their father’s sensibilities: a hunger for global influence, a contempt for elites and a narcissistic sense of entitlement. It wasn’t just the nepotism; it was that they were so obvious, so shameless, so transparent in their expectations.

Ivanka, especially, seemed to believe that her mere status as presidential progeny meant that she should enjoy a position of influence in national affairs. But here too, it was the entitlement (and the Trump name) rather than the notion of a politically-involved First Daughter that raised hackles. In fact, the latter is something of an American tradition: Maureen Reagan moved into the White House during her father’s presidency and informally advised him on women’s issues. Woodrow Wilson’s daughter, Margaret, took over the role of First Lady after her mother died. Alice Roosevelt once led a diplomatic tour of five Asian countries in 1905 while her father, President Theodore Roosevelt, was trying to negotiate a peace between Japan and Russia.

And yet, Ivanka’s involvement in the Trump administration was seen as so embarrassing, so outré, that her presence at the G20 conference sparked not just wall-to-wall negative media coverage but a viral meme. “How Much Did Ivanka Embarrass Herself at the G20 Summit?” asked The Cut, rhetorically, while Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “It may be shocking to some, but being someone’s daughter actually isn’t a career qualification.”

In light of all this, it was easy to imagine that Trump’s presidency represented some sort of turning point — that however much nepotism and corruption and power-grabbing cruelty were once par for the course in American presidential politics, they wouldn’t be once the bad orange man was gone. Indeed, for as long as Donald Trump was in office, the notion persisted that everything would change for the better, and the classier, if only we could vote him out.

The candidate who could remake the presidency into something better, brighter and more noble would have been a game-changer. There was just one problem: in 2020, nobody wanted that. They just wanted to Make America Normal Again — and nothing is more normal, and more American, than a good old-fashioned dynasty from a known and trusted brand. It’s why we embraced Meghan McCain as a media figure in the wake of her father’s death. It’s why nobody finds it especially weird that almost every presidential race since 1992 has included a Bush or a Clinton in the mix. It’s why Kamala Harris’s stepdaughter walked away from the Inauguration with a cult following and a modelling contract.

And it’s why, as sketchy as it might seem, nobody is going to get too upset about Hunter Biden’s new surprise career turn as an in-demand contemporary artist.

That would require dismantling the longstanding American tradition of blurring the lines between politics and celebrity, of being fascinated by, even obsessed with, the families who live in what Jackie Kennedy once called “the People’s house” (in the way that Brits obsess over the residents of Buckingham Palace but can rarely name the children of Prime Ministers). It would also require us to confront some deeply uncomfortable truths about how even in a democracy, dynasties are inevitable. Power pools and cascades down, inter-generationally, always landing in the lap of someone with a familiar last name — giving the lie to the all-American notion that hard work and big dreams are all it takes to succeed. And all of us go along with it, but all of this is familiar.

Hunter Biden’s play for art world grandeur won’t provoke that kind of reckoning. It’s too much business as usual. But the appearance of Donald Trump, Jr. as a top contender on the 2024 Republican primary ticket? Yeah, that might do it.