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America needs a monarchy Presidential progeny like Hunter Biden will always succeed

Inside the royal court: Obama, Biden and Biden Jr. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Inside the royal court: Obama, Biden and Biden Jr. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)


July 30, 2021   5 mins

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 outrĂ©, 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.


Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.

katrosenfield

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Bart Cypers
Bart Cypers
2 years ago

“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.”

I’d say that’s a rather lenient take: to me it looks like the sale of Biden Jr.’s paintings are a convenient way of buying political influence without the scrutiny that normally accompanies political donations


Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  Bart Cypers

As if Sam walking into Joe’s office with a request and Joe says that his son has a few paintings on offer. Not a hint of corruption?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Aah Hunter ‘Pass me the Parmesan’ Biden.
The Trump children are squeaky clean in comparison to him.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago

Yet another article where content and headline are grossly mismatched. Hint: if you are going to use clickbait at least try to be subtle. There are diminishing returns to its effectiveness.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Terry Needham
Terry Needham
2 years ago

“America needs a monarchy”
I have a brilliant idea.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago

I seem to recall Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, brother and wife respectively of former presidents, going down in flames. Also no one cares about the Kennedy’s anymore.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Not care about the Kennedys? Are you kidding? There are books by Kennedys or about Kennedys published every year, because they sell. I myself have lately been going to the YouTube channels of the presidential libraries, which have videos of interviews with the families and also the authors of biographies of the presidents, and I have to say those Kennedys are as fascinating, entertaining and appalling as ever. I think we, in Australia, are about to get Caroline Kennedy as the U.S. ambassador, and if so she’ll be the only U.S. ambassador that anyone in Australia will have ever known the name of.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Appalling or appealing?

L Walker
L Walker
2 years ago

I’m sorry you’re going to have that inflicted on you. I like Australia.

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
2 years ago

Yes, but that’s mainly nostalgia, not much different from a longing for movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and Vivian Leigh. Where’s the Kennedy progeny likely to become the president one day?

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Krehbiel

I think they got killed off. The Kennedy family is probably the most dangerous family in America to be a part of. Assassinations, skiing accidents, plane crashes, they just cannot catch a break.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Lots of young Kennedys around who will probably have a go at the family business, but we could call the retiring generation ‘influencers’ rather than politicians – but don’t count out Joe Kennedy the Third.

David Giles
David Giles
2 years ago

Any journalist who sums up a man like John MCai as an “also-ran” isn’t a journalist. Simple.

So we can ignore the pure bitchiness of the ad hominem attack on Ivanka Trump, the attdmpt and utter fsilure to distinguish between her career and, say, Chelsea Clinton’s because, well, because you’re not a journalist Kat.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  David Giles

Indeed, Ivanka had a solid business before Trump. Even more was helpful in getting apprentice programs started by reducing risks. Comparing her to Chelsea is strange. Ivanka has a high probability of creating a new business to make up for the one the press destroyed. But the dust must settle first.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago

The more left wing you are the more you seem to embrace hereditary rulers

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

OMG This is 100% a political campaign for the Biden Family, I have NEVER read such outright twisting of the truth, warping of the facts, and personal bias.

A shameful article.

Satyam Nagwekar
Satyam Nagwekar
2 years ago

The tongue-in-cheek headline doesn’t work as well as intended.

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
2 years ago

There should be be a regular feature in Unherd called “but Donald Trump” in which various observations are made about Presidential and other American political figures achievements and successes concluding that Donald Trumps stint in the Oval Office, not to mention his gifeted family far out-achived these but the “liberal intelluactual elite” ensures that these stellar achivements are somehow overlooked. This was the main feature of his presidency to be honest where a lot of his day was regarded as “executive time” when he spent the time watching television news channels and reaching for his cell phone to tweet when he saw something that was, in his usal words “so unfair” As the world adjusts to having a President who actually does the job, we should not totally forget the Trump Presidency and what it consisted of.
Incidentally there was no Hunter Biden scandal. An article appeared in the New York Post hinting, unconvincingly that Rudi Giuliani had a lap top hard drive purporting to show emails and other evidence of scandalous behaviour relating to Hunter Biden, non of which was ever produced. Giuliani is now debarred from practicing law in New York on the grounds of repeated making untrue statements.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

“While the serious allegations of corruption that emerged from the laptop scandal ultimately amounted to nothing”

from above. I assume the writer is talking about some other laptop I am unfamiliar with.

Anyone ever actually look close at Hunters paintings? They are remarkable creepy, weirdly so.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

If a small portion of the laptop released by the NY Post was inflammatory, imagine what the rest might say. The videos of his activities in his addled days are remarkable. The NY Post book reveal will be coming.