The elephant is an appropriate symbol for the GOP, because the thing about contemporary Republicans is that they never, ever forget a bullshit grievance. Fifty years from now, when Barron Trump Jr. is president and we’re all paying $300 per gallon for potable water, future Republicans will still be shouting about Peter Strzok and cultural Marxism. This state of sustained grievance is especially notable within right-wing media, which now exists primarily to keep old bullshit in the news while folding new bullshit into an ongoing narrative of conservative victimhood, liberal mendacity, and general moral decay.
I use the term bullshit deliberately, because—on Fox News, at least—the grievances surfaced are rarely outright lies or inventions. Instead, they tend to be rooted in anecdotal evidence and selective observation, which becomes full-blown bullshit through exaggeration, misconstrual, strategic elision, and incessant repetition. Some of these grievances are conceptual panics, such as the hubbub around wokeness and cancel culture; some are issue-based, such as the right’s current contention that liberal policies have turned all American metropolises into post-apocalyptic crimeholes; some center around specific individuals, often politicians, who have committed the cardinal sin of being rational.
The point, writ large, is to keep low-information conservatives so hot, bothered, and terrified that they will rush to the polls en masse to vote for every Republican candidate on the ballot, no matter their objective fitness for office. This is how a weirdo like Herschel Walker ends up in a dead heat for the U.S. Senate with the man who literally preaches from the same pulpit as did Martin Luther King Jr.
Once a bullshit grievance hits the right-wing news cycle these days, it never really goes away. This fun new feature of our dumbass polity is largely attributable to social media, which is basically a lazy river in which straw men and logical fallacies circulate in an infinite loop, bobbing around waiting for someone’s angry uncle to retweet them. While a grievance might go dormant awhile, a good one can always return to the fore at the right moment, like a soap opera reviving a presumed-dead character to juice ratings during sweeps week. And so we have Hunter Biden’s laptop, which—surprise!—is still sparking apoplexy amongst many conservatives. As a brief reminder, just in case you are not yourself a bullshit-retentive person, in October 2020 the New York Post published several articles alleging that emails found on a laptop computer which Hunter Biden had abandoned at a Delaware repair shop indicated that, years earlier, Biden had attempted to peddle influence with his father while the younger Biden was sitting on the board of the Ukrainian company Burisma. The articles also alleged that Hunter Biden had attempted to involve his father in a separate business deal of his in China. (Credible news outlets have since authenticated the provenance of some of the files found on the laptop.)
The story is rooted in fact, insofar as I believe that Hunter Biden is a screwed-up Roger Clinton political relative type who did at one point probably own a laptop. Did his laptop contain evidence of criminal wrongdoing on Joe Biden’s part? By all credible accounts, it did not! Does that alleged wrongdoing directly indicate some broader pattern of political corruption within the Democratic Party? Seems pretty unlikely! Is the “Biden Crime Family” an actual thing? No! Does any of this actually matter to the 2022 midterms? Sadly, yes.
The timing of the initial story strongly indicated that the Trump campaign had maneuvered to plant it as a so-called “October surprise” that might sway that year’s presidential election; the fact that the Post was basically the only outlet to run with the story indicates that most other outlets strongly suspected that the story, not to mention its broader implications, might be bullshit. The right interpreted the mainstream media’s disinterest in the story, as well as Facebook and Twitter’s efforts to limit its circulation, as evidence of some grand left-wing conspiracy—the right interprets everything as evidence of some grand left-wing conspiracy—and refused to let it go. (The right refuses to let anything go.) In August 2022, Republican congressman Matt Gaetz entered the contents of the laptop into the Congressional Record. Others have vowed official investigations into Hunter Biden should Republicans flip the house this year; those investigations will likely be used as a pretext to impeach Joe Biden.
The story of Hunter’s laptop, like the story of Hillary Clinton’s emails, is primarily a diversionary tactic. It is meant to counteract credible charges of right-wing malfeasance by presenting an allegedly equivalent story of self-dealing on the left. The fact that the story is very stupid does not make it ineffective. The right-wing media ecosystem exists to talk endlessly about stupid stories until they start to make sense to the sorts of people who only consume right-wing media. There are a lot of these people, and their appetite for bullshit grievances is vast and endless, and they are very eager to vote their appetites, and frankly they are more likely to go to the polls than you are. The midterms are about Hunter’s laptop because every election now is about Hunter’s laptop, or Hillary’s emails, or transgender athletes, or vote-stealing algorithms, or adrenochrome, or some other bullshit grievance that only makes sense if you recognize that nothing will ever really make sense again.