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Hunter Biden, Ironic Icon – The New York Times

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When they look at Hunter Biden, many Americans don’t like what they see — and not just because of the images of the president’s 53-year-old son in the midst of wild-eyed benders, which were leaked from his laptop and published online, first piecemeal and then in a massive batch in June.

Mr. Biden was indicted in September on federal gun charges, punctuating a half decade in which his personal and professional conduct have come under increased scrutiny. According to an Economist/YouGov poll that was conducted in August, two out of three Americans have an unfavorable view of him — eleven points worse than the president performed in the same poll — and nearly three out of four believe he personally profited from his father’s positions in government.

But there are others — more than you might think, and for different reasons — who find the man in the laptop photos oddly alluring.

Steve Deleonardis of the popular Nelk Boys (think Barstool Sports meets “Jackass”) said recently that he would love to hang out with Mr. Biden because of his propensity for nude selfies with prostitutes, not to mention his drug habit. Deleonardis doesn’t like Mr. Biden out of any kind of partisan allegiance; the Nelk Boys have interviewed Donald Trump twice. Instead, he seems to like him because he sees a fellow party boy.

Last year, Thursday Lines, a popular Instagram meme account that celebrates recreational cocaine use, began selling $35 T-shirts touting a mock Hunter Biden 2024 presidential campaign. In a Thursday Lines Instagram story, a young man wearing the T-shirt opens a can of beer by slamming it into his forehead in a classic frat-bro motion.

“His lifestyle is super cool because he gets to do all the coke and crack he wants,” said one of the hosts on a recent episode of “Wet Jeans,” a lad-culture podcast. “And he gets to live in a home in like, Calabasas,” referring to the gilded enclave north of Los Angeles.

“He’s using taxpayer money to like, fund hookers and his ketamine habit,” his co-host responded, excitedly. “I was thinking about it and I was like dude, I really … love this guy.”

The “Wet Jeans” hosts don’t have their facts straight. Mr. Biden lives in Malibu; taxpayer money pays for his Secret Service detail but not his personal life; he says he has been sober since 2019; his ketamine use came as part of one of his many attempts at rehab.

But for these fans, the facts are almost beside the point. Mr. Biden — addict, adulterer, influence trader, all-around black sheep — has been transformed into a uniquely American antihero.

Mr. Biden also has many female fans, who find his combination of weathered looks, tawdry personal life (Mr. Biden briefly dated the widow of his older brother, Beau, who died in 2015), and traumatic childhood (Mr. Biden’s mother and sister were killed in a car crash when he was 2) to be irresistible.

“There is this sensitive little boy part of him that appeals to women who want to fix a man,” said Lara Schoenhals, a writer and performer who hosts the “SUP” podcast, about reality television. “He projects this sense that if you just love him enough, he’ll be OK.”

In a 2020 piece for Slate, Heather Schwedel, even anointed Mr. Biden as “hot.”

“In one of the photos, he stares straight ahead with the kind of Top Gun intensity that’s hard to achieve when one is wearing a jean jacket over a bare chest,” she wrote. “That chest, and the stomach below it, appears tanned and surprisingly taut for a man his age. Each detail that might read as cheesy on someone else only augments the swagger: the shades, the stubble, the chain, the popped collar. The machismo is positively Federline-esque.”

This all may come as a surprise to Americans who see, in Mr. Biden’s creeping baldness and conspicuous veneers, a middle-aged nepo-baby.

But for a very online subculture of the meme-loving left — who mostly loathe Joe Biden’s more centrist politics — Mr. Biden’s hard living is indivisible from his strange charm; It has embraced the younger Mr. Biden as a lovable mascot of imperial rot. The standard bearers of this world, the co-hosts of the podcast “Chapo Trap House,” have long regarded Mr. Biden with a kind of mordant, ironic delight.

“Who has a better life than Hunter Biden?” mused Will Menaker, one of the “Chapo” co-hosts, in a 2022 episode of the show, after a discussion of a video in which Mr. Biden plunges, nude, down a water slide.

(Mr. Biden does have a — slim — connection to the world of shock-jock hipster podcasts. Zoe Kestan, one of his girlfriends pictured in the laptop leaks, was an early guest on “Red Scare,” a controversial chat show, in her capacity as “weedslut420,” a marijuana lifestyle influencer.)

On Instagram accounts like “Neoliberalhell” and “Thenewmythology.jpg,” an image of Mr. Biden using drugs in the bathtub is a refrain, often accompanied by captions that mix cruel irony with an awed respect for his libertinism — “he’s the last true auteur” or “feeling inspired might go on a bender” or “I smoke crack ethically.”

“He was given every opportunity and he still ended up a degenerate,” said Dan Lowe, a 40-year-old New Yorker who runs “Thenewmythology.jpg.” “It’s relatable.”

In the “TrueUnpopularOpinion” subreddit, a user summarized Mr. Biden’s appeal: “The president has a cool son … and republicans are mad because they’re jealous of him. Also Hunter could beat up any other presidents kids, guaranteed.”

Voices across the ideological spectrum have divergent proposals for how 21st century men should carry themselves in the world. The right has championed a series of severe cultural figures, from Josh Hawley to Jordan Peterson, who proselytize on behalf of “the masculine virtues America needs” (that’s the subtitle of Senator Hawley’s recent book, “Manhood”). Another camp — call it the dissident center — has produced swaggering figures like Joe Rogan, whose version of masculinity revolves around transgressive speech and macho self-mastery through martial arts.

Meanwhile, liberals are happy to diagnose the problem with men, but have had difficulty articulating a positive vision of maleness.

In this context, it’s easy to see the Hunter Biden fandom as a response to the idea that many American men simply won’t, or can’t help themselves.

In the same episode of “Chapo Trap House,” the co-host Felix Biederman ventriloquized this insecurity. “Oh my god, I’m never going to be my own man,” he said. “Like, I’m not good at anything. I’m just this symbol of … surplus and inefficiency.”

Into the void steps Mr. Biden, a seemingly washed-up loser who somehow still gets invited to state dinners and travels on Air Force One.

In his memoir, “Beautiful Things,” Mr. Biden writes of a brief stint living in Portland, Ore. as a young man, where he wore a leather jacket and sat around reading his favorite novel, “Post Office,” by Charles Bukowski, “about a down and out barfly.” It’s hard not to see Mr. Bukowski, champion portraitist of the deadbeat, in Mr. Biden’s book, which exhaustively chronicles — one might say mythologizes — his time on the margins.

The bad boy aspect of Mr. Biden’s fan culture is clear enough. For the online frat pack, of course, it’s way cooler to reign in hell (or at least a trashed suite at the Chateau Marmont) than serve in heaven.

“He’s not the guy you date, but he’s going to be a fun story,” Rachel Napoleon, a host of the popular “Girls on Porn” podcast, said of Mr. Biden. “Something about being open and honest in his memoir leads us to subconsciously believe he will be open and honest in the bedroom.”

Depressed, addicted, vulnerable: at odds with the grimly controlled version of masculinity put forth by the right — and for that matter, with the quietly fearful and confused one of contemporary liberal culture.

“He’s a wounded man with demons that he’s constantly battling,” said Ms. Schoenhals. “He’s not afraid to cry or mourn or look sad.”

The bad boy is a secular iteration of the biblical story of the prodigal son, who unlike his older brother, squanders his inheritance and his good name through drink, gambling, and sex with prostitutes. He has to deal with the shame of returning to his father, destitute.

Hunter Biden is famously the less accomplished of the Biden sons; his older brother, Beau, was widely seen as Joe Biden’s political successor before dying of brain cancer. In “Beautiful Things,” it’s Beau’s death that sets off the worst of Hunter Biden’s binges — the one that much of America has witnessed, thanks to the images found on his laptop. That it is photo evidence of this very, desperate behavior that has also produced Mr. Biden’s idiosyncratic fandom perhaps says something about the depth and ubiquity of American male shame in 2023.

Of course, there’s only so much symbolism one son can bear. And as an avatar for the radical acceptance of the downward trajectory of American men, Mr. Biden is characteristically imperfect.

He’s been afforded a number of chances and a level of support, most notably from his own father, which most American men couldn’t dream of. And even a cursory read of Mr. Biden’s memoir is enough to pour cold water on the idea that his benders were much more than grinding episodes of addiction and grief, which put his family through an excruciating emotional ordeal. Plus, he’s currently married, sober, and living in Malibu, where he makes paintings that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Whatever else that is, it’s the cultural opposite of down and out in the United States.

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