They mess you up, your mom and dad, particularly when they are running for president. Which is why, in the all-or-nothing mudslinging battlefield of campaign politics, one rule has remained sacrosanct: the kids are off-limits.
But like so many other norms in the Trump era, that low standard of campaign conduct, too, has been dismantled and discarded in recent weeks as President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign and its most high-profile surrogates and allies have begun targeting presumptive Democratic opponent Joe Biden with a new weapon: photos of his children and grandchildren.
On Monday, Steve Guest, the Republican National Committee’s director of rapid response, tweeted an undated, roughly 40-year-old photograph of Biden and one of his sons, then a school-aged boy, who was wearing a hat with the logo of the Washington Redskins football team, in an apparent attempt to dunk on Biden in the wake of the team’s decision to retire the name.
“Hey Joe Biden, are you still a Redskins fan?” Guest wrote, later responding to criticism for targeting a young child by declaring that “odds are this is a photo of Hunter Biden,” whom he called Biden’s “crack smoking son who was administratively discharged from the Navy for testing positive for cocaine and who has abused his dad’s elected position to get rich off the Chinese Community Party.”
The younger Biden has spoken publicly about his struggles with substance abuse. The latter charge appears to be related to his former position on the board of a Chinese private equity group, from which he stepped down in October 2019.
The tweets, since deleted, were the latest example of the Trump campaign and its allies using images of and anecdotes about Biden’s young family members to attack the presumptive Democratic nominee for alleged creepiness, daftness, or, in the case of the Redskins photograph, complicity with an offensive team name.
Such memes have long been the currency of extremely online anti-Biden voters who have dubbed the theme of the memes “Creepy Uncle Joe.” The Biden campaign, perhaps understandably, did not view a photo of a father holding his son—pilfered from its own campaign website—as a body blow.
"Oh no, a photo of @JoeBiden as a loving and caring father, you guys really nailed us this time," said spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield in response.
But as the Trump campaign has struggled to define the former vice president with a suitably damaging shorthand—à la “Crooked Hillary” and “Lil’ Marco”—increasingly toxic memes in that vein have gone more mainstream.
On Thursday, newly minted Trump campaign spokesperson Hogan Gidley responded to a question about debate performance by accusing Biden of trying to “coax children up onto the porch with ice cream during quarantines.”
The anecdote, made to sound as if the former vice president is spending the lockdown luring children into his gingerbread house, was apparently a reference to comments Biden made during an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper in late March, when he was discussing grandparenthood during the coronavirus pandemic.
“My deceased son’s children live about a mile as the crow flies from us, and every day, they walk over through the woods and through a neighborhood, and they sit out in the backyard, and we sit on the porch,” Biden said at the time, joking that he would “bribe them with ice cream” to get them to hang out.
Earlier this month, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., liked a post on an Instagram account that called Biden “creepy” for kissing his granddaughter’s head on the day of her father, Beau Biden’s, funeral. In May, the younger Trump also shared a meme calling Biden a “pedophile,” although he later defended the post.
“The 3 [crying-laughing emoji] in the caption should indicate to anyone with a scintilla of common sense that I’m joking around,” Trump Jr. posted, alongside a hastily made tetraptych of Biden touching young children on their arms, heads and shoulders. “If the media doesn’t want people mocking & making jokes about how creepy Joe is, then maybe he should stop the unwanted touching & keep his hands to himself?”
The Trump campaign has not been immune from similar posts—Twitter is lousy with shots of a young Ivanka Trump sitting on her father’s lap at events—but from the first family down, Republicans have been swift to condemn them and similar remarks about minor members of the Trump family as beyond the pale.
When Stanford professor Pamela Karlan made a play on words with the name of Barron Trump, the president’s youngest son, during her testimony before the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearing in December 2019, first lady Melania Trump tweeted that she should be “ashamed” for using a child to score a cheap laugh.
“A minor child deserves privacy and should be kept out of politics,” the first lady tweeted at the time.
In September 2019, when MSNBC host Mike Brzesinski implied that Barron Trump was not the president’s biological son, Ronna Romney McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, declared that “there’s no excuse for attacking President Trump’s 13-year-old child.”
Biden’s family, tight-knit Irish Catholics who are close to the point of clannishness, has often been viewed as a rhetorical Achilles heel for the former vice president. When Paul Ryan faced off against Biden in the 2012 vice presidential debate, many inside the Obama re-election campaign were privately worried that an aside against one of Biden’s sons could derail a successful debate by turning him into an “angry old man.”
Biden displayed a flash of that potential anger in December, when an Iowa voter confronted him about Hunter Biden’s dealings in Ukraine, accusing him of “messing around” with autocrats.
“You’re a damn liar, man—that’s not true,” Biden fired back, before responding to the man’s concerns about his age by challenging him to feats of strength.
In response to questions about Guest’s posts, Michael Ahrens, the RNC’s communications director, told The Daily Beast that “we agree with the First Lady that minor children should be off limits.”
But the Biden campaign responded that the posts, and others like them, have already revealed the Trump campaign’s “classlessness.”
“The more that Donald Trump and his allies gorge themselves on classlessness,” said Andrew Bates, the Biden campaign’s director of rapid response, “the sharper the contrast becomes between Joe Biden's character, integrity, and compassion versus their weakness.”