By Caroline Nyvang & Karen Vallgårda
During the final 2020 presidential debate, Donald J. Trump brought up the son of his opponent, Joe Biden. Once again, Trump accused Hunter Biden of wrongdoings in Ukraine and China and then alluded to Hunter’s bouts with addiction. Biden responded to the allegations by declaring, “It’s not about his family and my family.” Pointing into the camera to engage the 14 million viewers, he added, “it’s about your family.”
Yet, in America, politicians’ families are always on the ballot. Candidates for higher office bring their spouses, children, siblings, and parents to rallies, proudly displaying picture-perfect families for the media to broadcast. In the so-called biographical index used to forecast the outcome of an election, “Adopted children,” “Divorce,” “Loss of children,” and “Marriage” are important variables that can work either for or against a contender. The candidate’s family can be a trump or a major disadvantage.
The fact that voters give such weight to the families of their representatives reveals a great deal about the status of the family in contemporary culture. The family, we seem to believe, carries a deeper truth about the moral character of a person, and how an individual acts front stage is ultimately less illuminating than how they behave backstage in their intimate circles. Hence, digging deeply into family secrets is supposedly a way to determine whether an individual is fit for office.
American historian John R. Gillis has argued that we all have two different kinds of families: the families we live by and the families we live with. The families we live by are loving, supportive, and protective; they are the mythical and idealized ones we present to the world. Much of the time, however, the real-life families we live with are a lot less idyllic. They tend to be marked by power struggles, betrayals, jealousy, suffocating expectations, and sometimes by violence and abuse. In order for a candidate to be successful, he or she needs to engage in careful knowledge management in order to convince the public that there is certain degree of continuity between the two incarnations of the family.
This can be somewhat challenging. With her bestselling exposé, Too Much and Never Enough, published in the summer of 2020, Donald Trump’s niece, Mary L. Trump, made sure that the president’s family life, much like Biden’s, was publicly vetted. Rather than an examination of the president’s actions in service of the nation, the biography presented revelations of personal transgressions and the unfolding of what she called a “malignantly dysfunctional family.” The American president supposedly grew up in a home run by a self-absorbed, chronically ill mother and an emotionally detached patriarch. As a result of these unhealthy family dynamics, Mary L. Trump writes, her uncle now suffers from a number of “pathologies,” including a diet-coke induced sleeping disorder, narcissism, and sociopathy.
The book’s subtitle– How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man – underlines the author’s overarching claim that faulty family dynamics produced a self-aggrandizing global threat. Mary L. Trump’s own father, having grown up in the same home, turned his destructive behavior inward as he drank himself to death at the age of 42. Mary L. Trump, in short, communicates a story ripe with moral and social grime – substance abuse, misogyny, and fraud – of the current president of the United States, somewhat at odds with the image the president himself likes to project of a beautiful and successful family.
Despite attempts to stop its publication, the book reached the stands just in time for the Republican National Convention. Critics commended the author for delivering “John Bolton-quality revelations, but about Trump’s family”, and for confronting the “sanitized version of the family myth”. The book climbed the charts, selling almost a million copies on its first day of sales, and was soon on top of the hardcover nonfiction best-seller list, testifying to our apparently insatiable desire for behind-the-scenes information about the family life of the commander-in-chief.
Such airing of the dirty laundry of a politician is no novelty. The past decades offer numerous examples. Think, for instance, of President George W. Bush who had to publicly excuse his twin daughters after they had been cited by Texas police for underage drinking. A former staffer later stated that keeping Jenna and Barbara Bush’s mischievous behavior under wraps was a “a secret service nightmare”. The political career of John Edwards, former U.S. senator and vice-presidential nominee, was severely damaged when it was revealed in 2007 and 2008 that he had had an extramarital affair and even fathered a child outside marriage. The affair, which Edwards had reluctantly admitted to after months of denial, shocked many as his wife had just been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer.
The pressure for transparency in the U.S. electoral process has also made it comme il faut over the past 30 years for candidates to produce a bill of health. The challenge to publicize tax returns has a slighter longer history that harkens back to president Nixon in the early 1970s. Around the same time, the media attention surrounding the private lives of politicians increased immensely. The public push for intimate insights was justified by a perceived need to provide the American people with enough background information that they never again elect “a crook.”
To be sure, some disclosures are entirely intentional and even put proactively to use in a candidate’s favor. Hillary Clinton, whose fraught family life had long been a matter of controversy, thus used memoirs to repair the public image of her intimate relationships. Her first memoir from 2005 gives an effectively edited glimpse into the Clinton couple’s attempts to salvage their marriage following a very public process on her husband’s extramarital affair and sexual harassment case. Her second memoir published right before she announced her bid for the 2016 election highlights other aspects of her family history, emphasizing her ties to her mother as well as to her daughter and newly born granddaughter. As this indicates, politicians’ family lives need perhaps not be perfect. We might even relish the feeling of familiarity that comes with knowing that they, too, experience personal problems. It enables us to identify with them. But they must also demonstrate the ability to overcome difficulties, to find nurture in healthy relationships, to mend broken bonds, and to reconstruct a loving family story.
The “who would you rather have a beer with”-question has long been considered the ultimate test of the folksiness of a politician. This gives candidates an impetus to disclose certain aspects of their personal history, while avoiding the revelation of others. Besides the opportunity to sell one’s own version of the family story, autobiographies come with a promise of behind-the-scenes revelations. As the German sociologist Georg Simmel noted back in 1906, information that comes with the stamp of confidentiality appears as a priori more valuable than that which is widely accessible. Politicians often skillfully take advantage of this, giving voters a peek into their private lives by posting intimate family pictures, supposedly less curated than official photos, on social media. Just as with other acts that serve to demonstrate commonality – such as meet-and-greets or publicly eating fast food – these can potentially be converted to trust and a sense of intimacy with the constituents.
“With an energy unique to this age,” John Gillis pointed out in 1996, “we research, document, photograph, videotape, and narrate family in public ways that earlier generations would have found quite embarrassing and totally unnecessary. Since then, the impulse to convey and disclose what was previously considered private has only increased. Today, family life figures as the proper manifestation of an individual’s identity, a litmus test of their moral compass, and a signpost of their likeability.
 John R. Gillis: A World of Their Own Making. Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values, Harvard University Press, 1996.
 Georg Simmel, “The Sociology of Secrecy and Secret Societies,” The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 11, no. 4, 1906, pp. 441-498.
 John R. Gillis: A World of Their Own Making, xvi.