Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s bid for the presidency hinges on three key truths: that the free market is the miraculous cure to all our problems, that the media elite are conspiring to deceive the American people, and that the United States desperately needs a Commander in Chief who may or may not be on anabolic steroids.
All joking aside, RFK is quite the enigma. He entered the Democratic presidential primary alongside fellow contenders Joe Biden and Marianne Williamson this April, armed with the surname of the Kennedy dynasty. He’s since become a captivating figure for the media, the Internet, and curiously, right-wing circles. The peculiar idolization of RFK, Jr. among right-wing pundits on outlets like Fox News and in conservative podcasts likely influenced his unexpected recent decision to switch lanes and run as an independent. RFK also contends that this shift was driven by the Democratic party’s anti-democratic maneuvers throughout the primary process. This includes the DNC’s refusal to subject the incumbent president to the democratic process by hosting primary debates, which would have exposed the people to all of the options on the table. Fellow candidate Marianne Williamson has been vocal about this decision as well, particularly at a time when the majority of Democratic primary voters say they want a candidate for president other than Joe Biden.
When reviewing Kennedy’s issue set, it’s easy to see why he appeals to so many voters. Especially in interviews from the launch of his campaign, RFK, at least vocally, supports working-class voters, emphasizes personal responsibility, and promotes limited government. But, he is also passionate about issues like healthcare and the environment- working as an environmental lawyer for over three decades. Upon voters’ initial introduction to him, it is easy to see why he achieved consistent polling around, and even above, 12% of Democratic voters. However, as time went on and voters learned more, his unfavorability rating shot up among Democrats. They were unsettled by views they see as dangerous and conspiratorial, such as decades of advocacy for ‘vaccine skepticism’ (including alleging a disproven link between vaccinations and Autism diagnoses), claims on the wildly popular Joe Rogan podcast that 5G Wifi causes ‘leaky brains,’ or that chemicals like atrazine in the water supply are ‘turning children transgender’– a conspiracy theory also promoted by famous intellect Alex Jones.
Nevertheless, RFK’s popularity was skyrocketing, particularly among Republicans and Independents. He embarked on a ‘podcast circuit,’ making appearances wherever they would have him to publicize his name and policy positions. On each appearance, he decried what he sees as the flawed US COVID response, questioned the effectiveness and safety of COVID vaccines, and accused the mainstream media of deceiving the American public. This is one of Kennedy’s strengths: his ability to tap into the fears held by many Americans, connecting them to a kernel of truth, and stretching the argument beyond one’s wildest imaginations. In preparation for this article, I listened to the 3-hour long Joe Rogan Experience podcast with RFK, and had to take regular breaks from the onslaught of false claims about the links between autism and vaccines. RFK’s discussions about the ‘extreme’ increase in autism diagnoses in the 1980s, consistently using outdated and offensive language to describe autistic individuals, ignore key facts. He claims at one point that, “If you’re my age […] you will remember that you didn’t know anybody who looked like this when you were, you know, in school.” He disregards the fact that the single study he relies on to link vaccines to autism has been debunked on a number of occasions, and he ignores the influence of increased awareness and diagnostic improvements on ASD diagnoses. He also seemingly forgets his own family history, wherein his aunt was infamously lobotomized and hidden from the public out of the shame associated with her intellectual disabilities. In short, once Democrats got a closer look at him, his support dwindled, leading us to where we are now: with RFK Jr. re-launching his campaign for President, this time as an Independent.
Despite typical concerns of third party ballot access and limited mainstream media appearances for RFK, Republicans have come to regard him as a credible threat: a third-party spoiler who could take enough votes from Donald Trump to lose him the election (nevermind the multiple felony indictments). When it seemed as if he could take votes from Biden, the pragmatic Republicans showered RFK with praise and goodwill, but the moment he announced his independent run, it was like a switch flipped.
Earlier this July, Trump was complimenting RFK, calling him ‘a very smart person,’ and ‘a common sense guy.’ However, after his October 9th press conference, the Trump campaign and the RNC went on attack. Trump campaign spokesperson Stephen Cheung changed the tune in a statement, saying, “Voters should not be deceived by anyone who pretends to have conservative values,” and that Kennedy’s campaign was “nothing more than a vanity project for a liberal Kennedy looking to cash in on his family’s name.” This opened the door for even more attacks across the conservative political ecosystem. Most prominently, in an October 11th interview with Sean Hannity, the formerly amiable host blindsided Kennedy with attacks involving his history of ‘liberal’ environmentalist activism and his prior endorsements of Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and *gasp* Bernie Sanders. Countless more GOP operatives have now gone on the offensive against Kennedy, as documented in this AP article.
But Kennedy remains undeterred by attacks from voters, the establishment parties, and the mainstream media. At his re-announcement two weeks ago, in response to claims of him being a spoiler for either Biden or Trump, Kennedy retorted back with, “The truth is, they’re both right. My intention is to spoil it for both of them.” While third-party campaigns like RFK’s and Cornel West’s face an uphill battle and will inevitably lose (especially without solutions like ranked choice voting) they still wield the potential to disrupt the established candidates by offering an alternative, whether it’s a genuine show of support or a protest vote against the inadequacy of the other options.
Unlike many, I perceive this as a positive development. Third-party campaigns and dissident intraparty primary challenges have the power to compel the likely general election contenders, Joe Biden and Donald Trump, to make concrete policy commitments and concessions or to become more responsive to the electorate. It’s imperative that we collectively work towards shaping a political system that embodies genuine democratic choice, one that shuns the practice of anointing party nominees based solely on their historical affiliation, be it Republican or Democrat. We must move away from the stranglehold of a two-party corporate duopoly and the pressure to cast votes for the lesser of two perceived “evils.” Instead, we should aspire to create a system that allows citizens to cast their ballots proudly, endorsing the principles they genuinely believe in as they engage in their civic duty.
The opinions expressed within this piece represent the views of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jefferson Independent.