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The Democrats’ Trump Wannabe

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. shares Trump’s penchants for conspiracy theories, Vladimir Putin, and running for president.
May 10, 2023
The Democrats’ Trump Wannabe
Boston, MA - April 19: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announces his candidacy for President of the United States in a speech at Boston Park Plaza. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the fourth of his line to seek the presidency, is causing eyebrows to arch all over the political world. The 69-year-old son of slain Senator Robert F. Kennedy is a former environmental lawyer turned vaccine conspiracist. On April 19, he announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president. His aim? To “end the corrupt merger of state and corporate power.”

Would you imagine such a platform attracting followers? Well, he’s been racking up some startling poll numbers. An early April Morning Consult poll found 10 percent support among Democratic primary voters. Ten days later, a USA Today/Suffolk poll clocked him at 14 percent. A week after that, Fox News put him at 19 percent and Emerson College found 21 percent support.

Those are some impressive percentages for a challenger to a sitting president. In September 2019, Trump’s three challengers combined received only 8 percent. Former Governor Bill Weld garnered 5 percent, while former Governor Mark Sanford captured 2 percent and former Representative Joe Walsh managed one percent.

Are Democratic primary voters seriously considering this guy? Let’s start with the name. Though only about a quarter of the electorate is old enough to recall the 1968 assassination of Bobby Kennedy, most will have memories of Senator Edward Kennedy, who passed away in 2009. About a dozen other Kennedys have dotted the political landscape over the decades and no other political family has matched their glamor or celebrity. But when Joseph Kennedy III lost his senate primary to Ed Markey in 2020, Politico declared that “The Kennedy dynasty is dead. Joe’s Senate loss places a 2020 marker on its gravestone.”

Did Politico speak too soon? In 1962, Teddy Kennedy made his first run for the Senate at the age of 30. He was competing for the seat vacated by his brother who had taken up residency at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A compliant Massachusetts governor appointed an interim senator to keep the seat warm until Teddy reached the constitutionally mandated age of 30. In one of the debates, his opponent sniped that “with your qualifications, if your name were Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy, this campaign would be a joke.” Can we say the same of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.? Maybe.

It seems reasonable to surmise that Kennedy’s high poll numbers at this stage reflect, at least in part, the dissatisfaction Democrats have expressed about a second Biden term. Marianne Williamson was able to garner 10 percent in one poll, and she’s hardly a pillar of respectability, politically speaking. And there are so many Kennedys (God bless them) that people may not be focusing on which Kennedy this is.

So let’s review. Just after Donald Trump was elected, a parade of notables trooped to Trump Tower to be interviewed by the president-elect: Kanye West, Rick Santorum, Sonny Perdue, Rick Perry, Omarosa Manigualt, Mike Flynn. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was there, too. Odd, you might say, for a major Democratic figure? But RFK Jr. is no typical Democrat. He went off the rails decades ago, and his manias about dark forces and evil schemes fit smoothly into Trump’s own cracked obsessions. He was an early proponent and superspreader of the thoroughly debunked claim that childhood vaccines cause autism. Emerging from the Trump Tower meeting, RFK Jr. spoke enthusiastically about their conversation, noting that Trump mentioned having five friends whose children developed autism after receiving immunizations. The president-elect told Kennedy that he would like him to assemble a “vaccine safety and scientific integrity commission.” Thankfully, nothing came of it.

During his two-hour announcement speech, an alarm sounded in the Park Plaza hotel and a public address alert advised people to evacuate. “Nice try,” Kennedy said, addressing the disembodied voice, clearly assuming that the fire alarm was only the latest attempt by “them” to silence him.

Kennedy began circulating false information about vaccines in the 1990s, alleging that vaccines were responsible for peanut allergies and other ailments. As with many conspiracists, that became too mild over time and he upped his game. Perhaps you’ve heard of the crazed theory that Microsoft’s Bill Gates was implanting microchips into patients through vaccines? Thank RFK Jr. for giving it oxygen. He posted a YouTube video that accused Gates of developing this “injectable chip” to enable Big Tech to track people’s movements. In another post, he originated the false allegation that the Gates Foundation had paralyzed 496,000 children in India during a polio vaccine trial. As Politifact noted in 2020, the World Health Organization has recorded 17 cases of vaccine-derived polio in India since 2000. Seventeen, not 496,000.

RFK Jr. has also circulated the bogus notion that 5G alters human DNA, causes cancer, and is part of a vast program of surveillance. He does not believe Lee Harvey Oswald killed his uncle; he fingers the CIA. Not surprisingly, he also believes that Sirhan Sirhan, convicted of killing his father, is innocent and has urged his release. He offered a lengthy explanation in 2021, coinciding with a parole board decision, alleging that the police “inexplicably and illegally destroyed thousands of pieces of evidence, including 2,410 photographs of the crime scene before and after the shooting as well as the door frames and ceiling tiles in the pantry with vital bullet evidence, while Sirhan’s case was still on appeal.”

Kennedy’s view of who murdered his father? Also the CIA.

Unsurprisingly, when COVID hit, RFK Jr. was ready. On December 6, 2021, he tweeted that the “COVID vaccine is the deadliest vaccine ever made.” He published a book, The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health, accusing Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates of being in cahoots to profit off vaccines and told a rally crowd in 2022 that things were worse today than during the Holocaust: “Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps to Switzerland. You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did,” whereas “the mechanisms are being put in place that will make it so none of us can run and none of us can hide.” It wasn’t a one-off. He has invoked the Nazi comparison numerous times (perhaps giving the idea to Marjorie Taylor Greene) and has posted images of Anthony Fauci with a Hitler mustache.

RFK Jr.’s nonprofit has been banned from Instagram and Facebook for spreading disinformation about COVID. He has wallowed in martyrdom, complaining that Big Tech is silencing him for “disagreeing.”

One more item to complete this grim picture: RFK Jr. is anti-Ukraine, spouting Russian propaganda about provocations from “fascists” in Zelensky’s regime and American “neo-cons.” This is not out of character. A couple of decades ago he was agog for Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who holds a record for the speed with which he plunged a reasonably prosperous country into chaos and destitution (before posthumously stealing the 2020 election for Joe Biden, of course).

It is difficult to imagine that his poll numbers will hold up once Democrats draw a bead on what he believes. But there is another audience that is proving quite receptive—Republicans.

Benjamin Braddock, writing in the American Mind, a Claremont Institute outlet, praised RFK Jr., whose goals, he wrote “are so strongly focused on the most serious challenges facing the nation. His message is one that appeals beyond ideology.” And what are those goals? “RFK Jr. is thus far the only announced presidential candidate who has declared his intention to prosecute officials who betrayed the public trust in the course of the pandemic.”

Of course. Jailing Fauci. That’s the great challenge of our time.

Tablet magazine welcomed him with unblushing admiration: “The collision he’s about to cause between the world of official group-think and the world of normal-speak—where most Americans weigh what might be best for themselves and their children—can only be good for American democracy, and for the American language.”

Over at National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty notes mildly that: “Just as Donald Trump . . . retrieved political themes from the deep past of the Republican Party, so it must be that a Democrat should come along and try to revive left-leaning skepticism of government and corporate power, to denounce crony capitalism, censorship, and the CIA to boot.”

Dougherty says some of RFK Jr.’s message “resonates” with him:

The government lies to us. The media lies to us. Everybody knows that. A lot of misinformation is just statements that depart from government orthodoxy, so they have to either censor us or lie about what’s true or not true. That amplifies the polarization, the fear, the insecurity. You know you’re being lied to and you’re being silenced.

Just for the record, it isn’t “crony capitalism” RFK Jr. despises; it’s straight-up capitalism. He wanted to jail the Koch brothers before sending them to the Hague as war criminals. He described the CATO Institute, AEI, Exxon Mobil, and a raft of other entities as “snake pits for sociopaths” before recommending treason charges against Southern Company and Exxon. Any fan of Hugo Chavez is not against “crony capitalism,” he hates the real thing.

But the right no longer upholds capitalism’s honor. Scott Horton of tweeted that as “as a Democrat, he must be bad on all sorts of things. But not the ones that matter the most.” And the ones that matter most are presumably helping Putin to conquer Ukraine.

RFK Jr., like Trump, has swum for decades in the cesspool of conspiracies, lies, baseless accusations, and ginned-up outrage. We hardly pause to note it, because Trump has committed so many other outrages, but he cost tens of thousands of Americans their lives thanks to minimizing the seriousness of COVID. RFK Jr. too belongs in the select company of major figures who have used their power for harm. Perhaps he isn’t quite right in the head. Who knows? But the fact that he appeals to significant numbers of Americans, and particularly to those who have always been on the other side of the aisle, suggests that he is far from alone in that.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].