Robert Kennedy Jr. embraces virtually every conspiracy theory in existence other than the most obvious one.
It isn’t enough that he believes that Covid vaccines are part of a global plot by the pharmaceutical industry to reap record profits. Or that he sees the hidden hand of the CIA everywhere, beginning with the assassination of his uncle John Kennedy in 1963 and of his father in 1968.
No, the aspiring Democratic presidential nominee also believes, as he said last week on Joe Rogan’s podcast, “Wi-Fi radiation opens up your blood-brain barrier so all these toxins that are in your body can now go into your brain.” In a New Hampshire address, he dubbed the conflict in Ukraine a “proxy war” between the United States and Russia. And then, in a SiriusXM radio interview with Steve Scully, he claimed that the Russians were acting “in good faith” in Ukraine while America supposedly wanted to prolong the war.
Even as he spies secret machinations everywhere, Kennedy is somehow missing the unalterable truth about his bizarro candidacy: He is being used.
Kennedy is an environmental lawyer with the most famous name in Democratic politics. He is also a patsy. His candidacy is being promoted by right-wing forces with the single-minded objective of embarrassing Joe Biden in the New Hampshire primary and other early contests.
Kennedy has been ballyhooed on Fox News with gushy interviews with Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity. Republican megadonors like David Sacks and Omeed Malik are fundraising for him. He has also been endorsed by the founder of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, and implicitly supported by Elon Musk, who is driving Twitter into the ground. Both Roger Stone and Steve Bannon have been giddy with praise for Kennedy, even suggesting him as Donald Trump’s 2024 running mate. And Rolling Stone revealed that a pro-Kennedy super PAC was organized by a Georgia-based Republican firm that has recently worked for Marjorie Taylor Greene, Herschel Walker, and George Santos.
Kennedy has hit just about every right-wing hot spot with the exception of the dining room at Mar-a-Lago. Last Thursday, he was a featured speaker at the Porcupine Freedom Festival, or PORCFEST, an annual far-right libertarian festival in New Hampshire where attendees had to be warned, “To attend this private, high security event, you will need to leave your gun behind.” And this week, he will join five of the leading GOP presidential candidates—including Donald Trump—at an event in Philadelphia sponsored by the militant book-banning parents group Moms for Liberty.
And yet reporters and pundits, desperate for drama in this silly season of politics, are beginning to convince themselves that Kennedy has the makings of a serious candidate. A New Yorker piece by Antonia Hitchens noted, “One recent Presidential poll shows that [Kennedy] has the highest favorability ratings of anyone in the race, and another that he is the choice of almost a quarter of Democrats, making him Biden’s main challenger in the Party.” Bret Stephens, an anti-Trump conservative New York Times columnist, wrote, “Kennedy’s candidacy is resonating more widely than nearly anyone expected.… There’s an unfulfilled hunger for a liberal leader who can capture Kennedy’s spirit without his folly.”
Maybe we shouldn’t get so carried away with national surveys 14 months before the Democratic convention in Chicago. Yes, it is notable that Kennedy is walloping a third candidate, spiritual guru Marianne Williamson, in the RealClearPolitics polling averages. But no poll this month of Democrats shows Kennedy with more than 17 percent support. And there is no way of knowing at this stage how much of that backing stems from ephemeral name recognition.
Kennedy poses the biggest threat to Biden in New Hampshire, a state where the president may not even be on the primary ballot. Last December, acting on ill-considered orders from the Biden White House, the Democratic National Committee voted to dislodge New Hampshire as the opening-gun primary, replacing it with the state that saved Biden’s fortunes in 2020: South Carolina. Determined to keep its first-in-the-nation status, New Hampshire is slated to hold a primary for both parties in mid-January. It is likely that Biden will neither campaign nor advertise in what the national party would consider an illegal primary. Ray Buckley, the longtime state Democratic chair, tried to sound optimistic as he told me, “We very much hope that the president will be on the ballot and campaign here.”
Political reporters (not known for their subtlety) will be apt to treat a mid-January New Hampshire primary as a referendum on Biden, even if the president has to depend on an underfunded local write-in effort. An avalanche of articles and a blizzard of TV reports will hark back to the 1968 New Hampshire primary, when antiwar crusader Eugene McCarthy won an impressive 42 percent of the vote against Lyndon Johnson running as a write-in. McCarthy’s miracle in the “snows of New Hampshire” prompted a dithering Bobby Kennedy to belatedly declare his candidacy and helped drive LBJ from the race.
A more apt parallel to Kennedy Jr. would be Pat Buchanan’s 40 percent showing against Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush in the 1992 New Hampshire primary. As The New York Times summarized in its morning-after account, “It amounted to a roar of anger from those who voted in the Republican primary, and it showed the power of a ‘send a message’ campaign … in times of economic distress.” Buchanan’s apostacy went on to play a significant role in Bush’s eventual loss to Bill Clinton in the 1992 election.
Compared to Kennedy today, Buchanan in 1992 was Pericles. The right-wing newspaper columnist had served in the White Houses of Richard Nixon, Jerry Ford, and Ronald Reagan. Buchanan was animated by a real issue: Bush’s willingness to raise taxes after he had made a “Read my lips” pledge to the hold the line in the 1988 campaign. Even though Buchanan was denounced as an extremist, his social conservatism and his “America First” trade policy proved to be a precursor of Trump’s Republican Party. Moreover, Buchanan’s campaign was authentic. It wasn’t concocted as a plot by Clinton aides James Carville and George Stephanopoulos.
Kennedy has as much chance of leading off for the Boston Red Sox as he does of being the Democratic nominee in 2024. And he should be scorned as an ego-driven, conspiracy-mongering Republican plant. Reporters who take him seriously should know that they too are being played for suckers by the likes of Roger Stone and Steve Bannon.