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Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s appeal will also be his ruin

Right-wing nationalists and libertarians see much to like in Kennedy, but that doesn't bode well for him in a Democratic primary.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at Fox News Channel Studios in New York City on June 2, 2023.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at Fox News Channel Studios in New York City on Friday.Jamie McCarthy / Getty Images

Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey laid his 2024 cards on the table Monday when he endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for president and predicted that he’ll win the race for the White House. Dorsey’s prediction skills probably need some work, given President Joe Biden’s incumbency and dominance within the party; perhaps Dorsey’s sense of what’s possible has been distorted by how much time he spends in weird corners of the internet as an entrepreneur and crypto advocate. But at the same time, his unusual position in American culture is precisely what makes his endorsement interesting. Why does he like Kennedy so much?

Kennedy is an example of the erosion of straightforward ideological formations in our political era.

Kennedy, an environmental lawyer and anti-vaccine activist and a descendant of one of the most influential dynasties in American politics, is running for president as a Democrat. Some of his views make him sound like a typical progressive populist, such as his talk about addressing wealth inequality and supporting organized labor. But he’s also very much at odds with the mainstream of the party on many issues, from his opposition to vaccines to his abject distrust in state bureaucracy to his dovish position on the war in Ukraine. In recent years he has developed a fan base among the MAGA right because of those less orthodox positions; some right-wing activists have even called for him to join former President Donald Trump as a vice presidential candidate. Kennedy also attracts the interest of libertarian-leaning people like Dorsey because of his views on state authority.

Kennedy is an example of the erosion of straightforward ideological formations in our political era. While he shares some views of progressives, his idiosyncratic modes of distrust also put him in alignment with many outside of center-left politics. Between that and his famous surname, he could plausibly build an ideologically diverse following in the coming months, or theoretically even lend the prestige of his name to a GOP presidential ticket. But the unusual makeup of his ideology is exactly what’s likely to doom him in the Democratic primaries. 

Kennedy’s main value proposition as a candidate is that he will pull back the curtain on the nefarious workings of the state. His speeches involve cataloguing a mix of true and false claims about government deception, especially as tied to national security and public health. The first policy priority he lists on his website is “honest government,” under which he promises to “roll back the secrecy” in American politics. But Kennedy’s relationship to empirical truth is tortured. Despite an absence of evidence supporting his theories about vaccines, he has peddled misinformation about vaccine safety for many years, including the debunked myth that vaccines cause autism and the outlandish claim that philanthropist Bill Gates wanted to use vaccines to install microchips in the public. Kennedy’s extreme views on vaccines are what underpinned his crusade against the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, whom he accused of orchestrating “fascism” during the pandemic. Kennedy also repeatedly suggested that public health measures during the pandemic were equivalent to or worse than the Nazi Holocaust.

Kennedy’s conspiracy theories aren’t limited to public health matters. He also believes the unsubstantiated theories that the CIA killed his uncle President John F. Kennedy and his father, Robert F. Kennedy, a former attorney general who was running for president when he was assassinated in 1968. Kennedy’s beliefs about those incidents appear to resonate with Dorsey, who tweeted last week, “Splinter the CIA, NSA, and FBI into a thousand pieces and scatter them into the winds,” alongside an image of JFK. 

Kennedy’s views on vaccines, suspicions about the “deep state,” and his animosity toward Fauci have endeared him to the nationalist right and some libertarians. Many top names on the MAGA right, including former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and Infowars host and conspiracy theory-monger Alex Jones, have spoken positively of him and encouraged his presidential run. “I don’t agree with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on some topics, but he’s a man of integrity that fights fluoride and poison shots and fentanyl and everything else. He’s a good man,” Jones said on his podcast in April. “He’s got a lot of guts, and I really support him for the Democratic nomination.” Bannon reportedly encouraged Kennedy to run for months, seeing him as someone who could cause chaos in the 2024 race and amplify anti-vaxxer sentiment.

But it’s not clear how much chaos Kennedy can actually cause. To be clear, he is far from a laughingstock in the polls: He’s coming in at around 20% support among Democratic voters in a few recent surveys. But for now I’d chalk that up to Kennedy's unusual name recognition combined with an inchoate dissatisfaction that Biden is running again. It’s still very early, and it's difficult to imagine Kennedy’s support growing once more of the base learns more about who he actually is, his conspiracy theories and his extended family’s attempts to distance themselves from his views. And it’s unclear how his progressive economic views make him stand out against Biden, who has governed far more progressively on the economy than any other Democrat has in decades. There is no major constituency for Kennedy’s views in the Democratic Party, and his ability to build coalitions with people on the nationalist right aren’t going to help him win the primaries. (If he were to run as a third party candidate in the general election, then there's more of a chance for chaos.)

Biden could theoretically be hurt by a charismatic anti-establishment candidate who spoke to the unmet needs of voters on the left. But Kennedy doesn’t appear to be that man.