Robert F. Kennedy Jr. | The third runner

The Independent candidate, known for his anti-vaccine stand and conspiracy theories, wants to ‘break’ America’s two-party system

Updated - May 24, 2024 12:44 pm IST

Published - May 05, 2024 05:41 am IST

RFK Jr., as he is widely known, wants to lead by example. 

RFK Jr., as he is widely known, wants to lead by example.  | Photo Credit: Illustration: R. Rajesh

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. authored ‘A Letter to Liberals’. He feared the “pharma cartel” was manipulating COVID-19 management, and the governments were bullies whose hallmark became “cancel culture”. The 120-page booklet was a lament. The Democratic Party should return to its roots, the storied FDR/JFK liberalism, which “prided itself on its open-minded tolerance of contrary opinion... and its fearless love for contention and disputation”.

RFK Jr., as he is widely known, wants to lead by example. When the Kennedy clan decided to endorse incumbent Joe Biden in the November elections, there was little resentment. “I am pleased they are politically active — it’s a family tradition,” RFK Jr., who is standing in the presidential election as an independent, wrote on X. The 70-year-old might be a namesake to Robert F. Kennedy, the former U.S. Attorney General, but “he does not share the same values, vision or judgment”, according to his siblings. But this does not dishearten RFK Jr. “We are divided in our opinions but united in our love for each other”, and this “healing” is possible for America too.

The Kennedy campaign of 2024 is built on similar contentions and contradictions. He is a Democrat and an environmentalist, spouting anti-vaccine sentiments to a rousing Republican voter base. Fear grows this “spoiler” may peel away votes from Mr. Biden and the Republican nominee Donald Trump. Anything goes, he says, to “break the two-party system”.

A puzzling pitch

RFK Jr. is a political enigma. He wants to “reclaim” the Democratic Party while sustaining links with far-right figures. The Great American Evils are corporate “elites”, says RFK Jr., a millionaire hailing from the Great American Family. He identifies himself as “pro-choice”, but abortion is a “tragedy”. He refutes the anti-vaccine label, before spewing misinformed, debunked ideas that vaccines can cause autism. The Kennedy heir has faith in scientific empiricism, but maintains that COVID-19 is “targeted to attack Caucasians and Black people”.

These claims “play[s] on anti-Semitic myths” and are “morally and factually wrong”, came a counter from his brother Joseph Kennedy II. Before entering politics, RFK Jr., the environmentalist, won legal battles against corporate polluters. Now, he endorses bitcoins, which leave behind a significant carbon footprint, and pitches “freedom and free markets” as a climate solution. His running mate Nicole Shanahan called him the “only anti-war candidate today”; RFK Jr., however, has defended Israel’s “right to self-defence” and opposes a ceasefire in Gaza.

Since 2004, RFK Jr. has distinguished himself as a conspiracy theorist. He believes his uncle Joan F. Kennedy, the former President, was assassinated by “members of the CIA”; the 2004 presidential elections were stolen; mass shootings are linked to prescription drugs; chemicals in water could turn children transgender.

RFK Jr. insists his “populist movement defies left-right division”; the anger and aggression are a distant echo of Mr. Trump’s rabble-rousing politics. The media is a “mercenary” operation, “here to fortify all of the corporate orthodoxies from their advertisers”; the “corporate capture” of the government is the root of American despair. A Politico analysis showed that in the 69 times he has appeared on television since January, nearly half were with conservative or openly ‘anti-woke’ hosts. On immigration, he thinks Mr. Biden has failed to manage the illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border. He has also opposed Mr. Trump’s plan to build a wall, while vowing to “close the border” if elected.

His policies include cutting military expenses, fixing economic inequality, reducing student debt, and freeing the American people from the clutches of Wall Street. Early polls show RFK Jr. holds appeal across political lines, mostly among the younger demographic. He held a favourability rating of +25%; Mr. Biden was at minus 2% and Mr. Trump at +7%, according to a Harvard poll in November last year.

“...the far right and the far left [seem to] wrap around and can coalesce around a candidate like this,” author Melissa Smith told Al Jazeera.

Inconsistencies make for intrigue in the 2024 presidential election bid. History is not kind to third-party candidates, but the Kennedy candidacy could become a “spoiler” in the decidedly close race between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump. To Mr. Trump, RFK Jr. is a “Democrat ‘Plant’” and “far more LIBERAL than anyone running as a Democrat”. The Democratic National Committee has set up a war room to deal with “third-party threats” such as Mr. Kennedy. Polls also show Mr. Trump’s lead over Mr. Biden can widen from anywhere between 2 to 8 points if RFK Jr. stays on the ballot.

The potential spoiler faces pushback from the Kennedy clan. A Kennedy name on the ballot, the siblings fear, would make Democrats feel “torn” between the nephew of former president JFK and the incumbent Mr. Biden, an outcome “perilous” for America’s future. The family is thus bolstering Mr. Biden’s re-election bid: being photographed at the White House; descending on the campaign trail; and stepping up media appearances.

RFK Jr.’s “misguided stands on issues, his poor judgement, and tenuous relationship with the truth” make him unfit for the presidency, his cousin Stephen Kennedy Smith said. There is the added risk to the Kennedy legacy, should RFK Jr. tip the elections in favour of the Republic nominee. The family line is clear: RFK Jr.’s presidential bid is “dangerous to the country”. He is “trading in on Camelot celebrity conspiracy theories and conflict for personal gain and fame,” wrote JFK’s grandson Jack Schlossberg on Instagram (King Arthur’s castle Camelot has become a metaphor for the Kennedy dynasty in his rallies). “Let’s not be distracted again by somebody’s vanity project.”

Distraction is RFK Jr.’s design. To the victor belong the spoils, the saying goes, but the third candidate is happy to set alight the treasures. He wants to “spoil [the race] for both of them [Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden]” and take the ravaged Americans “over the castle walls together”.

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