The Biden White House has thus far opted to publicly ignore Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s 2024 presidential bid, and allies of the incumbent have dismissed the Democratic challenger as a mere nuisance whose campaign should be waved away as a joke.
But author and environmentalist Naomi Klein made the case Wednesday that such an approach is “not a viable political strategy” as Kennedy’s profile continues to rise, with the environmental lawyer and longtime anti-vaxxer making use of corporate television outlets such as Fox News, social media platforms, and popular podcasts to appeal to millions of potential voters.
“He has landed an apparent endorsement from Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and this week is being feted at a Bay Area fundraiser filled with heavy hitters,” Klein wrote in a column for The Guardian on Wednesday. “According to a CNN poll released in late May, support for Kennedy was at 20% among respondents who identify as Democrats or Democratic-leaning.”
While the CNN survey indicates that more respondents were drawn to Kennedy because of his family ties—he’s the son of assassinated former U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy—than support for his political views or policy positions, Klein argued it’s critical to discern “the reasons his campaign is resonating with a consequential slice of U.S. voters.”
From Klein’s perspective, Kennedy is a ” counterfeit populist” who is “tapping into a wellspring of real pain and outrage” by railing against the “drug companies controlling the national health agencies and polluters controlling environmental regulators.”
“He also is tapping into rage at the Democratic party itself, which feels to many like a hostage situation,” Klein wrote. “Inside its logic, there seems to be no acceptable way of challenging entrenched power. Not open primaries, not incumbent primaries, not third parties, not getting in and trying to change the system from the inside. All, we have been told since as long as I can remember, will help to elect Republicans. Of course this political straitjacket provokes rebellion, as well as some irrational behavior.”
But Klein stressed that “none of this means Kennedy is running a campaign rooted in finally telling the American public ‘the truth’—as he repeatedly claims.”
“What it does mean,” she added, “is that a public discourse filled with unsayable and unspeakable subjects is fertile territory for all manner of hucksters positioning themselves as uniquely courageous truth-tellers. RFK Jr. now leads the pack.”
Klein proceeded to outline and counter what she describes as the four myths about Kennedy that help explain his appeal, particularly among some progressive voters.
The first misconception, in Klein’s view, is the notion that Kennedy “would be a climate champion” as president, given his long history of environmental activism. Kennedy’s campaign website highlights that he was “instrumental in transforming the Hudson from a dead river to one of America’s cleanest today.”
Kennedy has also been an outspoken opponent of fracking.
But Klein argued Wednesday that “the facts have radically changed,” pointing to recent interviews in which Kennedy “claims climate science is too complex and abstract to explain and that, ‘I can’t independently verify that.'”
“He also says that the climate crisis is being used to push through ‘totalitarian controls on society’ orchestrated ‘by the World Economic Forum, Bill Gates, and all of these megabillionaires—a green-tinged reboot of the same, all-too-familiar conspiracy theories he rode to pandemic stardom, when he opposed virtually every Covid public health measure, from masks to vaccines to closures,” Klein wrote. “Now he is marshaling the same arguments against climate action.”
“In podcast interviews, especially with right-wing hosts, RFK Jr. now says he would leave energy policy to the market and describes himself as ‘a radical free marketeer,'” Klein added. “It should go without saying that the markets are incapable of decarbonizing our economies in anything like the narrow slice of time left.”
Klein also challenges the idea that Kennedy is not actually anti-vaccine.
Kennedy himself—who warned in 2015 that a vaccine-linked “holocaust” was underway in the U.S.—has sought to downplay the importance of his stance on vaccinations to his presidential campaign, telling reporters in May that he’s “not leading with the issue because it’s not a primary issue of concern to most Americans.”
“Except he can’t help himself,” Klein wrote. “In almost every long-form interview with him that I have encountered (and there have been many), he leaps to defend this debunked position (that childhood vaccinations can cause autism), always by citing the same series of figures. ‘Why is it,’ he asked the journalist David Samuels, ‘that in my generation, I’m 69, the rate of autism is 1 in 10,000, while in my kids’ generation it’s 1 in 34?’ He added, ‘I would argue that a lot of that is from the vaccine schedule, which changed in 1989.”
But Klein countered that Kennedy confuses “correlation with causation” and noted that the definition of autism changed in the 1990s, entering “the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a ‘spectrum disorder.'”
“Many more people suddenly met the criteria, which is a big part of what accounts for the post-1989 spike that Kennedy blames, wrongly, on vaccines,” Klein wrote.
Klein closed her column by pushing back on the portrayal of Kennedy as an “anti-war populist” and a human rights advocate.
To the contrary, Klein wrote that Kennedy’s expressions of outrage over U.S. interventions overseas should be met with skepticism given “the blanket support he offers the Israeli government, one of the top recipients of aid from the U.S. military-industrial complex he decries, and a nation consistently unwilling to entertain peace with justice, while escalating tensions with Iran.”
“This position alone should cause Kennedy’s supporters to question his supposedly anti-war, anti-surveillance stance. So should his increasingly reactionary position on border controls. Kennedy talks a good game condemning the U.S. for overthrowing democratically elected governments abroad and destabilizing entire regions,” Klein wrote. “But that raises the question: what does the U.S. owe to the people living in the parts of the world its policies have ravaged? Very little, according to Kennedy. He has taken to warning about the U.S.’ ‘open border’… He has also cited Israel—with its network of walls and fences imprisoning Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza—as a positive example of a country successfully controlling its borders.”
On Kennedy’s supposed populism, Klein argued that “his sycophantic treatment of Elon Musk is about as un-populist as a person can get, with Kennedy comparing the onetime richest man alive to the heroes of the American Revolution ‘who died to give us our Constitution.'”
“Progressive populists make tangible economic offers: tax the rich and give poor and working-class people more money and supports; some call for nationalizing key industries to pay for it,” Klein wrote. “Kennedy is not actually proposing any of this. On Fox, he would not even come out in favor of a wealth tax; he has brushed off universal public healthcare as not ‘politically realistic’; and I have heard nothing about raising the minimum wage.”
Klein isn’t the first progressive writer to pen a detailed examination and criticism of Kennedy, whose campaign appears to be benefiting from President Joe Biden’s lackluster approval among Democratic voters.
Last month, Lily Sánchez and Nathan Robinson wrote for Current Affairs that “it’s only because Biden and the Democrats have been so disappointing that someone like Kennedy, an abysmal candidate and totally untrustworthy person, can be attracting any support at all.”
“Kennedy will continue to sell himself as a brave ‘alternative’ to the status quo,” they added. “But this man peddles lies and capitalizes on the public’s hatred of corporate greed and government corruption. Like the con artist of 2016, this man is not to be trusted.”