Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at an event where he announced his run for president on Wednesday, April 19, 2023, at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel, in Boston. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)

Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps into Switzerland, you could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did … Today, the mechanisms are being put in place that will make it so none of us can run and none of us can hide. Within five years we’re going to see 415,000 low orbit satellites. Bill Gates says his 65,000 satellites alone will be able to locate every square inch of the planet 24 hours a day. They’re putting in 5G to harvest our data and control our behavior, digital currency that will allow them to punish us from a distance and cut off our food supply. Vaccine passports … The minute they hand you that vaccine passport, every right that you have is transformed into a privilege contingent upon your obedience to arbitrary government dictates. It will make you a slave. 

The above quote looks like an unhinged rant on 4chan, not a speech from a presidential candidate. And yet, in the dark corners of the punditocracy, a concerted effort is underway to take seriously the narrator of this dystopian delusion: Robert F. Kennedy Jr.  

You may be aware that Kennedy apologized for the first sentence of this quote. But last week, in a softball interview with CNN’s Michael Smerconish, he retracted the apology: “I never compared the COVID mandates or the COVID response to the Holocaust. That was a media canard, something that the media made up and charged me with … ultimately, I had to apologize for something I never said.” 

Kennedy went far beyond an insensitive reference to the Holocaust. He said the combination of low-orbit satellites, 5G broadband cellular networks, digital currency, and vaccine passports would create a world in which we all would be worse off than Anne Frank, who—Kennedy neglected to mention—was captured by the Nazis and died in a concentration camp.  

Without the memory of his paternal namesake, who was assassinated after his victory in the 1968 California presidential primary, a conspiracy-minded, factually challenged crackpot like Kennedy would merit about as much attention as the nearly 700 quixotic presidential candidates who have filed with the Federal Election Commission. 

Instead, we have commentators like Mark Halperin (who lost his NBC News gig after sexual misconduct accusations and recently left a communications position at No Labels), trying to shame media institutions into giving Kennedy’s recently announced Democratic primary campaign more attention. “The gatekeepers at the Dominant Media largely do not want to elevate Bobby, since they are all anti-anti-vax and they don’t want to do anything that might weaken Biden (and thus help to elect Trump),” huffed Halperin in his Substack newsletter (a newsletter which, according to Semafor, is being read by those gatekeepers.) “But you need to pay attention to Kennedy’s message, a beautiful mosaic of passion, combining notes and themes from Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and some of the blue collar/fighting for you [from] Scranton Joe.”  

Andrew Sullivan, also on Substack, cheered Kennedy’s candidacy, while urging Tucker Carlson to join the presidential contest. To Sullivan, who said he wasn’t endorsing either, both represent “a deepening suspicion of corporate and government authority, a refreshing willingness to junk partisan orthodoxy, and, in an age of utter cowardice, what can only be called nerve.” What’s so nervy about Kennedy? “[I]t took balls for Kennedy to stick to his anti-vaccine guns, even as the media, the Democrats and members of his own family effectively disowned him over it.” Sullivan further gushed, “Kennedy is coherent, has an insane grasp of detail, and can speak extemporaneously with a skill not seen since [Barack] Obama.” 

Ever the maddening contrarian, Sullivan lauds Kennedy’s stance even though “I just don’t buy the anti-vaccine campaigns or his profound alienation from what he sees as the deep state.” Yet Sullivan pointed to a friendly interview Kennedy got from Tablet editor David Samuels. After reading the transcript, Sullivan shared he “was rustled out of my assumption that [Kennedy had] simply gone nuts.”  

Samuels, who has known Kennedy since he was nine years old, literally argued in favor of Kennedy’s candidacy as a way to validate conspiracy theories: “Once a description of a particular kind of recognizably insulated and cyclical counterlogic [sic], ‘conspiracy theory’ has become a flashing red light that is used to identify and suppress truths that powerful people find inconvenient … The fact that Robert F. Kennedy is the country’s leading ‘conspiracy theorist’ alone qualifies him to be president.” 

Bill Maher, a relentless vaccine skeptic, talked up Kennedy during the “Overtime” segment of his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher. As was Halperin, Maher was pleasantly surprised by the 19 percent level of support Kennedy drew in a recent Fox News poll of Democratic primary voters. Like Sullivan, Maher assured his viewers, “He’s not a nut, and he’s not a nut about COVID either or vaccines.” 

Nuttiness may be subjective, but truthfulness is not. Kennedy and his anti-vaccine organization Children’s Health Defense have been repeatedly busted for false and misleading tactics by His group has wrongly claimed that “some tetanus vaccines are actually part of a covert plot to control population growth by rendering women of childbearing age infertile” and used debunked links between vaccines and autism to sow distrust about COVID-19 vaccines in the African-American community. 

Kennedy’s initial poll numbers do give his boosters ground on which to stand. The Fox News number is not even his best; Emerson College Polling pegs him at 21 percent. These are numbers that media gatekeepers respect. Halperin is correct when he argues, “RFK can’t beat Biden for the nomination…so who cares?” is not a legitimate criterion for determining newsworthiness. Candidates who can attract a measurable amount of support with distinct ideas merit attention, regardless of the horse race odds, because they tell us something about the ever-changing American electorate. 

But Kennedy is not such a candidate, and there is no reason to believe he commands the support of one-fifth of Democratic voters. Three April polls—conducted by Premise, McLaughlin & Associates, and Big Village—tested Kennedy’s level of support in hypothetical fields, including several other prominent Democrats such as Vice President Kamala Harris and Senator Bernie Sanders (the Premise question envisions a field without Biden). Kennedy’s support shrank, ranging from 2 to 7 percent.  

Nevertheless, you might say that’s still more than zero, and the mainstream media usually gives low-polling candidates some attention at the early stage of the primaries. Yes, but in the vast majority of those cases, such candidates at least brought a credible resume to the table, including service as governor, senator, representative, or cabinet officer.  

To be fair, the case of Donald Trump complicates the media’s calculations in determining legitimacy. He had never held office, and his political resume was little more than pushing the racist lie that Barack Obama wasn’t born in America. Yet he polled strongly among Republicans when he announced his presidential campaign in June 2015. There’s an argument to make that a desperate media gave Trump excessive attention because his devil-may-care bombast, however dishonest and bigoted, was good for ratings and clicks. But it’s hard to argue the media should have cut off his coverage completely. Despite his nontraditional background, Trump had genuine support from the beginning. His anti-immigrant, anti-free trade stances tapped a growing strain in the GOP that was not being sated by the likes of Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina. To ignore that would mean ignoring what was happening, ugly as it was and is in the Republican Party.  

We shouldn’t assess Kennedy’s early poll numbers in a similarly straightforward way and presume they reflect robust support for seeing Anthony Fauci as “the powerful technocrat who helped orchestrate and execute 2020’s historic coup d’état against Western democracy.” His family is Democratic royalty, giving potential primary voters reticent about Biden an ephemeral place for their support at a very early stage of the campaign.  

Polls do show that many in the Democratic rank-and-file are not enthusiastic about Biden’s reelection bid. For example, a CNN/SRSS poll from March found that only 44 percent of Democrats wanted to re-nominate Biden versus 54 percent who wanted someone else. That’s much worse than the 79 percent support Obama drew in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll from March 2010 and slightly worse than the 48 percent support Bill Clinton received (although with just 32 percent preferring someone else) in a February 1995 CNN/Time Magazine poll. 

Paradoxically, however, Biden’s job approval among Democrats is slightly better than those of his recent Democratic predecessors in their third years in office. In Gallup polling, Obama’s approval ranged from 72 to 85 percent during 2011. For Clinton in 1995, the range was 72 to 81 percent (not counting a 66 percent poll result at the beginning of the year.) But Biden has been above 80 percent all year. In fact, Biden has been above 80 percent among Democrats for nearly the entirety of his presidency. His low mark (briefly touched in December 2021 and July 2022) was still a respectable 78 percent. In turn, we see no indication in general election polling that Biden is facing significant defections by Democrats when facing Trump or Ron DeSantis. 

Most Democrats are neither frustrated with Biden’s job performance nor his ideological bent. There’s no significant pocket of disaffected Democrats threatening a philosophical schism, unlike the last two Democratic primaries, which were marked by pitched battles between progressive populists and establishment moderates. Any hesitancy about a second Biden campaign is primarily rooted in age (or ageism, depending on your perspective). This does not suggest a deep craving for Kennedy’s twisted crusade. He is not Ted Kennedy challenging Jimmy Carter or Pat Buchanan taking on George H.W. Bush in 1992. 

When Bill Clinton ran in the 1996 primary, he attracted a conspiracy theorist for a challenger: perennial candidate Lyndon LaRouche. Journalists did not treat him seriously, even though he was on the ballot in most states, and eventually received over 5 percent of the primary vote, topping 10 percent in several states. Kennedy is no more credible a character than LaRouche. He just has a better name and more friends in the media. Halperin is trying to shame the “gatekeepers” into treating Kennedy as if he is a credible candidate by suggesting they are biased for Biden if they don’t. The once ubiquitous talking head, however, is the one exposing his bias, dressing up Kennedy’s disjointed demagoguery as some sort of “beautiful mosaic.” Gatekeeping is an inherent function of presidential campaign reporters, who are physically incapable of giving ink to every crank who files with the FEC. Kennedy is one of those cranks. He should be treated accordingly—and left outside the gate.  

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.