RFK Jr.’s big gamble

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s independent campaign could hurt both Biden and Trump. His pitch — a ‘populist revolution’

Stepping into Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s home office is like stepping into another world. The rest of the home — nestled above west Los Angeles, where Kennedy lives with his wife, actress Cheryl Hines — is tastefully decorated in muted hues and original artwork. But Kennedy’s office, attached to the exterior garage, is much more chaotic. Books line the walls and cover nearly every surface. Taxidermied animals rest on the mantel and shelves. There are various markers from his career as a conservationist and environmental lawyer: a basketball-sized pufferfish, a perched hawk, and, most prominent, a massive Sumatran tiger — a gift from the Indonesian government to Kennedy’s father, the late attorney general and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

That the younger Kennedy would launch his own run for president, following in the footsteps of both his father and his uncle, isn’t entirely surprising.

But how he’s doing it is a first for any Kennedy: he initially launched his campaign as a Democrat, trying to take down President Joe Biden, who Kennedy calls a “very close” family friend. When the path to the Democratic nomination seemed unlikely, he pivoted from the family’s longtime party and launched an independent run, seeking to siphon votes from both Biden and the Republican Party nominee.

Since then, he’s expanded his “populist” pitch to encompass the widest range of voters possible — progressives, conservatives and everything between.

“We’re seeing the disintegration, in some ways, of the traditional party structures, and a realignment which has brought together the far-left and the far-right in a kind of populist revolution,” Kennedy told me, sitting on a leather chair in his home office.

But a key group of voters he’s yet to bring together are his own siblings. Just hours after Kennedy announced his independent bid, four of his seven living brothers and sisters publicly denounced his candidacy, calling it “dangerous” and “perilous to our country.”

“Bobby might share the same name as our father, but he does not share the same values, vision or judgment,” they wrote.

Kennedy said he doesn’t hold it against them — “They don’t want me to run against somebody who’s an old family friend,” he said. “I get it.”

“I‘m able to love my family without agreeing with everything they believe in, and able to differ with them on factual or political areas without feeling angry or hateful to them,” he mused. “So I’m at peace with the way my family has handled this. God bless them.”

He won’t be spending Thanksgiving with his siblings, though, instead hosting his and Hines’ seven children at his Los Angeles home. (Kennedy has six children from previous marriages.)

Early polls show Kennedy polling in the teens or low 20s — a major underdog, but enough to put both major party nominees on edge, with the threat of possibly siphoning significant votes away from either. When he was running as a Democrat, he was accused of trying to torpedo Biden’s chances. Now that he’s an independent, pro-Trump Republicans have already begun attacking him.

With fire coming from both sides, Kennedy has quickly become one of the most interesting stories in politics, blurring and reshuffling political lines in sometime unpredictable and controversial ways.

An environmental lawyer, he spent decades litigating to protect waterways. He was also involved in several controversial issues, founding Children’s Health Defense, a nonprofit that has advocated against vaccines for children, claiming links to autism. He’s shared a number of controversial theories relating to school shootings and COVID-19 vaccines. In more recent interviews, however, he’s taken a more measured approach. “All I’m saying,” he told Bill Maher, “is let’s test (vaccines) the way we test other medicines. That does not seem unreasonable.”

In a wide-ranging interview with the Deseret News, Kennedy touched on controversies, but he also discussed his faith, his decision to run as an independent and his positions on key issues that he hopes will help him win over conservative voters.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., 69, whose family has been prominent in American politics for decades, is running for president of the United States as an independent candidate in 2024. Kennedy, an environmental lawyer, was photographed in his Los Angeles, Calif., home on Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. | Rick Loomis, for the Deseret News

A populist pitch

An independent candidate has not won the presidency since George Washington. The last one to come anywhere close was Ross Perot in 1992, who led both Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush in early polls before finishing behind both. But Perot managed to siphon away enough votes from Bush to push Clinton into the White House, finishing with 19% of the vote. Some polls show Kennedy hovering higher than that, he’s quick to note — “and I have 13 months still,” he said.

As Kennedy spoke, he appeared relaxed, dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt. He’d just returned from a hike through the California foothills with two-dozen social media influencers, part of his unorthodox approach to garnering attention — and part of the reason he’s been labeled the “first podcast presidential candidate.”

A book titled “How Trump Won” lay on his desk. I asked if he’d read the book — he said he hadn’t — or if he’d studied Trump’s 2016 campaign as a sort of populist blueprint. He seemed disinterested in Trump’s path to victory, and he said he’d never analyzed Perot’s 1992 spoiler campaign or Evan McMullin’s 2016 independent run.

“I’ve spent my lifetime, a lot of my lifetime, studying populism,” Kennedy said. He claims America is poised for another populist revolution like the Progressive movement a century ago. “It’s happened before in American history,” he said. “It happened in the 1920s. It seems to be happening again.”

Of all the presidential campaigns that seemed to interest Kennedy, Bernie Sanders’ “has a lot of similarities to what I’m doing,” he said.

A lifelong Democrat now running as an independent, Kennedy will rely heavily on convincing Republicans and conservatives to back his campaign. When I asked if he expects to siphon more votes from the Democratic or Republican candidate, he simply said he hopes to win over “both.”

Early polls suggest his populist message is more damaging to Trump than to Biden, and a new report from Politico shows Kennedy is stealing more big-money donors from Trump than from the current president. But Kennedy’s personality and policies differ drastically from the former president. A staunch conservationist, he talks about the persistent threat of global warming; Trump has called climate change a “hoax.” Kennedy has been an advocate for ‘targeted community repair,’ a policy geared toward Black economic development that some critics have compared to reparations. And on abortion, even amid Trump’s apparent shift toward the political middle, Kennedy’s more liberal stance is a much harder sell to religious conservatives and others who view abortion as a critical issue.

In August, however, Kennedy told reporters he would support a federal ban on abortions after the first trimester. But his campaign later backtracked the comments, saying he “misunderstood a question posed him.”

When I asked him to clarify, Kennedy said he would not support any federal ban on abortions. “My stance is that every abortion is a tragedy,” he said. “But I’ve spent my life advocating for bodily autonomy and bodily independence. And I don’t think the government is the right entity to be telling women what they should be doing with their bodies.”

He noted the government should “spend an equivalent amount of energy” assuring mothers who wish to carry their babies to term “have the resources to do that.”

Yet, even with his more pro-choice stance, Kennedy has garnered a significant amount of excitement among right-leaning media and pundits. Former Fox News host Tucker Carlson wrote a blurb for Kennedy’s latest book and has hosted the candidate on his show several times in recent months. InfoWars founder Alex Jones has praised Kennedy, as has former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. If any of these men — Carlson, Jones or Bannon — were to endorse Kennedy, would he accept it?

“Listen, I will welcome anybody’s endorsement,” Kennedy said. “I’m not going to refuse an endorsement from somebody. I like to talk to all Americans, even people who don’t agree with me on the issues.”

Ditching the two-party duopoly

Kennedy’s decision to ditch the Democratic Party was a calculated one. The Democratic National Committee “rigged” the election against him, he claimed, preventing him from getting on the primary ballot in a number of states across the country. “Essentially, they are fixing the process so that it makes it almost impossible to have democracy function,” he said at the time.

But Kennedy’s assessment of the Republican Party isn’t much better. I asked him about Sen. Mitt Romney’s view of today’s GOP — that “a very large portion” of the party “really doesn’t believe in the Constitution.”

“I think that’s happening all over our country,” Kennedy said. “And I am worried about that, too — not just the Republican Party, but the Democratic Party.”

Kennedy has nestled into his new affiliation as an independent, arguing that it allows him to reach a larger swath of voters. “Independents are now the biggest party in the country,” he said.

Since launching his campaign, Kennedy said he hasn’t spoken with Biden, who he’s known for years. “My family has been very close to Biden for his entire career,” he told me, noting the president has a bust of Kennedy’s father on display in the Oval Office.

But Kennedy knows Trump, too — at Trump’s invitation, Kennedy served on a vaccine safety commission during the Trump administration.

When I asked if Kennedy views a second Biden term or a second Trump term as more destructive for America, he refused to answer. “I think President Biden is probably more likely to get us in a war,” he said, and Trump “comes with his own retinue of issues as well.”

If he had to choose between one? “I wouldn’t answer that question,” he said.

Last week, Donald Trump Jr. claimed Kennedy’s campaign was “a Democrat plant to hurt the Trump thing.”

Kennedy brushed off the accusation. “If the Democratic Party has a plan, they have not contacted me,” he said.

Kennedy is a Catholic, and he’s pointed to his faith for sustaining him throughout his life. But governments need to be wary of not mixing church and state, he said. “You can look over at what’s happening in Israel right now if you want an illustration about the dangers of bringing religion into government.”

There is a place, though, for religious individuals to bring their faith into the public square, including into their politics, he noted. “If you’re asking me, shouldn’t morality and ethics inform the conduct of government officials, I would say, yes, absolutely.”

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., 69, whose family has been prominent in American politics for decades, is running for president of the United States as an independent candidate in 2024. Kennedy, an environmental lawyer, was photographed in his Los Angeles, Calif., home on Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. | Rick Loomis, for the Deseret News

Winning the West

Two Western states, Arizona and Nevada, are expected to be swing states in the 2024 election. The three biggest issues Kennedy sees facing the West are climate change, affordable housing and immigration.

On climate, Kennedy has more experience than any other presidential candidate, he says. The former environmental lawyer sees water issues in the West as boiling down to reforming the “perverse incentive systems” that allow wasteful water use.

“There’s no really easy solution to it,” he admits, pointing to the “infuriating combination of state and federal laws” that govern water rights in the West.

“I think we need to look at, what do we want our societies to look like, and what values do we have? And then try to try to graph the water allocations in ways that serve those ultimate interests,” he said.

On affordable housing, Kennedy is pushing for a 3% mortgage for single-family homebuyers, allowing a larger swath of Americans to own a house. He plans to fund it by selling a new class of Treasury bills — to have “the market pay for the program.”

“If you have a rich uncle, who will cosign a mortgage for you, you can get a much cheaper rate,” Kennedy said. “I’m going to give everybody a rich uncle, which is Uncle Sam.”

On immigration, Kennedy proposes an unorthodox solution to slowing the flow of illegal crossings at the southern border. “It’s illegal in this country for an employer to hire an illegal immigrant,” he explained. “But they do it because the only thing the government requires you to demand is a Social Security” number — something that is easy to fabricate.

On his first day in office, Kennedy said he would sign an executive order waiving fees for passport cards, allowing all U.S. citizens to get them for free. It would placate both Democrats and Republicans, he said — Democrats, because it would appease their concerns that voter ID laws are unfair, and Republicans, because it would prevent undocumented immigrants from being able to work in the U.S.

“I’m not locked in an ideological leg trap,” Kennedy said. “You’re not going to agree with me on everything, but I’m going to respect you, and we’re going to have a congenial debate.”

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., 69, whose family has been prominent in American politics for decades, is running for president of the United States as an independent candidate in 2024. Kennedy, who is an environmental lawyer, was photographed in his Los Angeles, California home. | Rick Loomis, for the Deseret News

The uneasy path forward

There was a certain sense of caution at Kennedy’s home. Less than a week prior to our interview, an intruder attempted to scale the fence, before officials took him into custody. Later the same day, after being released, the man attempted to break in again, and was once again detained.

These are the latest in a series of incidents that have put Kennedy on high alert. In September, a man at one of Kennedy’s campaign events was arrested for pretending to be a U.S. Marshal and carrying a loaded firearm. Twice, Kennedy’s requests for Secret Service protection have been denied by the Department of Homeland Security, despite him being at elevated risk, according to an official assessment. All the while, the memories of Kennedy’s father and uncle are marred by the sting of violence.

It’s caused Kennedy to pour almost $2 million into private security, he says. But he’s continued to make public appearances, part of his coast-to-coast “Independence Tour,” attempting to convince voters that he’s a better option than the two major-party candidates with historically low favorability ratings. Even as his son has taken jabs at Kennedy, Trump has largely avoided attacking him, at least publicly. Biden, too — though Kennedy is reading between the lines on the decision to bar him from Secret Service protection.

“I can’t look into the heads of the people who are making these decisions at the White House,” Kennedy told me. “But I think they’d probably rather me spend money on protection than spending it on field organization or advertising.”