The trouble with RFK Jr.

A deeply divided America has produced two historically unpopular frontrunners, paving the way for a third party candidate. Could the scion of political royalty play spoiler? And who will his run help most?

Hundreds of people are gathered in front of a stage on a lawn just feet from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where both the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution were debated and adopted. A red, white and blue banner draped across the stage reads, in gigantic letters, DECLARE YOUR INDEPENDENCE. The crowd skews young and white, with many waving red and blue “KENNEDY24” signs.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign had been coy, inviting supporters and media contacts here on this sunny Monday morning in October 2023 with the promise that he’d be making a “major announcement.” But everyone gathered knows what he’s going to say. Still, when Kennedy is introduced by his wife, Cheryl Hines, who plays Larry David’s long-suffering wife on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” she does her best to play up the suspense. 

“We’re here for a really good reason today,” Hines tells the cheering audience. “One day you’re gonna look back on this day and say, ‘I was there on that day when something really special happened.’”

When Kennedy finally takes the stage, the crowd roars and whistles and calls lovingly to him. He approaches the podium and teleprompters in a well-tailored black suit and a thin blue tie. With his icy blue eyes, familiar jawline and athletic physique — even at 69 years old — he’s a walking invocation of his uncle and father, former President John F. Kennedy and former attorney general and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.

As the cheers level off, Kennedy Jr. briefly rifles through his jacket and pants pockets, then turns to the left of the stage.

“I need my speech,” he says flatly. 

At first the audience thinks this is a joke. There’s a wave of snickers. But then it’s clear Kennedy isn’t doing a bit. He’s wearing a live microphone, so the crowd gathered in front of him, the news cameras set up around the lawn, and everyone watching from home can hear his unmistakable voice when he walks to the side of the stage and says to someone unseen, “You can’t read anything.” 

Then Kennedy clarifies: “It’s upside down.” 

RFK Jr.’s big gamble

His microphone picks up several other voices, all men, relaying this information. 

“It’s upside down.” 

“It’s upside down.” 

What Kennedy means is that the teleprompters in front of the podium have, for some reason, inverted his pre-written remarks — an inauspicious start to what is, up to this moment, the most important speech of his life. 

Soon whatever was wrong is fixed and the candidate is able to deliver his speech. The crowd isn’t bothered at all by the technical glitch, cheering even louder once he finally gets going. But those words, that phrase — it’s upside down — hang in the air.

“Democrats are frightened that I’m going to spoil the election for President Biden. And the Republicans are frightened that I’m going to spoil it for President Trump. The truth is, they’re both right.”

He begins his remarks by thanking his wife and a long list of family members. He plays to the crowd by joking that the real reason he and Hines came to Philadelphia is to watch the Eagles play. He tells a story about his father winning the Sioux vote in the South Dakota primary the night he was assassinated. Kennedy makes oblique references to “corrupt powers” that have “overtaken our government” and how he’s the candidate fighting for “the ranks of the dispossessed.” He hits some populist talking points about the growing number of Americans who can no longer afford a middle-class lifestyle and the “rising tide of discontent” that’s “swamping our country.” 

Soon, though, he winds his way to the big announcement. 

“I’m here to declare myself an independent candidate,” he says, receiving a thunderous round of cheering. 

The scion of Democratic royalty, who rose to prominence as an environmental lawyer, had entered the presidential race in April 2023 hoping to challenge President Joe Biden in the Democratic primary. But now he’s officially running independently, as a third party candidate, a none-of-the-above option. 

He’s most known for his controversial, heavily refuted theories linking vaccines to autism, chemicals in the water supply to gender dysphoria, and antidepressants to mass shootings. But he’s also polling at between 20 and 25 percent nationally, the highest a third-party candidate has been in polls since Ross Perot in 1992. And perhaps more telling, a recent poll, co-sponsored by Harvard, found that Kennedy enjoys the highest favorability rating of any potential 2024 presidential candidate, in either mainstream party. Forty-seven percent of survey respondents said they had a high approval of Kennedy, versus 45 percent for Donald Trump and 39 percent for Biden.

Though nobody onstage says it, this dramatic political plot twist could prove to be the single most impactful storyline in an election cycle that already includes the oldest sitting president to run for reelection and his likely opponent facing dozens of felony charges in multiple jurisdictions. 

Within hours, four of Kennedy’s siblings will release a statement denouncing his run.

“The decision of our brother Bobby to run as a third-party candidate against Joe Biden is dangerous to our country,” read an Instagram post first appearing on the account of his sisters Rory and Kerry. “Bobby might share the same name as our father, but he does not share the same values, vision or judgment. Today’s announcement is deeply saddening for us. We denounce his candidacy and believe it to be perilous for our country.”

The last independent candidate to win the American presidency was George Washington, but because the 2024 election seems headed toward a rematch of the 2020 general election — which was ultimately determined by a slim margin in only a handful of states — a third candidate like Kennedy could certainly take enough Biden or Trump votes to make all the difference. 

“We’re seeing the disintegration, in some ways, of the traditional party structures,” Kennedy would tell Deseret a few weeks later, “and a realignment which has brought together the far-left and the far-right in a kind of populist revolution.” 

So how did we get here? How does a consummate insider, an heir to the country’s most famous political dynasty, end up running as an unaffiliated populist outsider? 

Well, these days the political landscape in America is a little — for lack of a better phrase — upside down.

Kennedy is polling between 20 and 25 percent nationally, the highest a third candidate has been in polls since Ross Perot in 1992.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s base

There’s a certain type of disaffected political observer in America that, until recently, hasn’t received a lot of attention. Most of them are white, usually under 40, often male. They’re generally dissatisfied with both political parties. In fact, this type of political observer might tell you that Republicans and Democrats are essentially the same, two sides of a single coin. 

Most of these people don’t get news from traditional media sources, and their views of the world reflect that. They might disagree about anything from how many people have died of Covid to whether 9/11 was an inside job. They might have surprisingly strong opinions about things most of the population almost never thinks about: fluoride or chemtrails or who really built the pyramids in Egypt. 

And don’t get them started on vaccines.

These are all generalities, of course. But also, you probably know someone like this. You might even have someone like this in your family. Someone who has stumbled upon the “truths” the power brokers of the world don’t want us to know. 

This is essentially Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s base. He speaks to them directly. He’s a famously powerful public orator, despite his voice issues — in his 40s, Kennedy was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological disorder that produces muscle spasms in the voice box and slight quivers in his sentences — and political speeches are in his blood.

When Kennedy announced his run as an independent candidate last fall, he threw the 2024 presidential race into disarray. | GC Images

 But he doesn’t actually give a lot of stump speeches. No, Kennedy reaches his most enthusiastic supporters as a guest on popular podcasts. Especially free-flow conversational podcasts hosted by stoner-y comedians. Think Joe Rogan, Bill Maher, Theo Von. Many of these shows have audiences at least as large as the most popular cable news shows, and some are much larger. “The Joe Rogan Experience,” Kennedy’s most prominent platform so far, has an estimated audience of 11 million listeners.

The way Franklin Roosevelt won over America with his fireside chats on the radio. The way Kennedy’s uncle was the first made-for-television president. The way Donald Trump captured part of America’s id on Twitter. That’s the way Robert F. Kennedy Jr. seems custom-made for podcasts — and their cousin, the YouTube video of those podcast recordings. 

In June 2023, as he sat in Rogan’s wood panel-and-neon recording studio in Austin, Texas, wearing a light blue button-down with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, Kennedy seemed charming and frank and open in a way that doesn’t come across in 30-second sound bites or quotes in a daily newspaper. He wore jeans and a green button-down on Maher’s “Club Random” podcast that same month, taking sips from a mug as Maher smoked and made himself cocktails. (Kennedy says he hasn’t had a drink or used illegal drugs in decades.)

60 years after famous JFK speech, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. returns to Salt Lake City

Kennedy’s winding, sometimes-paranoid, difficult-to-fact-check diatribes fit perfectly on shows where episodes can stretch for two hours or more. His stories are filled with A-list celebrities he’s known over the years, offering listeners a rare peek behind a curtain of privilege. His inclination to eloquently unravel convoluted theories about everything from vaccines to the war in Ukraine to the powerful forces who murdered his uncle and father makes him the ideal guest for anyone tasked with creating several hours of compelling content. 

The fact that Kennedy’s Facebook and Instagram accounts were banned for spreading misinformation ironically lends him a level of credibility in this world. The censorship is seemingly confirmation that he might be revealing secrets the most powerful people in society don’t want the public to hear. (His accounts have been reinstated.)

He’s said himself, in his own conspiratorial way, that podcasts are the most important component of his campaign, telling The New Yorker in June: “I do have a chance with podcasts, because I’m able to outrun the censorship juggernaut.” And it seems to be working. The comment sections on virtually every YouTube video featuring the candidate are filled with throngs of people expressing their undying affinity for him — vowing to vote for him. 

Kennedy gets the most attention for his comments on vaccines, which often differ greatly from the most mainstream medical experts, but the topics of discussion vary widely. He seems to offer a little something for voters across the political spectrum. He’s said that if he’s elected, he’d “seal the border.” He’d legalize marijuana and psychedelic drugs. He says abortion is a “tragedy,” but that it should be legal. He’d support regulations that drastically cut greenhouse gases, like the Green New Deal.

Robert Kennedy Jr. (center), pictured at his father’s funeral in 1968, has been in the public eye for six decades.  | Ron Galella Collection via Getty

On Rogan’s show, Kennedy explained that not only does he believe that America’s intelligence agencies were responsible for killing his uncle in Dallas 60 years ago, but that he thinks there’s a chance those agencies might be after him, too.

“I’ve got to be careful,” he told Rogan. “I’m aware of that danger. I don’t live in fear of it, at all. But I’m not stupid about it and I take precautions.”

With Maher, he discussed the size of former President Lyndon Johnson’s head, a prank Kennedy once played on J. Edgar Hoover, how former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes was funnier than most people would expect and the woes of the American medical system.

Kennedy has appeared on comedian Theo Von’s show, “This Past Weekend,” multiple times. When he was on in September, Von started the conversation by noting how much better he feels when he spends time in the sun, earnestly asking Kennedy: “Are humans part plant too, do you think?” Forcing Kennedy to explain that no, humans are not, in fact, part plant.

That episode has been viewed nearly one million times on YouTube alone. This is where a lot of America’s discourse is right now.  

He’s insisted over the years that he isn’t “anti-vaccine,” that in fact all six of his children are vaccinated. But in the last two decades, he’s become the most high-profile vaccine skeptic in America.

The most high-profile vaccine skeptic in America

I met Robert F. Kennedy Jr. once during a different chapter in his life. It was nearly 20 years ago, when I was a college student in Texas. He was an environmental activist, on campus to give a speech. All these years later, I don’t remember much of what he said. I recall him telling a story about waiting all night in a lawn chair by a river in an effort to catch polluters in the act. I remember him pointing out so confidently that all the mainstream scientists in the world knew the planet was warming.

At the end of his talk, I asked him a question: How would he respond to climate change deniers who accused activists like him and Al Gore of hypocrisy because they flew around on private jets while preaching about cutting carbon emissions?

Kennedy didn’t flinch at the implication. Instead he quickly explained that the problem — and the solution — were both macro, referring repeatedly to “CAFE standards,” or “corporate average fuel economy,” a term I’d never heard before.

He was so inspirational that after his speech I asked him if he’d pose for a photo with me, something I’d never done with anyone before. (My mom, a Catholic boomer who grew up listening to folk songs about John and Bobby Kennedy, still has the picture framed in her living room.) I remember thinking at the time that if he were running for president, I’d probably vote for him. 

Even then, it seemed like he’d experienced so much. He was born into one of the most important and star-crossed families in American history. He had an up-close view of his uncle John F. Kennedy’s presidency and his father’s work as both attorney general and senator. In 1963, when the boy known then as Bobby Jr. was 9, he saw the way his uncle’s assassination devastated his family. Then five years later, when he was 14, his father and namesake — who was running for president — was also assassinated, in the kitchen of a hotel in California.

Bobby Jr. struggled with drugs, but went to Harvard, graduating in 1976. By 1983, when he was 29, Kennedy was addicted to heroin, and arrested for possession of narcotics after becoming ill in an airplane bathroom. He turned his life around and dedicated his career to protecting the environment from corporate polluters. In 2004, around the time I met him, he published a book about how George W. Bush was the worst environmental president in history.

Not long after that, though, his path shifted. In 2005, he wrote an article for Rolling Stone and Salon linking childhood vaccines to autism, an essay both publications later retracted. Kennedy cited this as evidence that pharmaceutical companies and government health agencies were colluding with the mainstream media to suppress the “truth.” 

He’s insisted over the years that he isn’t anti-vaccine, that in fact all six of his children are vaccinated and that his own vaccine schedule is up to date — except for Covid. But in the last two decades, he’s become the most high-profile vaccine skeptic in America. 

For most of that time, the topic didn’t overlap much with politics. Vaccines were one of those rare things 88 percent of Americans agreed on. But that changed around the pandemic, when shots became a wedge issue. More than three years later, some states are still passing laws forbidding vaccine mandates.

The more journalists and social media companies criticized or censored Kennedy, the more his message spread, and the media scrutiny sometimes seemed to only validate his conspiratorial claims. Which resulted in even more people, both conservatives and liberals, seeking out and sharing his posts, his speeches, his podcast appearances. 

In April 2023, he announced that he was following in the footsteps of his father and two uncles and running for president. But as his platform grew, so did the amount of scrutiny he received. In July he was recorded at what he thought was an off-the-record dinner, sharing a bizarre theory that Covid-19 was targeted to attack white and Black people, and that those most immune were Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people. 

His comments were debunked by the author of the very study cited in his claims and he received wide, bipartisan condemnation. Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey tweeted that Kennedy was a “disgrace,” adding, “For the record, my whole family, who is Jewish, got Covid.” Republican and then Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy announced that he disagreed with “everything” Kennedy had said — but still refused to disinvite him to a GOP-led congressional hearing on censorship. Ironically, Kennedy, once again, used this as an example of powerful people trying to censor him. 

‘The Democrats are frightened’

Listening to him speak, whether it’s on a dais or podcast, it’s obvious Robert Kennedy Jr. is an erudite man, with a great education and access to cutting-edge scientific studies. So how does someone like this become a purveyor of bizarre conspiracy theories? 

It’s impossible to know for sure, but having an uncle killed in America’s most infamous murder mystery — an event that may have generated more conspiracy theories than everything else in history combined — would certainly be a nudge. Kennedy said he also doesn’t believe Sirhan Sirhan killed his father, contradicting eyewitnesses. 

As an environmental attorney, Kennedy also battled some very real conspiracies: corporations with enough money and power to get laws changed and cover up their misdeeds. It’s not a huge leap of logic to go from there to pharmaceutical companies, which have had to collectively pay billions in lawsuit settlements over the last two decades. 

In the most generous read of Kennedy’s campaign, you could argue that speaking to and for the suspicious conspiracy theorists, and the unengaged podcast listeners of America — the audiences who tune in to hear him answer questions about whether people are plants — he’s actually upholding some part of his family’s traditional populist values in a very 2024 way.

In the past, someone with these beliefs would’ve been relegated to low single digits in polling. The fact that Kennedy is as popular as polls show is a testament to his family’s history. It’s also an indication of how deeply unpopular the two leading candidates are at this point. It’s why Kennedy has a chance to make such a big impact. He doesn’t have to win to change the course of history. He just has to have his name on the ballot in a few swing states.

Anyone who says they know for sure which candidate Kennedy’s presence could hurt or help is lying. But his favorability has been higher among Republicans. A New York Times/Siena College poll of swing states in October found that he’d pull more voters from Trump. A Quinnipiac poll that had Kennedy at 22 percent when matched up with Biden and Trump showed that he pulled from both opponents, though Biden maintained a 3-point lead over Trump. A Politico analysis a few weeks after Kennedy’s speech in Philadelphia found that donations to his campaign more often come from people who’d given to Trump in the past.

It’s also telling that Democratic Party leaders have been largely silent on the topic of Kennedy’s effect on the Biden campaign, while Trump surrogates have publicly criticized him. The day after Kennedy declared his independence, Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung told CNN: “An RFK candidacy is nothing more than a vanity project for a liberal Kennedy looking to cash in on his family’s name.”

While talking to Trump campaign volunteers in Iowa, Donald Trump Jr. said he thought Kennedy’s campaign was “a Democrat plant to hurt the Trump thing.” 

Former President Trump hasn’t said much about Kennedy publicly, but Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman reported that Trump has privately expressed worry about Kennedy potentially spoiling a rematch with Biden. One Republican strategist called Kennedy “a big concern.” 

Perhaps this is why former Trump strategist Steve Bannon and Roger Stone, one of Trump’s earliest political advisers, have floated the idea of Trump picking Kennedy as a running mate. Stone has called the pairing a “dream ticket.” 

During his going-independent speech in Philadelphia, Kennedy addressed this question of who his campaign was helping and who it was hurting.

“The Democrats are frightened that I’m going to spoil the election for President Biden,” he told the crowd. “And the Republicans are frightened that I’m going to spoil it for President Trump. The truth is, they’re both right. My intention is to spoil it for both of them.”

The people who end up voting for Robert Kennedy Jr. will do it for all sorts of reasons. Some of those reasons are probably going to be pretty kooky. And some will be completely understandable. A vote for Kennedy is a vote against both parties. It’s a decision not to make a decision.

Meanwhile, the people who pick the next president will be voting either Republican or Democrat. 

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.