What To Make Of RFK Jr.
Kennedy may be a former Democrat, but the biggest reasons for his success are Trump's failures.
There is a specter haunting the 2024 presidential race—the specter of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
When the political-scion-turned-black-sheep-turned-social-media-personality first entered the race, he was as easy to dismiss as a sideshow as any candidate ever. Just the fact that he was challenging an incumbent President was an immediate tell that he was just trying to get attention. The way he ran his campaign seemed to make this fact even more obvious. Kennedy never once even attempted to challenge Joe Biden on left-wing or even liberal terms. To the extent he had a message at all, it sounded like something that belonged squarely in a Republican primary. His past as an anti-vaccine crusader was completely toxic for a critical mass of Democrats; his campaign trail associations with the likes of Joe Rogan and Alex Jones may have been even more so. While his numbers in the primary were relatively strong given that his opponent was an incumbent, even that could just be written off as a consequence of his last name. To anybody serious, Kennedy was completely unserious: a loud jangling keychain for politically illiterate fans of Elon Musk, but nothing else.
And then he dropped out of the Democratic primary and announced that he would be running as an independent. This suddenly made him very serious.
Since the second began his independent bid, Kennedy has been registering the most support of any third party presidential candidate in decades. He has done so consistently, across dozens of surveys. While the bar here may be low, he’s managed to absolutely rocket past it. Polling averages have him hitting nearly 20% of the vote. It’s a number that, if it stands, will mark a modern record for the most support ever seen by a national third party campaign, even beating out Ross Perot in 1992. For as many unprecedented and chaotic things that have happened in American politics over the past few years, we truly haven’t seen anything like this.
The political press in this country really hasn’t known what to make of it, which I empathize with. The sheer speed in which Kennedy’s campaign transformed was staggering. In one moment, he was a political roadside freak whose press dinners had been devolving into farting matches (I’m not joking). The next, he’s the greatest threat to the two-party system in a generation. There’s no real roadmap for this, which has led many down the easiest path they can find: dismissing him at pretty much every level.
Both of the two parties are happy to just pretend that he doesn’t exist and seem not to expect to have to seriously deal with him. When the Associated Press asked the RNC and DNC to comment on his entry, the former just said he was a liberal and the latter sent an eye roll emoji. Even months after the launch of his independent bid, most polls don’t include him. The few that do aren’t discussed much, even if they’re high quality.
Perhaps history justifies this nonchalance. But at the same time, there are also a lot of things that make his popularity make sense. It’s not just that rampant dissatisfaction among the public provides perfect conditions for any alternative, although it does. And it’s not just a product of a well-worn story of Democrats being out-of-touch, although it partially is. If you actually want to understand Kennedy, the real person to look at is Donald Trump. More than anything else, Kennedy’s success is a product of the 45th President’s failures. To see why, you need to unlearn almost everything you think you know about Trumpism as it exists today.