The Mind-Bending Politics of RFK Jr.’s Spoiler Campaign

Second Amendment


Illustration: Zohar Lazar

On a Tuesday morning in late October, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was in Brentwood at the 5,900-square-foot home he purchased for $6.6 million in 2021 with his wife, the actress Cheryl Hines of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Shaded by sycamore and fruit trees, the pad has six bedrooms, a backyard tiki bar, a pool with a waterfall, private security hovering at the gate (more on that later), and, parked out front, a Toyota minivan that he calls “the dog car” on account of its being unsuitable for passengers of any other species.

Bobby, as he’s known to friends, walked through the French doors dressed for his morning hike in blue jeans, a black hoodie, Keens, and an unfriendly expression. He said little as he led his three enormous canines to the van, though I don’t know what he could have said that would have prepared me for the sight of the thing. That the dog car survived a nuclear war maybe, or, even more frightening, the chicken-pox vaccine.

Rearview mirror smashed to bits, seat belts chewed off, cushions gnawed open, filth and dog hair covering every surface. The death machine smells so bad I thought I might pass out after about 15 seconds riding shotgun, and that was before the candidate hung a sharp left and sped off toward the trailhead, the dogs barking and toppling over in the area of the car that theoretically should contain back seats but instead holds a wooden bench. “Shut up, you idiots!” he told the dogs. At least I think he was talking to them. He swung the vehicle around to park on the side of the road, released the hounds, and started his ascent.

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Now, Kennedy was talking about fear.

It was fear that drove the Democratic Party to box him out of his attempt to challenge Joe Biden in the primary because, in his estimation, it was fear that they were selling to voters. “I don’t hear Democrats ever say that we should vote for President Biden because he inspires them, or because he’s run the country with the kind of vigor or energy that we need in times of crisis,” he told me. “I hear them say that you should vote for Biden because you should be scared of Trump.”

It was fear behind the attacks from his critics on the left and the right of the political divide. Kennedy detects the hidden hand of the straight world’s power brokers manipulating those critics, who use fear to bend the public away from him and to their will.

These forces could not allow Kennedy to hang on to his good name while he pointed a finger at the CIA for the deaths of his uncle and father, or while he used his platform as an environmental lawyer to promote what he calls “vaccine skepticism” and what those who he believes wish to destroy him call anti-vaxx propaganda.

“I was subject to what I would characterize as a series of mischaracterizations and defamations that were allowed to define me,” he said. “Literally every story about me was negative.” An avalanche of bad press would threaten to bury him and then, suddenly, the press would quiet down until, out of nowhere, another avalanche. As a first resort, he suspected this strange phenomenon was by nefarious design. “It certainly feels like it’s orchestrated, but I have no way of knowing why dozens of leading liberals all attack me the same week. Are they on a phone tree? I don’t know why it comes in waves like that,” he said. “I do see patterns, but any effort by me to explain that would be speculative and I try not to speculate.”

Yet it was not fear that he was feeling now.

“Almost every time I’ve done something difficult, I’ve had those moments. Rock climbing or kayaking a very difficult stretch of white water, you get to a point where you say, What on earth did I get myself into? Get me out of here,” he said. “I haven’t had one moment. I’m pretty much free of anxieties. I feel peaceful.”

Good — for him. Kennedy’s chill disposition is now the rest of the political world’s simmering panic attack. Since announcing in October that he would end his campaign for the Democratic nomination to officially become a problem for both major parties as an independent, fear — and denial — is what Kennedy seems to inspire among the staid Washington Establishment supporting the incumbent president and the gangland anti-Establishment Establishment supporting the former president. Officials from both party apparatuses are certainly looking at metrics that confirm Kennedy is turning the presidential election upside down.

At this point, all that’s clear is that no one has any idea what will happen between now and November 2024 or how to respond to the threat Kennedy poses to the Biden-Trump binary. As it is, Kennedy is in some cases polling not far behind either likely major-party nominee and in all cases polling well enough that, were the election held today, his presence in the race would define what the next chapter of American history looks like. As he put it, “My intention is to spoil it for both of them.”

As Kennedy hiked up the dirt in the Santa Monica Mountains, he stopped every few yards to bend down with a small shovel to clear the path of litter or the astounding amount of waste produced by his dogs or, as he noted with some exuberance on one occasion, by another animal. “That’s coyote shit,” he said, as he flung the object in question off his shovel and into the trees.

Before Kennedy declared his candidacy in April, Biden had only one challenger, the best-selling author and spiritual philosopher Marianne Williamson, an anti–corporate greed and antiwar candidate who first sought the nomination in 2020, when she performed competitively in two debates. But Williamson struggled to gain traction in the face of a near-total media blackout (invitations to appear on television came mostly from Fox News, the only network with a vested interest in giving her a platform). To weaken Biden ahead of the general election, his enemies would need a candidate more likely to generate the kind of spectacle and outrage that tends to draw eyeballs. A candidate with qualities that were more, well, Trumpian. They found their answer in the biggest brand name in American politics since Roosevelt. As a bonus, the candidate held a set of idiosyncratic populist beliefs that would challenge Biden from the dovish left and from the libertarian right.

In the primary, Kennedy was a nuisance solely for Biden. Which made him a blessing for Trump. And the right-wing media apparatus was happy to offer this shiny heirloom weapon a boost — and to focus his aim. “I don’t cancel people,” he told me. “I like talking to people who don’t necessarily agree with me.” In the aughts, he’s proud to say, he was the “only environmentalist” willing to go on Fox News. More recently, he appeared on War Room with Steve Bannon. “My wife would get very angry with me when I went on his show, so I didn’t like to go on,” he said. “But I enjoyed talking to him because he’s smart and he also shared some of my views about the pandemic.” Bannon was only the beginning. Poor Cheryl.

Chatting with Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson was just one component of his media strategy. The bigger play was to find a home in the independent-media vacuum created by the traditional corporate and partisan press. He sat for a three-hour interview with Joe Rogan, whose attention has the power to transform the careers and lives of his guests like no other media personality save for peak-daytime-era Oprah. He paid his respects to the rest of the podcast megacelebrity bro trust: Jordan Peterson, Lex Fridman, Theo Von, and so on. (During a conversation with UFC president Dana White last week, Von claimed that after he interviewed Kennedy, Peloton pulled its ads from the episode for violating what the company said were “brand-safety guidelines.” White was outraged. “Peloton sells stationary bikes, and they’ve got a problem with Robert fucking Kennedy,” he said, confirming what the F stands for. “Fuck you, Peloton! Who the fuck are they? Are you fucking kidding me? Fucking Peloton, calling, bitching about Robert Kennedy … We’re getting rid of the Pelotons. Pelotons are out of the gym.”)

Inside that vacuum were the very people already thinking about the issues that animate Kennedy and that barely exist or don’t exist at all within the confines of cable and legacy print media. You can learn about microplastics in the New York Times, or Big Pharma’s opioid epidemic on network television, or the CIA coverup of JFK’s assassination in New York. But only independent voices, through podcasts and newsletters or Instagram and TikTok, will take stabs in the dark to connect the dots on corporate greed and industry malpractice and official government conspiracy; they do so in full view of their audiences, without fear of blowback and without concern that the ideas they circulate might not and often do not prove to be true. The people who view the mainstream press as complicit in the great scams of the shadowy ruling class, and instead rely on this type of media for their information, were happy to hear Kennedy out.

His supporters are “moderate and thoughtful,” “critical thinkers,” “people who are willing to question orthodoxy and people who are fed up with ideological orthodoxy,” Kennedy told me. “We have a lot of antiwar people who were traditionally left-wing Democrats, but I’d say the major portion is really in the middle, and they tend to be people who listen to podcasts, to longform interviews, which is a form that I think is really sympathetic to me.” He added, “It’s like a big version of the Milgram experiment,” by which he means that they represent the 35 percent of participants in the famous study who refused to press the button to zap others with lethal voltages of electric shocks.

The better Kennedy polled against the president, the more pressure grew for Biden to acknowledge his competitors and participate in the primary. Meanwhile, the right seemed to be outright endorsing Kennedy. Bannon said Trump should pick Kennedy for VP. Ron DeSantis said, if he won, he would consider appointing Kennedy to his Cabinet. Kennedy welcomed his status in the MAGA-verse. “I’m proud that President Trump likes me,” he said. But nothing could change what he called a “rigged” process. As far as the DNC appeared to be concerned, there was no primary.

“Kennedy” and “Democrat” had become practically synonymous since the family landed in America in 1848. “I have a strong emotional connection to the party,” he said. He didn’t want to leave. “I was very resistant to it.” But it was the way forward: “Life is a series of separations … I feel like I didn’t really have a choice.”

The choice he did make landed like a Big Bang, its impact immediately redefining the contours of presidential politics. The general election is now projected to be a three-way race between Biden, Trump, and their mutual, Kennedy, with a cluster of less popular third-party candidates filling out the constellation.

Deep polarization to a near evenly divided electorate means major-party candidates are super-vulnerable to external threats. Much was made of a recent New York Times–Siena College poll that showed Trump beating Biden in several key swing states. The reality is more like, in a reliably unreliable estimate of how people will behave on Election Day a year from now, you have two likely nominees so unlikable that they are tied for historic unlikableness with the 2016 nominees (only one candidate has been a historically unlikable constant across elections). Then factor in the margin of error of 1.8-to-4.8 points across the dataset. Then rerun the poll with Kennedy in the mix, as Times–Siena did, and you get a chaotic and scarcely recognizable race with Kennedy in striking distance at 24 percent. As CNN polling savant Harry Enten put it, “A clear Trump polling lead became a jumbled mess with no clear favorite to win in the Electoral College thanks to Kennedy. Both Biden (34 percent) and Trump (36 percent) were south of 40 percent in an aggregate across the six states.”

It’s true that in the 1992 election, Ross Perot, who lost, was often outright beating Bush and Clinton in the polls, and he didn’t become president. But Kennedy doesn’t have to win to sabotage Biden or Trump. He doesn’t even have to come close. In 2000, when Democrats won the popular vote and lost the Electoral College, Ralph Nader scored 97,488 votes in Florida, where Al Gore lost by 537 votes. In 2016, when Democrats again won the popular vote and lost the Electoral College, Libertarian Gary Johnson got 172,136 votes in Michigan, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein got 51,463. Clinton lost by 10,704 votes. Johnson got 106,674 votes in Wisconsin and Stein 31,072. Clinton lost by 22,748. Not only is Kennedy polling more competitively now than any independent since Perot, but he has backup. Celebrity academic Cornel West is also running as an independent. Stein has risen from the dead to haunt the Dems once more on a Green Party ticket. From retirement, Senator Joe Manchin threatens to run with No Labels, which has already secured ballot access in the swing state of Arizona. Theoretically, any of these candidates earning just a small percentage in one key state could be enough to fuck up the whole map for the major parties — much less all of them.

In the face of this reality, Biden plans to argue that Kennedy is a closet conservative. Trump is already arguing that Kennedy is a closet liberal. (If either likely nominee has more sophisticated messaging planned to fight off Kennedy, it is not yet apparent.) That both claims are sort of true and sort of not true in equal measure is, sort of, the basis of Kennedy’s appeal.

According to the Times, Democratic lawyers across the country are mobilizing to suppress third-party challenges through initiatives to further limit ballot access, the central obstacle for an independent candidate. “We’ll get on the ballot in every state,” Kennedy told me.

If he succeeds, they have a plan. Bidenworld thinks it will be relatively easy to convince the public that Kennedy is a MAGA candidate. They plan to call him anti-vaxx, anti-democracy, and pro–conspiracy theory. They will argue he has no home in the coalition that sent Biden to the White House in the first place and (mostly, anyway) wants to keep him there. Unless and until he is forced to, Biden will pretend Kennedy is not there so as not to undermine his most persuasive argument: that he is the only candidate who can keep Trump from another four years in power.

“Kennedy Democrats” were easy to size up. Antiwar, anti–corporate greed, anti–the political Establishment captured by big-money donors, and anti–the perverse influence (real or imagined) of these corrupting forces on the environment and the human body. Now Kennedy Democrats have been rebranded by the campaign as “Kennedy Americans.” The vision of who they are, and what exactly they believe, is evolving. As he broadened his message to appeal to voters outside an intraparty contest, it was natural that Kennedy would have to speak directly to the concerns of a more conservative-minded audience. Still, at times his lurch to the right has been jarring.

Outside the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Kennedy launched the campaign 2.0. “As I’ve surrendered my attachment to taking sides over the past six months, I’ve been able to listen with new ears to people with whom I disagree and to see solutions that would otherwise have been invisible,” he said. He offered the example of the U.S.-Mexico border. When he declared as a Democrat, he was for open borders, he said, and thought if you wanted to close the border, “you were probably a xenophobe and maybe a racist.” Then he went to the border and that was that. “My views changed,” he said. He once was the kind of liberal who mocked conservatives of faith; now he’s a candidate who can “feel God’s power coming through me.” In 2018, Kennedy called the National Rifle Association a “terror group.” That was then. This is now: “As president, I will respect the Second Amendment.”

On foreign policy, it’s a similar story, creating problems within his own campaign. Friction arose this summer when Kennedy vowed to “make the moral case for Israel.” His campaign was powered by an unlikely assortment of staff and advisers with ties to the anti-vaxx community, the Republican Party, the Libertarian Party, the crypto world, New Age wellness influencers, and Cambridge Analytica, but it was run by Dennis Kucinich, the extremely progressive former Democratic representative from Ohio who once proposed a Department of Peace. For Kucinich and some like-minded associates, this was inconvenient, but not a deal-breaker. Then came October 7. After the Hamas attack, Kennedy went further. He praised efforts to penalize anti-Israel demonstrators on college campuses. He argued that Israel was within its rights to defend itself by whatever means it saw fit. In sharp contrast to his views on American involvement in almost all other foreign conflicts, including the war in Ukraine, he said the U.S. should help: “We must provide Israel with whatever it needs to defend itself — now.” “Listen, nobody likes children dying,” he said recently. “When we went into Germany after the war, and then into Japan, a lot of civilians died because we had to get Hitler.”

On October 13, Kennedy announced that Kucinich would be replaced by his daughter-in-law, Amaryllis Fox Kennedy, a former CIA operative and first-time campaign manager. Kennedy told me he made the change because Kucinich (who lost his most recent campaign for mayor of Cleveland) didn’t have the experience to scale his operation into “a billion-dollar campaign.” Asked to respond, Kucinich said, “That’s hilariously self-refuting.” He declined to elaborate. (“I don’t really know what that means,” Kennedy said, “so I’m not going to respond to it.”)

Back in the canyon, Kennedy was ­talking about protecting himself. Sometimes the dogs had run-ins with snakes here, he said, and lately there were bigger problems, like the armed men who showed up to his home and campaign events as chilling reminders of his family’s — and America’s — tragedies. He claims that when he requested a protective detail from the Secret Service, its threat assessment concluded that he was “at elevated risk.” Yet the request was denied, an outcome he blames on the president, whom he suspects might have wanted to drain his campaign finances. Without government protection, Kennedy contracts a ­private security detail from Gavin de Becker, a friend and donor, at steep ­market rates in compliance with election laws. (The White House declined to comment.) “I do worry about the safety of my family and their sense of well-being,” he said.

And then there are the members of his family who are perhaps less inclined to visit him here in Brentwood, the four of his ten siblings who have publicly called him a “dangerous” threat to democracy. About this, he just shrugged. “My family has had a long relationship with President Biden and a very, very personal relationship,” he told me. “I think there’s five members of my family that have jobs or official relationships with the White House, and so I understand the discomfort that my decisions cause them and I don’t begrudge them speaking out against my choices.” He steered the dog car back onto his property after the longest two-mile car ride of my life since the two-mile car ride earlier that morning.

Of course, when you’re a Kennedy, the Bidens are just the beginning of your connections. “I’ve known Trump for many decades. I sued him twice,” he said. “I sued him to stop him from building golf courses on the New York City watershed, and I won both cases.” Which is not to say things were contentious. “While I was in active litigation with him, he invited me to Palm Beach for the weekend. I mean, he invited me to ride down on his plane.” (He went, “against my better judgment.”) Kennedy claims that, as president-elect, Trump invited him to his midtown headquarters to offer him a position in his administration as chair of a vaccine-safety commission, which he accepted. He said he had a series of appointments at the White House and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door with an “obsequious” and “disingenuous” Anthony Fauci and other officials over the first few months of the administration. (Fauci declined to comment.) Then, he said, the whole thing fell apart when Trump sold out to Big Pharma. “He took a million dollars from Pfizer,” Kennedy said, and installed “pharmaceutical insiders” at powerful agencies. “They shut us down,” he said. “After that, we couldn’t get anyone at the White House to answer phone calls.” 

But there is no consensus about whether a vaccine-safety commission ever even existed. After the Trump Tower meeting, amid media outrage, Trump took the unusual step of denying what Kennedy had told reporters in the lobby about a job offer. “The president-elect enjoyed his discussion with Robert Kennedy Jr. on a range of issues and appreciates his thoughts and ideas,” his spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, said then. “However, no decisions have been made at this time.” A photo provided by Kennedy proves he did visit the White House on May 9, 2017 (the same day, coincidentally, that Trump fired FBI director James Comey), and a senior NIH official confirmed he also visited with the department later that month. “He was certainly maintaining access to the administration,” the official said, explaining that it was Jared Kushner who had set up the meeting. “It was a serious intention to have an exchange of views about vaccines and the studies that had been done,” the official said, “and it was a complete, frustrating failure. It was a one-way conversation. He arrived with a PowerPoint and a speech he wanted to give with his perspective, and he barely took a breath for the next two hours.”

Kennedy provided me with a copy of the letter he received a few months later informing him that his conversations with the administration about vaccines were over. “We have carefully reviewed and considered your questions and requests, but regretfully we are not optimistic that much further progress can be made in these discussions,” the letter read. “The approaches that you and your colleagues have advocated rest on the assumption that vaccines are unsafe. In our view and that of the vast majority of objective experts in medicine and public health, there is overwhelming scientific evidence that supports the safety and exceptional value of vaccines.” The studies Kennedy cited to argue otherwise were “unreplicated” and “published in less rigorous journals,” according to the government. “Given these fundamental differences, we are at a loss for how to move these discussions forward productively … We stand ready to reengage if you are willing to reconsider your fundamental position, based on the weight of the evidence. We face many challenges to prevent disease. However, vaccines are not the problem, they are a solution.” The letter was signed by NIH director Francis Collins and six other department officials, including Fauci himself and the director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Diana Bianchi. Kushner was copied on the correspondence.

“If it were truly a commission, you’d be able to access minutes, meeting notes, etc.,” a Trump White House official told me. “No one seems to recall this happening in the West Wing or on the complex.” Trump’s 2024 campaign adviser Jason Miller put it this way: “Nobody from the WH at that time remembers anything about it.” The senior NIH official was more direct: “There never was a commission, so how could it fall apart? That was in his mind only, I think. It’s almost delusional.”

What did all of this teach Kennedy about his old friend the Donald? “I didn’t think that he was going to drain the swamp,” he said with a solemn laugh. “I mean, that was the swamp.”

Privately, Trump has assured friends and allies that he does not fear that the Frankencandidate he helped create will spoil his chance for victory. He tells them the campaign has collected footage and recordings of Kennedy expressing left-wing views, such as criticism of the NRA, that will destroy his attempts to eat into his base. “It’s hard to tell if he believes it or not,” a person familiar with the conversations said. “Trump was a fucking liberal. To say ‘He said some liberal things ten years ago’ is not a meaningful attack.” Kennedy laughed the whole thing off. “That particular ploy isn’t frightening,” he said. “Everyone knows I’ve always identified as a liberal.”

In a statement, Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said, “Voters should not be deceived by anyone who pretends to have conservative values. The fact is that RFK has a disturbing background steeped in radical, liberal positions. Whether he’s a China sympathizer, denigrating gun owners, promoting business-killing green policies, or supporting on-demand abortion, an RFK candidacy is nothing more than a vanity project for a liberal Kennedy looking to cash in on his family’s name.”

I showed Kennedy what Trumpworld had to say. “That’s not an accurate summary of my policy platform,” he said. “But, in fairness, I don’t think he’s going for accuracy.”



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