Robert F. Kennedy Jr. tests the conspiratorial appetite of Democrats

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a candidate for president supported by 1 in 5 Democratic voters in some recent polls, campaigns on the idea that powerful people have been working in secret to deceive you.

He began a recent speech here by recounting the Eisenhower administration’s 1960 decision to lie when the Soviets downed an American spy plane by calling it weather research. Then came further deceptions — some proven, some refuted, many just conjecture.

Before long, Kennedy was arguing that a 2019 tabletop exercise about a mock pandemic, archived on YouTube, actually revealed a secret plan involving U.S. spymasters to enrich drug companies and suppress free speech. He then rattled off clinical data from a coronavirus vaccine trial that was not designed to measure mortality, falsely suggesting that vaccines killed more people than they saved.

He made no mention of the abundant science that has found that the vaccine prevented serious illness and saved lives.

“We were lied to by the government and by the media,” he told a well-heeled crowd of hundreds of political skeptics at the Meridian Hills Country Club, many dressed in spring pastels or sockless shoes, some with wine glasses in hand. “And so it was all confusing, because they keep us confused.

That alarmist message has given him a platform that he believes will remake the Democratic Party and fulfill the ambitions denied his father, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), and stolen from his uncle, President John F. Kennedy — two men he argues, based on circumstantial evidence, were probably assassinated by elements of the CIA, which the government has denied.

“I could not run except in this election, and really covid integrated and systemized a deception in ways that are beyond the experience of our country,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post hours before his country club speech. “People want the truth.”

It’s a message that has so far allowed 69-year-old Kennedy, in the six weeks since announcing his long-shot campaign, to become President Biden’s most surprising and successful competitor. With only 38 percent of Democratic voters wanting to see the president as their nominee, Kennedy has polled about as high in the national Democratic primary race as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is polling in the Republican one, despite a fraction of the media coverage and little paid advertising.

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Kennedy’s campaign aims to embrace the spirit of his family’s 1960 and 1968 campaigns, hoping to reunite working-class White supporters of former president Donald Trump with the Black and Hispanic coalition of Democrats that once rallied behind the Kennedy name. He argues that national polling does not yet account for the shifts he can bring to who votes in open Democratic primaries. An independent group, American Values 2024, has already raised $5.7 million to support his campaign, according to John Gilmore, the founder of the group.

“This has been a vertical takeoff.” said former Democratic Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich, his campaign manager, who peaked in the single digits as a presidential contender in 2008. “Mr. Kennedy has arrived at a moment of a seismic shift in American politics, and he is singularly situated to be able to reset the pointer of our national dialogue to the center.”

Just what is fueling the rockets, however, remains a matter of speculation. An unrelated Robert Kennedy Jr. filed to run in 2017 as a Democrat for a special election to replace one of Alabama’s U.S. senators. With little public exposure and a famous name, he led early polls in the race, before losing by 48 points.

A recent CNN poll found that 20 percent of Democratic voters support Kennedy as a presidential candidate and that an additional 44 percent would consider supporting him. Of that second group, 1 in 5 said the Kennedy name and family ties were the main reasons for their consideration.

The Democratic National Committee has been working with Biden’s team on his reelection campaign and has not engaged publicly with either Kennedy or author Marianne Williamson, another Democrat running for president. Democratic officials say they will not schedule primary debates. Both the Biden campaign and the DNC declined to comment for this article.

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No one yet knows how the nation or the party will react when they find out more about Kennedy’s unconventional politics. He has not yet laid out an immigration strategy and is unsure about whether transgender surgeries for youth should be banned, though he opposes trans women competing in women’s sports. He says he supports abortion rights and won’t cut Social Security or Medicaid, but refuses to say whether he would support an assault weapons ban, since “the control of weapons has to be done through consensus.”

He denounces Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but also blames Americans for provoking the war by supporting the 2014 popular uprising in the country. Like Trump, he says he would quickly negotiate a peace if elected. Unlike most Democrats, he has called former Fox News host Tucker Carlson “breathtakingly courageous” for his criticism of drug companies.

Kennedy still believes that then-Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) won the 2004 election — which reelected Republican George W. Bush — based largely on a loose analysis of exit polls, voting machines and precinct vote counts, echoing the kind of false claims made by Trump and his supporters about the 2020 election. As for the 2020 race, which Biden won, he said, “I don’t know. I think that Biden won.”

He dismisses concerns that his candidacy could help Trump or another Republican win. Kennedy has suggested he will not support Biden — whom he calls a friend — as the nominee because of his approach to the Ukraine war. Kennedy acknowledges that some in his family, which has multiple members who serve in the Biden administration, disapprove of his candidacy and views.

“Conspiracies do happen,” he said. “It’s not that everybody is involved in promoting what they know to be a lie. It is that there are orthodoxies that become institutionalized that have their own gravity that pull people in.”

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‘His entire worldview has become a conspiracy theory’

The conspiratorial style of politics — the idea that the powerful secretly shape events with malevolent goals — runs like white noise through American history, punctuated by occasional revelations of actual schemes that did demonstrable harm, such as in the Catholic Church, the tobacco industry or the intelligence community.

The steady hum of popular paranoia has only risen in volume in recent decades, as Gallup has documented record-low trust in institutions like Congress, business, newspapers and the criminal justice system. New conspiracies now anchor mainstream ideologies. Trump blames “the deep state” for his troubles. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) points to the “ultrarich.” DeSantis describes a corporate, regulatory, academic and media elite surreptitiously spreading the “woke mind virus.”

Kennedy approaches the arena as a decorated outcast — one of the most famous living descendants of the most famous American political dynasty, who has spent the last several years railing against what he sees as a concerted effort to banish him from the public square.

He was stripped of his Instagram account in 2021 for what the company called “debunked claims about the coronavirus or vaccines”; the site reinstated his account Sunday in light of his status as a presidential candidate. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) asked Amazon to stop recommending his books. The White House press secretary flagged him as member of the “disinformation dozen” for his flimsy conjectures about covid, such as the unsubstantiated claim that the death of 86-year-old baseball legend Hank Aaron — attributed to natural causes two weeks after a vaccination — was “suspicious.” (Kennedy still calls for an “impartial investigation.”)

It’s all an inside joke for many of his supporters. When an evacuation alarm interrupted Kennedy’s April 19 campaign launch at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston, he addressed the unseen forces arrayed against him.

“Nice try,” he said to no one in particular, while pointing to the ceiling, earning laughter and applause. The crowd stayed put.

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