Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of a slain presidential candidate and nephew of a slain president, best known for his discredited anti-vaccine views (Scientific American, 1/11/17), is carrying on his family tradition of seeking high political office. As President Joe Biden’s approval numbers appear to slide (Politico, 5/7/23) with the general election still more than a year away, Kennedy sees an opening in the Democratic field.
Unlike many of his cousins, Kennedy doesn’t have political experience, and no one can identify who his political base might be. A recent poll (The Hill, 6/16/23) gave Kennedy the support of 15% of Democratic primary voters, with 21% of respondents having a positive view of him. CNN research (press release, 5/25/23) found that the biggest driver of support for RFK Jr. is the name “Kennedy.”
It’s a big deal to challenge an incumbent president in the primary—Kennedy’s other uncle, Sen. Ted Kennedy,
Naomi Klein (Guardian, 6/14/23) documented that Robert Kennedy has turned against some of his own policies on fighting climate change, has embraced free-market solutions on the environment, and is enthusiastically supportive of the Israeli government. The founders of Heal the Divide, a new Kennedy Super PAC, “have a deeply pro–Donald Trump bent—including ties to arch-MAGA officials such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, George Santos and Herschel Walker” (Rolling Stone, 6/23/23).
For Fox News and the New York Post, lifting up RFK Jr., who is buoyed by nothing more than the good luck of being born a Kennedy, challenges Biden from the right.
That’s on top of the big business support behind RFK Jr. that betrays his populist facade. Former Twitter boss Jack Dorsey is backing Kennedy (The Hill, 6/5/23), while venture capitalists/podcasters David Sacks and Chamath Palihapitiya are planning to hold a Bay Area fundraiser for him (Axios, 6/8/23). CNBC (6/21/23) reported that Kennedy “has another wealthy backer in his corner: veteran Wall Street executive Omeed Malik.”
Musk, crypto and Reaganism
Accordingly, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is doing its best to keep Kennedy’s ambitions afloat. Despite their reputation for supporting Republicans, Murdoch’s outlets have also seen conservative Democrats in primaries as vehicles for pushing the general political center of gravity to the right (FAIR.org, 3/12/21, 7/16/21).
For starters, Murdoch’s New York Post (6/22/23) featured a long interview with Kennedy that mostly acted as campaign public relations. It started off with a rejection of the label “anti-vaccine,” a common trick Kennedy uses that Klein debunks in her Guardian article. He claims that he is carrying on the liberal torch of his father and uncle, but everything he says sounds to the right of Richard Nixon.
“I like Elon Musk because he supports freedom of speech,” Kennedy said, playing to Musk’s right-wing following. The Post doesn’t challenge this statement with the fact that Twitter under Musk’s watch “has approved 83% of censorship requests by authoritarian governments” (El Pais, 5/24/23), or that Musk is also known for silencing and attempting to silence critics of Tesla (CNBC, 6/15/23; Yahoo! Finance, 6/22/23) and left-wing activists (Intercept, 11/29/23).
Kennedy also gave an approving nod to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency—a favored commodity among conservatives—and said his administration would sparingly regulate crypto, even though crypto mining has enormously detrimental environmental impacts.
Kennedy has been a more vocal advocate for the shady asset market elsewhere, as he “delivered a keynote address at the Bitcoin 2023 conference in Miami this year” (The Street, 5/26/23). He vowed to defend “the self-custody of Bitcoin,” and “said he would prevent Bitcoin from being regulated as a security.”
His broader economic message to the Post was pure Reaganism: “I will not raise the tax burden on Americans.” While that line sounds ecumenical, the subtext for a conservative media audience is that he will not address the chronic underpayment of taxes by the richest in order to fund services for the rest of us.
Fox News (6/8/23) said Kennedy believes President Trump deserves some credit for his immigration policy platform… Kennedy also said the pattern of President Biden and top Democrats reversing one Trump policy after another may have reached the point of “pettiness” versus empirical benefit.
The Murdoch-owned network (6/7/23, 6/7/23, 6/8/23) trumpeted Kennedy’s border visit, as he attacked Biden’s supposedly pro-immigration policies from the right: “It is not anti-immigrant bigotry to demand an immigration system that keeps out criminals.”
The network reached out to celebrities big and small, like Alicia Silverstone (6/8/23) and Aaron Rodgers (6/21/23), to prop up Kennedy’s legitimacy. Fox News host Geraldo Rivera (6/3/23) invoked his pedigree as unimpeachable: “The Kennedys are the epitome of American royalty. They have that casual elegance, that kind of preppy chic. They are so admirable in so many ways.”
Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is doing its best to keep Kennedy’s ambitions afloat.
The Wall Street Journal, Murdoch’s more respectable outlet, has offered more skepticism (6/22/23) of Kennedy than the Post or Fox, but still insists (5/30/23) that he’s a strong contender and that Biden must prepare for him. And the Journal tried to tone down his extremism, framing it as some sort of battle cry of the Little Guy, with Journal editorial board member Allysia Finley (6/25/23) blaming media favoritism toward “progressive beliefs” and “disparate treatment” of right-wing claims for his rising appeal. (Finley claimed preposterously that “most of his claims about vaccine dangers aren’t any kookier than those that he and his green allies have made about fossil fuels.”)
Of course, other right-wing outlets are happy to serve as vehicles for someone running as a kind of MAGA Democrat. The Federalist (6/20/23) liked his anti-vaccine campaign, and the Washington Beacon (5/19/23) chided “establishment Democrats and left-wing publications” who “ridiculed Kennedy’s first round of good polling.” Kennedy sat for a friendly interview with self-consciously contrarian UnHerd (5/3/23), although the interviewer expressed concern that Kennedy’s rhetoric is “divisive.”
But the Murdoch outlets carry a lot of weight in US politics. And these outlets—which have complained about a parade of wokeness, liberal district attorneys and socialist lawmakers—are clearly worried that the left flank of the Democratic Party has become too emboldened. At the same time, Murdoch’s empire wants to do anything it can to weaken Biden’s chances for reelection.
For Fox News and the New York Post, lifting up RFK Jr., who is buoyed by nothing more than the good luck of being born a Kennedy, challenges Biden from the right. Even if Biden wins the primary, and the general election, these outlets have done their part to keep the US political discourse moving toward market capitalism.
(Ari Paul is a New York-based journalist who has reported for the Nation, the Guardian, the Forward, the Brooklyn Rail, Vice News, In These Times, Jacobin and many other outlets. This story was published in Common Dreams.)