RFK Jr.’s Appeal

He's more than just a kook.

Robert Kennedy Jr campaign speech

A veteran journalist and longtime virtual acquaintance I respect considerably pointed me the other day to a Tablet essay titled “RFK Jr. Isn’t a Spoiler.” It’s subtitled “He’s a legitimate presidential contender who wrestles with real questions and inspires hope, in the face of well-organized and well-funded efforts to destroy him.”

First, considering that he consistently polls around 10 percent, he’s not a serious presidential contender. Second, the combination of that and the winner-take-all design of our system, he’s almost by definition a spoiler. That is, since he can’t be elected President, any vote that he gets is “wasted” if the person casting it had a preference between the two candidates who could.*

That said, the rest of the subhed has merit. The essay (by Teddy Macker, who “taught literature at UC Santa Barbara for many years” and “lives on a farm in Carpinteria, California, with his wife and daughters”) is rather discursive but hints at his enduring appeal with a sizable chunk of the electorate.

Once the preliminaries are dispensed with, the presidential candidate steps onstage before a full crowd. Standing with a hipshot stance, in a dark suit, with his square shoulders and large hands, Kennedy is less blue-blooded Hyannis Port sprezzatura and more Sicilian boxer on his wedding day. Kennedy proceeds to speak extemporaneously, without notes or a teleprompter, with his rickety-voiced aplomb. When not speaking, Kennedy sometimes nods his head minutely, an effect perhaps of his spasmodic dysphonia.

Kennedy has been criticized for bowling over listeners with torrents of language. This is an understandable criticism. While speaking about his parents’ close relationship with Chavez and his own relationship with Chavez, the torrent, at times, is buffeting. Names, dates, anecdotes, and mid-sentence digressions pour forth, as he speaks in a somewhat muddled way about Robert and Ethel Kennedy helping Chavez conclude hunger strikes by personally serving Chavez communion. We also hear about how Robert Kennedy Jr. himself worked with the United Farm Workers on dozens of campaigns. At times, one can’t help but feel Kennedy is straining overmuch to prove his Chavez bona fides. Or perhaps the strain mainly reveals honest gratitude. Kennedy recalls how his father wouldn’t have won the state of California (which he did the night he was killed) without the political organization of Cesar Chavez.

In this part of his speech Kennedy also touches on his immigration policy of “tall fences and wide gates,” a policy he has stated before. According to Kennedy, the “tall fences” would curb an unrestricted flow of immigrants, which he sees as a humanitarian crisis for the immigrants because of horrors endured on their journeys and once they arrive, and an equal crisis for American citizens whose towns and cities are being overwhelmed. The “wide gates,” Kennedy says, would sponsor a more orderly migration, suited to the needs of citizens and immigrants both. Such a vision, Kennedy states, is aligned with that of Chavez who reportedly decried unrestricted immigration as it rendered undocumented migrants easy prey to unscrupulous employers, and harmed the livelihoods of the California field workers Chavez sought to protect.

Moving on from Chavez, Kennedy turns his attention to the predicament of Latinos in our country, a group which, he says, is suffering the consequences of a deteriorating middle class. “Fifty-seven percent of Americans cannot put their hands on a thousand dollars if they have an emergency.”

Commenting on the other two candidates, Presidents Biden and Trump, and their purported blindness to such straits, Kennedy offers a metaphor. The other candidates, he says, are overly concerned with small waves on the surface (which are the culture wars, Kennedy adds). Meanwhile, underneath these smaller waves, underneath the surface of our nation, great unspoken currents move—“currents that are sweeping our country away.” Both other candidates, despite differences in temperament, personality, and rhetoric, are in fact similar, Kennedy argues, for both ignore our country’s “existential problems.” Tweaking his maritime metaphor, Kennedy says the other two candidates are merely “changing deck chairs on the Titanic … and the ship is sinking.”

Kennedy names the alleged unspoken existential problems: our $34 trillion debt, the damaging merger of state and corporate power, our declining health, the war machine. Speaking about these issues, Kennedy’s power is plain. His varied knowledge, his chapter-and-verse exactitude, his considerable capacity for bird’s-eye-view synthesis, his knack for haunting quips (“When I was a kid the Democrats were the antiwar party and the Republicans were the war party. Today they’re both the war party”), and his willingness to step outside the bounds of acceptable discourse and reveal the dark side of our empire (especially insofar as Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Tech, and the military industrial complex), thereby speaking realities that are felt by many but often insufficiently acknowledged—these traits rouse the crowd filling the old ticket concourse to impassioned applause.

Kennedy—sweating, his arms moving in an unrehearsed way—is now firing on all cylinders. Soon, a staffer motions to Kennedy to wrap things up (he apparently has a press conference following the event). Perhaps aware that he’s on a roll, Kennedy, with playful warmth, literally thumbs his nose at the staffer, and continues on.

Toward the end of his speech, Kennedy criticizes the latest iteration of the Democratic Party, linking the protesters outside the train station to the party’s efforts to vanquish him. Of the Democratic Party, he says: “They’re ending democracy in order to save it … this is the kind of cognitive dissonance they want us to swallow.”

It strikes me that Kennedy’s appeal is similar to that of Trump and Bernie Sanders, in that he says things people want to hear in a way that most politicians don’t. While he’s got some truly kooky ideas, he’s incredibly energetic. For a man of 70, he’s incredibly youthful and fit. He speaks without a script and connects with the crowd. So, yes, dismissing him as just a kook is to miss the mark.

That both the Democratic and Republican apparatus are expending so much energy against him is understandable. While they don’t think he can win—indeed, I don’t think he could win under any institutional design, let alone ours—they see him siphoning off enough voters who dislike both candidates (the so-called “double haters”) that he’s a threat to their chances.


*The fact that so few states are competitive complicates this further, of course. There’s little chance, indeed, that a Kennedy voter in California or Mississippi will impact the allocation of the state’s Electoral slate.

FILED UNDER: 2024 Election, US Politics, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Charley in Cleveland says:

    Ralph Nader was also a smart guy who said things traditional pols would never utter. He told us there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference” between Bush and Gore, and the votes he gathered in Florida put GW Bush into the White House and the US Army into Iraq. The Bush presidency showed that America and the world cannot afford to have a clown in the White House. Trump confirmed that. RFK Jr. may not be a clown, but he is paving the path for a bigger clown to wreak havoc…just like Ralph Nader did.

  2. DK says:

    So, yes, dismissing him as just a kook is to miss the mark.

    Most people understand he’s not just a kook. He’s a kook with a famous name.

    Much like any crank at your local bar, he’s an energetic kook who’s great at parroting Russian propaganda, endlessly complaining about problems and blaming them on amorphous, conspiratorial forces. But he’s a nepo baby from a famous political dynasty, allowing him to gain the electoral traction your drunk uncle cannot.

    He also sounds like a dying frog.

    Can you imagine, anyone wanting to listen to that for four years or more? God bless Cheryl Hines.

  3. Modulo Myself says:

    Basically, he’s offering an aristocratic view on America, which attracts many types of people. He likes nature and animals and places, rather than big-box stores and fast food and dumb hotels, and that makes him seem wise in comparison to Trump.

    Re: third-parties Perot was a long-term crank into POW/MIA stuff. He kept it together for some time, due to the fact he had to keep it together running a company. Outside of the Kennedy name, I don’t think he’s kept anything together and lack of exposure is helping him early on, but I’d be surprised if he doesn’t fade into a low single digits.

  4. MarkedMan says:

    More and more I’m seeing conspiracy theories as addictive, and, like physical drugs, prolonged and deep addiction will eventually lead you to mental illness. Robert Kennedy shows a lot of the signs and pathologies of addiction. He’s driven away family and friends and surrounded himself with enablers. As a rich man, there are plenty of enablers around, and his wealth allows him to continue on this path for quite a while. Just as with addicted and mentally ill rock stars, his self destructive and wild behavior attracts some people, who see it as genius or are just drawn to extremes.

  5. Gustopher says:

    Both Trump and RFKJr come across as genuine, and that appeals to a lot of people.

    Trump is obviously a liar saying whatever thing pops into his head at the moment, but he’s genuine about it. And RFKJr is clearly living in a fictional world adjacent to reality, but he really believes.

    But a part of their charm is how genuine they are about it. Like Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s*

    You’re wrong. She is a phony. But on the other hand you’re right. She isn’t a phony because she’s a real phony. She believes all this crap she believes. You can’t talk her out of it.

    I can’t get past what they are — harmful, terrible people who should never be in a position of authority over anyone — but the genuineness is there and it’s very refreshing.

    Not that either is as appealing as Audrey Hepburn. (The happy ending added to the movie is clearly a curse, as now Fred is stuck with her, and the only safe spot for her was in the past, or far away in Africa)

    Anyway, the Biden campaign needs to let Joe be Joe, and make sure he has enough appearances. Whether it is saying that his uncle was eaten by cannibals, telling tales of Corn Pop (how was that true?), or talking about grief, there’s something entirely charming about him when he gets going.

    *: apologies to anyone who now has the song “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” stuck in their head just from hearing the name of the book/movie. As a brain cleanser, I offer https://youtu.be/eTq38ND-K28 (“Hemingway”, by Blue Clocks Green), but it’s a dangerous cleanser that can only be used a few times before it becomes a permanent earworm, and it’s so much worse.

  6. @DK:

    He’s a kook with a famous name.

    And not just famous. A name from American political royalty, so to speak.

    That matters, like it or not.

  7. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    A name from American political royalty

    Maybe. But that is political royalty from more than a half century ago. Does the name matter to anyone under 65? 70? 75? I’m 63 and associate the Kennedy name much more with Teddy than Bobby or John. Those even a few years younger than me probably associate it most with the Kennedy who flew his plane into the ocean.

  8. just nutha says:

    I now see what my friend in Korea (who votes in Nevada) sees in Junior. I can see myself voting for him based on the stuff he’d try to accomplish, too. But in the dark night of the soul, we’re all capitalists here with no particular objections to corporatism as currently practiced. So, yeah, a vote for Junior is wasted at best and contributes in the same way as a Nader vote in 2000 under less sanguine conditions–like the ones we have now.

  9. Kathy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The movie title writes itself: The Madness of Would-Be King Robert.

    Anyone, for whatever reason, who embraces or even promotes anti-vaccination ideology, is in favor of letting children and adults die of easily preventable or ameliorated diseases. It’s just one short step removed from a mass murderer.

  10. Gustopher says:

    @just nutha:

    So, yeah, a vote for Junior is wasted at best and contributes in the same way as a Nader vote in 2000 under less sanguine conditions–like the ones we have now.

    That depends on your state.

    In the People’s Democratic Republic of Washington, or Holy Christian Republic of Texas, a vote for RFKJr has about the same chance of affecting outcomes as a vote for Biden or Trump. It’s reasonable to choose to make a purely messaging vote, rather than a strategic vote, even if no one is likely to hear the message.

  11. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: From your stated perspective, I make a purely messaging (non) vote every year. And you’re right; no one is listening.

    ETA: And I was a Republican. They could really use my vote.

  12. @MarkedMan: There is little doubt that name recognition matters in politics.

    I think that a substantial part of his 10% polling number is his name; I think it will fade.

  13. Franklin says:

    @just nutha: Purely from the blurb quoted by Joyner, I definitely see the appeal (it doesn’t really touch on conspiracies per se, but does capture the angst that people feel about being stuck for the last 40 years, espevially amongst the middle class).

    But as a more educated political observer (I hope), I believe this to be the most important election of my lifetime. To waste a frustration vote on Kennedy and risk true tangible authoritarianism in America is not acceptable if you care about your kids or anybody else.

    Of course his actual support in the general will be far less than 10% even where he’s on the ballot. But I’m starting to get worried about my home state of Michigan – RFK could possibly pull 1-2% from Biden’s narrow margin, and the Dearborn crowd could make another big dent. It’s going to be way closer than it should be.

  14. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I think that a substantial part of his 10% polling number is his name


  15. steve says:

    Meh. He is glib, a fairly polished speaker. He is not much different that the talk radio people, many of whom now infect our politics. They spend years practicing their material with the people who call in and their “guests”. They learn what kinds of conspiracy theories light up the call boards and which ones go too far. In truth it just isn’t that hard to identify any number of issues that are wrong with the US, claim that current leaders dont care because they haven’t solved them but you have the (usually vague) answers.

    What is semi-rare is the ability to speak and deliver it well. Not everyone is good at public speaking, but it can be learned and if you have a natural flair for the dramatic all the better. Go to any fire and brimstone revival meeting and you will see the type. Go to anyone who preaches the prosperity, think Joel Osteen, Tony Robbins and just slightly different, Jordan Peterson. For that matter, all of the people pitching the fake cures and making millions at it, like Dr Oz or the faith healers like Copeland. To me these people are so obviously fake yet they have something special, besides being psychopaths, that makes people connect with them and believe in them. Trump has it in spades. I am sort of inclined to think it is somehow genetic.

    When I listen to these people they seem obviously fake, dishonest and/or incompetent. Often they seem outright repulsive. However, for those with the right gene, or the absence of the right kind of gene, these people seem sincere and like they are a gift from God. They understand the word salad offered by their hero or they believe what are obviously lies since they are programmed to believe them. It’s certainly not on the basis of any rational analysis. Anyway, having a famous name gets people to listen to him the first time. Those with the genetic deficiency, or whatever it is, believe him.