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The Democrats Have Their Trump

Is RFK Jr. a serious candidate, or just a nuisance to Biden?

Photo: AP Images


here are more similarities between Democratic presidential contender Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (RFK) and Donald Trump than meet the eye, aside from the fact that both men would like to send Joe Biden packing in 2024.

Like Trump, RFK is a political novice who never ran for public office before his recent decision to challenge Biden in the Democratic primaries.

Both men exploit conspiracy theories to their advantage. RFK is a prominent anti-vaxer who has accused Big Pharma of poisoning children while Trump accuses Biden to this day of grand larceny in 2020.

The comparisons don’t end there. Both Trump and RFK are genetically disruptive. They appeal to voters exasperated by the Washington swamp and their pompous cronies among global elites who burn tons of jet fuel to attend conferences in exotic destinations while urging the working class to skateboard to jobs that AI will soon render obsolete.

By this time in 2016, Trump had far more support for his maverick campaign than RFK has today, but the fact that RFK is earning 15% to 20% support in early polls against an incumbent tells us one of two things. Either the pundits who pigeonhole all Democrats as wall-to-wall progressives are wrong, or perhaps there are fewer differences between Trump’s brand of right-wing populism and RFK’s liberal yet strongly anti-woke messaging.

RFK’s early success is stirring new debate over a political concept known as the horseshoe theory.

First popularized 100 years ago when communists and fascists were jockeying for power in Europe, it was reformulated some 20 years ago by the French writer and philosopher Jean-Pierre Faye. The horseshoe theory posits that right-wing populism and progressive leftism are closely aligned. Instead of viewing them as two points at the extreme opposite ends of a straight line, Faye contended they resemble the two ends of a horseshoe that bend inward toward each other.

“Extremists are closer to each other in political priorities than they are to the center, which represents the system that both factions despise,” wrote David Masciotra in an essay that appeared last month in the New Republic, a publication founded in 1914 with a stated goal of bringing liberalism into the modern era. “The two tips of the horseshoe tend to align on specific issues — such as worthy opposition to the military-industrial complex or paranoid opposition to government public health mandates — rather than on specific politicians. Each side has distinct ideas about how best to overthrow the system.”

Many progressive political pundits would like to bury the horseshoe theory because it yanks the rug out from underneath their arguments that liberal ideals hold the high moral ground while the term “right-wing populism” is just a wordy way of saying fascism.

RFK’s Uphill Climb

Is RFK Jr. a serious candidate, or just a nuisance to Biden?

We’re six months away from the first test of how RFK’s support will hold up, but he might break quickly from the starting gate.

Democrats are still bickering about which states will vote first. Biden and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) have green-lighted South Carolina, the state credited with propelling Biden to his come-from-behind victory in the 2020 Democratic primaries. But Iowa and New Hampshire, which traditionally vote first, are seething, and might leap ahead of South Carolina, even though the DNC threatens not to recognize their delegates at the party’s national convention if they do.

Axios has reported that Biden might skip Iowa and New Hampshire if they defy the DNC. If the president’s name doesn’t appear on the ballot, it could hand RFK two early victories, with all the positive publicity and momentum that entails.

It’s hard to see RFK getting anywhere near the nomination, even if he wins early, and even if Biden’s health should force him out of the race. Vice President Kamala Harris sees herself as Biden’s heir apparent, and if party bigwigs disagree, they will hustle to field a more acceptable candidate, just as they did in 2020 when they rallied behind Biden after Bernie Sanders’ early primary victories scared them out of their wits.

RFK has one thing going for him that no other candidate has. The Kennedy family name is an American dynasty, having produced America’s 35th president (John F. Kennedy) and two serious presidential contenders, Bobby Kennedy and Ted Kennedy.

Many Americans will empathize with RFK Jr.’s story. He was nine when JFK was assassinated and just 14 when his father, Bobby, whom he is named after, was gunned down the night he won the 1968 California primary.

Confused on Israel

RFK Jr. did have a successful career as an environmental lawyer. As Time magazine noted in its recent profile: “He fought to clean up the Hudson River in New York and prosecute polluters. He created a legal clinic at New York’s Pace University that enlisted law students to work on environmental cases, which became a model for projects around the country, and received accolades for his work focused on Indigenous communities. A 1995 cover of New York magazine hailed him as ‘The Kennedy Who Matters.’ ”

RFK Jr. also draws some sympathy for his battle with spasmodic dysphonia, a rare voice disorder from which he suffers, although if you watch him speak, he’s easily understandable.

Some of his positions aren’t.

He brands himself as pro-Israel, but during his recent interview with journalist Glenn Greenwald, it was painful to see him twist himself into a pretzel, spouting inaccuracies when trying to sound evenhanded on the Middle East

While rightly blaming the Palestinians for the lack of a peace process, he noted: “I understand that Palestinians are mistreated in Israel. I’ve seen the water allocations that were very, very unfairly allocated to the new settlements rather than to traditional settlements — in some cases for 100 years.”

Even when he defended the IDF for bending over backward to avoid civilian casualties, he expressed it awkwardly, first saying, “Israel is going to the West Bank and killing children — it’s never doing that deliberately, never, and nobody has ever said it is.”

Greenwald, to his credit, jumped in immediately to correct him, saying: “A lot of people have said it is.”

When RFK wraps himself in the mantle of JFK, who founded the Peace Corps, and says America should be providing development aid and not military aid to foreign lands, and how JFK did everything he could to avoid wars, he sounds noble, but out of touch.

With aggressive nations such as Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea looking to take advantage of any American show of weakness, RFK looks more like a blast from an idealistic past that never was, and not like an imposing leader who will command respect from enemies and earn the trust of allies.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 966)

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