RFK Jr. and the con men candidates: more than a sideshow — they're a real threat to democracy

Fake candidates rake in real cash, at the expense of democracy. Is there any way to discourage their runs?

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published June 8, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

George Santos and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
George Santos and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is not a serious person. He may have been many years ago, before his anti-vaccine obsession totally colonized his brain. But, as often happens when people adopt one conspiracy theory, they often start believing in others. As psychology researchers at the University of Kent wrote in 2022, an individual's "subscription to conspiracy beliefs is initially inadvertent, accelerates recursively, then becomes difficult to escape." Kennedy's tumble down the rabbit hole is a tragic example. As investigative journalist Judd Legum chronicled on Twitter, Kennedy now also buys into election lies, myths about the 5G network, and, sadly, conspiracy theories about the assassination of his own father. He's also falsely accused the staff of Salon and other publications of working for the CIA. 

Conspiracy theories also pull people to the right, and Kennedy is no exception. Once a Democratic stalwart, he's now a big time Republican donor who frequents right-wing media spaces from Fox News to Infowars. Unfortunately, what was once just a sad story of a man who lost his mind has now become a serious threat to democracy as Kennedy has declared himself a presidential candidate vying for the Democratic nomination. 

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There's no danger he'll beat President Joe Biden for the nomination, of course. Even with his famous name, Kennedy is only pulling 20% support among Democratic primary voters, a number that's sure to decline when people realize Kennedy rejects everything his famous father stood for. The main concern most Democrats cite is a fear that Kennedy will run as an independent, making him a spoiler. It's not a small fear as both Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Al Gore in 2000 lost just enough votes to vanity candidates Ralph Nader and Jill Stein that it threw the elections to Republicans George W. Bush and Donald Trump, respectively.  

The poison from con men candidates runs even deeper than their ability to draw a small-but-crucial number of votes during close elections.

But the poison from con men candidates runs even deeper than their ability to draw a small-but-crucial number of votes during close elections. Fake candidates like Kennedy or Marianne Williamson — a woo peddler who is "running" as a Democrat to bolster her brand — encourage a kind of anti-politics that is poisonous to democracy. They discourage people from seeing elections as part of a larger strategy of coalition-building to create structural change. Instead, they bait people into a consumerist model of politics, where your vote is treated more as an individualistic form of self-expression than an attempt to build power to improve the world.

That has a special allure to the kinds of people who are already prone to cults and conspiracy thinking. To make it worse, phony campaigns lure more people into that conspiratorial worldview. They offer a flattering narrative to people who follow them, telling them they are unique and privy to knowledge that eludes the common person. Everyone likes to believe they're an iconoclast. Following an "outsider" candidate who peddles wild conspiracy theories is more interesting than backing a normal candidate who lives in the boring, fact-based world. 

People like Kennedy aren't just recruiting more people into anti-science and conspiratorial thinking. Such thinking is also, crucially, anti-democratic. People are encouraged to believe the system is "rigged" and everyone outside their little cult of conspiracists is out to get them. That paranoia and cynicism make good faith participation in democracy impossible. It's exactly why fascists like Steve Bannon are hyping Kennedy's campaign. It's not just that Kennedy is a potential spoiler. It's that his campaign is about recruiting people into anti-democratic conspiracy thoughts. 

There's always been cranks and narcissists who run for office to get attention for themselves or their B.S. causes. Now, however, the situation is likely worse than ever because campaign finance regulation has been thoroughly decimated in the past decade and a half. That makes it much easier for vanity candidates to run, especially with the backing of nefarious actors who benefit from screwing with democratic systems. For some, it can even make it easier to line their own pockets through the use of "political action committees" that are basically slush funds. 

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"We do not have a clear picture of who is pumping significant money into our elections," Stephen Spaulding, the vice president of policy at Common Cause, told Salon. Especially after the disastrous 2013 Supreme Court decision dismantling much campaign finance law, he explained, there's "a universe of money influencing our elections that are coming from somewhere in large amounts, but we don't know where it's coming from."

The free flow of money in politics is inarguably a draw for con artists.

We don't know if Kennedy or other candidates like him have dark money backing or how much — and that's a big part of the problem. He certainly has an ugly history of connections to far-right dark money. He was connected to the QAnon-linked Reawaken America tour, which promotes disinformation and fascist politics through a network of far-right activists who benefit heavily from a transparency-free political donation system. He also filmed a video for an anti-vaccine, pro-January 6 super PAC, run by Charlene Bollinger, an anti-vaxxer who draws in huge sums of money through shady and often mysterious business practices. We also know that Kennedy is backed by Wall Street trader Mark Gorton, who has given to Kennedy's anti-vaccination group. But how much other money is flowing from Gorton, Bollinger or other such sources to back Kennedy's campaign is hard to measure, due to the deregulated campaign finance system. 

The free flow of money in politics is inarguably a draw for con artists, as demonstrated by the often funny but always disturbing story of Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y. Santos has been exposed as a con artist who seems to have run for office in no small part to lure Republican donors into giving him money he spent on luxuries and designer clothes. Most political grifters, such as Donald Trump, know well enough to launder the ill-gotten money through PACs and other deregulated campaign systems. Santos, however, has been indicted on charges of simply taking money directly from donors for himself. But the campaign finance system has been so degraded by Republican deregulation schemes that it's quite likely Santos would have escaped justice if his unlikely win hadn't drawn press scrutiny that eventually exposed him. 

Indeed, there are strong signs that Trump ran for president initially planning to be one of those go-nowhere campaigns that's more about making money than a serious bid for office. Trump is a notoriously bad businessman, and his tax returns suggest he's gone as much as a billion dollars in debt, after burning through nearly a billion granted him by his father and the show "The Apprentice." Trump had long mused publicly about his desire to tap into the world of dark money to reline his empty pockets. In office, his corruption far outpaced toothless political finance laws, as he used his hotels and other properties as blatant bribe-gathering operations. The grift has not slowed down one bit. Donors think they're giving to Trump's presidential campaign, for instance, but mostly that money has been going to pay his legal bills

While cautioning there's no legal way to distinguish real candidates from people who are in it for the grift, Spaulding did agree that campaign finance reform could make it less appealing to run for office merely as a brand-building or money-gathering exercise. He highlighted the DISCLOSE Act that Democrats support, but Republicans have filibustered to death in the Senate. The act would make dark money giving much more difficult, making it hard for candidates, both those sincerely running and those with ulterior motives, to enjoy the backing of wealthy interests who don't want their involvement known. He also called for the federal government to take more proactive steps to enforce laws that do exist, so people like Santos can be snagged before they get too far into the process — or even get elected. 

There's no one fix for con man candidates, of course. Still, it might be harder for people like Kennedy or Williamson to present as sincere candidates to gullible people — if they were forced to be more upfront about where their financial support is coming from. Conspiracy theorists and cultists trick people by pretending to be righteous warriors against a corrupt mainstream. It's a lot harder of a story to weave if your own corruption is front and center. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Campaign Finance Reform Commentary Conspiracy Theories George Santos Rfk Jr.