Crackpot fight! Trump is worried about RFK Jr. running for president — and he should be scared

Trump depends on the crank vote that the anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist could siphon off

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published October 11, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

He may not have bolts sticking out of his neck, but Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is morphing into the MAGA version of Frankenstein's monster. For months, he's been propped up by Donald Trump's sprawling propaganda apparatus, from Fox News to Steve Bannon's podcast, as he makes a fruitless bid to run for president. Even though the son of the assassinated former attorney general claimed to be a Democrat challenging President Joe Biden in the primary, most, if not all, of the staffing and financing for his campaign came from Republicans.

It's not because Republican power players like or even respect Kennedy. On the contrary, they see him for what he is: An unhinged conspiracy theorist with a massive ego that makes him easy to manipulate. They just thought they could use him, and his famous name, to make life hard for Biden in the Democratic primary, thereby weakening the president's general election campaign. 

Well, that didn't work out how the rat-f*ckers had hoped. Kennedy is still running for president, but he has given up on the Democratic primary route. Turns out that Democratic voters are not as stupid as Fox News and Steve Bannon think they are. While there was an initial bout of interest from some primary voters, as soon as they found out that RFK Jr. has rejected his family's legacy of both liberalism and support for science, polls show they return to backing Biden. So Kennedy, whose main motivation has obviously always been getting attention and pushing his various conspiracy theories, is switching tactics: Dropping out of the primary to run as an independent

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Some Biden supporters panicked, no doubt thinking about past spoiler candidates like Ralph Nader and Jill Stein. But the actual Biden campaign seems unworried about losing votes, especially once people learn about Kennedy's history of lying, anti-semitic conspiracy theories, and getting people killed through disinformation campaigns. But there is one pool of voters who doesn't care about any of that: MAGA voters. Indeed, many see it as a plus if a candidate is a greedy con artist who doesn't care who is hurt by his lies, which is why they are so drawn to Trump.

As voters learn more, Kennedy's almost certainly going to lose his already weak Democratic support while turning a few heads among Republican voters, especially the 25% who are QAnoners.

Could Kennedy pull votes away from Trump? Trump's campaign team certainly seems to think so, at least according to Shelby Talcott at Semafor. She reports that "internal campaign polling suggests his expected third party bid could draw more votes from Trump than President Joe Biden in a general election." In their typical self-aggrandizing style, a Trump campaign member told Semafor they plan on "dropping napalm after napalm on his head reminding the public of his very liberal views." 

They may find that this is a more difficult task than their belligerent rhetoric suggests. Because the slice of voters Trump and Kennedy could be competing over aren't defined by political beliefs that map neatly onto concepts like "liberal" or "conservative." Instead, they're fighting over the crank vote: People who are addicted to gobbling down kooky, bizarre and above all, false information. The QAnon crowd, in other words. 

Trump has long had a lot of sway over conspiracy theory nuts, because of his flagrant contempt for the truth. From birth conspiracy theories to the Big Lie to his habit of continually lying about everything from his pocketbook to his golf scores, Trump broadcasts every moment of every day that what he wishes to believe matters more than actual facts. For people who put a premium on living in a fantasy world — either to escape the humdrum of reality or because doing so feeds their egotistical need to feel like special snowflakes — Trump's presidency was a permission slip to get buck wild with the bullshit. 

Conspiracists tend to be motivated less by ideology and more by ego and status anxiety. It's often people who want to believe they are more interesting and important than they are. Their conspiracy theories offer them a way to feel special like they are privy to insider knowledge that the "sheeple" are too stupid or ignorant to understand. 

It's not a surprise that both Trump and Kennedy have ended up in the conspiracist world. Both are mediocre men whose fame and fortune depend entirely on being born to fathers who had the talents the sons only pretend to have. (Though, of course, the elder RFK is viewed in a historically heroic light, whereas Fred Trump was just an exploitative landlord and a tax cheat.) They are both small men who want to be big, and conspiracy theories help soothe their easily injured egos.

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Ironically, it's also their inheritances that give them traction with the conspiracy crowd. Conspiracists love to center celebrities in their storytelling because it adds to the sense of self-importance that they crave. There's a reason that QAnon, for instance, folded in Hollywood celebrities to their nonsense about blood-drinking pedophile rings. It adds drama to a narrative that would be less exciting than if it were about, say, random people in the neighborhood. Trump's celebrity is attractive to those folks, but when it comes to both fame and prestige, "former reality TV host" pales in comparison to being an actual member of the Kennedy family. 

In fact, a large subset of QAnon is so desperate to steal the honor of the Kennedys that they already circulate conspiracy theories claiming that John F. Kennedy Jr. is still alive and about to make a comeback, as Trump's running mate. What's going on there isn't mysterious. Even the QAnoners know, on some level, that Trump is a grubby embarrassment. Pretending that he's got some connection to the lionized Kennedy family is about gracing him with some class and prestige he could never achieve on his own. But now those people have a chance to vote for an actual Kennedy, instead of trying too hard to round Trump up to a Kennedy-like figure. Granted, it means ignoring that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has nothing in common with his forebears, except his name, but that's an easier mental lift than trying to pretend President Tiny Fingers is some great hero. 

Granted, there are conspiracy theorists on both sides of the aisle in American politics and always have been. But it's long been worse on the right than the left, going back to the days of the John Birch Society spreading paranoia about fluoridated water. In recent years, however, the disproportions have grown even more extreme. The Democratic party has become a haven for reality-based people, including some former Republicans who want a politics based on reason and evidence. 

Meanwhile, the GOP has increasingly branded itself as a conspiracy theory party, and not just because of Trump. After all, the Iraq War was justified with President George W. Bush deceiving the public about "weapons of mass destruction," while presiding over a party that denied climate change, promoted creationism, and regularly spread disinformation about LGBTQ people and reproductive health care. House Republicans are on the precipe of making Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, their Speaker, a man whose entire claim to fame is how he treats the truth like an enemy to be vanquished. 

Right now, polling data is all over the place on whether Kennedy would be a spoiler for Trump or Biden. But that's because a lot of people aren't tuned in yet, and don't have any clue that Kennedy's penchant for conspiracy theories has turned him into GOP fellow traveler. As voters learn more, Kennedy's almost certainly going to lose his already weak Democratic support while turning a few heads among Republican voters, especially the 25% who are QAnoners. The party leadership on both sides seems to get this. It's why Democrats are shrugging Kennedy off, while the RNC sent out a panicked email titled, "23 Reasons to Oppose RFK Jr."

Couldn't have happened to nicer people, of course. Republicans have spent decades increasingly leveraging disinformation and tapping into the ego needs of conspiracy theorists, all to retain support their unpopular policies can't get them. But the problem with dealing with kooks is they are unpredictable and hard to control. The MAGA movement spent months feeding Kennedy's ego, hoping they could weaponize his narcissism. Instead, his head grew so big that he decided he can get what he wants out of this, without having to play second fiddle in the conspiracy theory wars to Trump. 

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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