Trump learns the truth about RFK Jr. the hard way

Robert Kennedy Jr.'s campaign is backfiring on MAGA

By Heather Digby Parton


Published May 20, 2024 9:00AM (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)

For many months former president Donald Trump's henchmen pushed the candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as an agent of chaos and a boon to Trump's latest bid for the presidency. Salon's Amanda Marcotte presciently called out their strategy in a piece last May titled "Of course Steve Bannon and Alex Jones love RFK Jr. — he's a great weapon for their war on reality." At that time Kennedy was running in the Democratic primary and it was easy to dismiss the right-wing "support" from the likes of Bannon and Jones as well as from former Trump admirer and QANON adherent Michael Flynn, Turning Point USA's Charlie Kirk and Trump henchman Roger Stone as partisan mischief. But it was more than that.

They touted Kennedy as a perfect Trump running mate; a "dream ticket" ostensibly to attract low information, liberal anti-vaxxers and environmentalists to the GOP. Bannon worked this idea hard, suggesting that a Trump-Kennedy ticket would win in a landslide. In one of his podcasts last spring he told his audience that when MAGA crowds heard him say that Kennedy would be an excellent choice for Trump's running mate, he would get a standing ovation. (Kennedy denies that they ever spoke about it.)

Unfortunately for the Trumpers, their tactics appear to have backfired. 

In the beginning, Trump was very complimentary, calling Kennedy a "very smart guy, and a good guy. He’s a common-sense guy, and so am I. So, whether you’re conservative or liberal, common sense is common sense.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, while he was still in the primary, said that he would appoint the conspiracy theorist, anti-vaxxer to run the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Even Tucker Carlson declared that Kennedy was not an extremist, extolling his character as "deeply insightful and above all honest." House Republicans called him to Capitol Hill to testify about censorship (because Twitter had banned him for spewing dangerous vaccine disinformation.) They all just loved the guy. 

When Kennedy dropped out of the Democratic primary to run as an independent, many political pundits assumed that it was yet another disaster for the Biden campaign. Kennedy had been garnering around 15 to 20 percent in the primary polls and the glittering Kennedy name was considered a massive draw among Democratic voters. If he could hold that 15 percent in a general election, Trump could win. So maybe that bizarre Trump-Kennedy ticket wasn't going to happen but Bannon looked like a hero in that moment for drawing Kennedy into the race anyway. 

It would be poetic justice if Steve Bannon putting an anti-vax conspiracy theorist into the mix proved to be Trump's undoing.

But then a funny thing happened. Right after he announced his independent bid, NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist conducted a poll that found Biden beating Trump by 49 to 46%, but when Kennedy entered the mix, Biden's lead over Trump jumped to 7 points (Biden lost 5 points, but Trump lost 10). It turns out that the "common sense guy" who pushes a raft of conspiracy theories is more appealing to the right than the left. Who could have guessed? 

In case you're wondering, here's a very small sample of his cracked beliefs. In addition to his decades-long disinformation campaign against vaccines, Kennedy has also claimed that antidepressants cause mass shootings and that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a CIA operation. He promises to seal the U.S.-Mexico border permanently and thinks that kids are swimming through a soup of toxic chemicals that cause them to become transgender. He thinks 5G cell towers are going to control our behavior and Bill Gates wants to genetically modify humanity. That's just for starters. It stands to reason that he would be popular among Republicans. They "do their own research" too. 

That polling has not changed in the intervening months. A recent NBC poll showed that Trump leads Biden by two points but with Kennedy in the race, Biden leads by the same number. Trump's favorite pollster, John McLaughlin, showed an even more alarming result among Independents. In the head-to-head, they preferred Biden by 4 points. But with Kennedy on the ballot, it's Biden 29 percent, Kennedy 23 percent and Trump at 22 percent. All of this explains why Donald Trump has suddenly gone on the offensive against Kennedy in a big way. 

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Trump first tried to spin this on a Truth Social video by saying that Kennedy has “got some nice things about him” and “I happen to like him," but he's really "more in line with Democrats" and he believes that he "will do very well" and take a lot of votes from Biden. He offered that if he were a Democrat he would vote for him. That's what passes for subtlety from Donald Trump.

But those numbers must be getting worse because now he's taken off the gloves and poor junior isn't a nice guy after all.

In one of his most "up-is-down" rants ever, Trump filmed another Truth Social video claiming that RFK Jr. is a "Democratic plant" and a "Radical Left Liberal who’s been put in place in order to help Crooked Joe Biden, the Worst President in the History of the United States, get Re-Elected." As we've seen, if he's a plant he's a Republican plant, coaxed into the race by Steve Bannon and Roger Stone. And Trump actually had the audacity to issue one of the most ridiculous whoppers ever: He said that Kennedy isn't a real anti-vaxxer:

You think he’s an anti-vaxxer, he’s not really an anti-vaxxer. That’s only his political moment. He said the other night he’s okay with a vaccine. RFK’s views on vaccines are fake, as is everything else about his candidacy.

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Say what you will about RFK Jr, but he is the nation's foremost anti-vaxxer and has been for many years. If that's your jam, he's the real deal. Trump, on the other hand, is the guy who is yearning to take credit for the COVID vaccines but he can't because he gets booed by his cult followers. He's the fake anti-vaxxer. 

Trump sounded uncharacteristically desperate at the NRA convention on Saturday slamming Kennedy again, saying that he calls the NRA a terrorist group and comparing him to a fly that was driving him crazy. 

There's no way of knowing if Kennedy will get on the ballot in all the swing states or if people will actually vote for him or one of the other third party candidates in November. It would be better not to have them running when the stakes are so high. But it would be poetic justice if Steve Bannon putting an anti-vax conspiracy theorist into the mix proved to be Trump's undoing. Live by the rat-f***k, die by the rat-f***k. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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