Cross-posted at my new Substack – please check it out and become a free subscriber. – Kindler
Political movements can adapt and evolve just like bacteria, viruses and fruit flies and will for the same reason – to survive and multiply. Expect Trump’s MAGA movement, for all it may appear stupid and self-defeating, to follow the same logic. All Big Lies aside, the smart ones know that they lost the last three national elections and must somehow expand their base in order to have a shot at winning again.
With this in mind, keep a wary eye on the “presidential campaign” of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Needless to say, he has no chance whatsoever of winning the Democratic nomination. But it should be just as self-evident that’s not what he’s running for.
What then is the purpose of Bobby Junior’s campaign? To put the matter in perspective, let’s start with this passage from Brandy Zadrozny’s profile of him for NBC News:
“The early big-name proponents of his presidential bid are a hodgepodge of contrarians, including fired Fox News host Tucker Carlson; former Trump adviser Steve Bannon; conspiracy theorist radio host Alex Jones; Twitter co-founder and bitcoin enthusiast Jack Dorsey; former Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers; and David Talbot, a longtime friend and the founder of Salon.”
How open-minded and bipartisan of Steve Bannon, Alex Jones, Tucker Carlson and Roger Stone (also on board though not mentioned here) to be so supportive of a “progressive Democrat”! Clearly these guys have all mellowed in their old age, right?
Uh, no, the much more plausible explanation is that these utterly cynical, self-interested, unscrupulous opportunists, who would throw their own grandmothers – or at least yours — under a bus as needed, are smelling a golden opportunity in the form of a rich Kennedy.
Remember, what these Trumpsters truly excel at is destructive propaganda to market products and people that benefit themselves to everyone else’s misery. I see at least four ways in which supporting Bobby Jr. can help them fulfill their awful ambitions:
- Increase public confusion, apathy, anger and cynicism through greater exposure to conspiracy theories, to further lower barriers to non-stop MAGA distortions of reality.
- Use him as a gateway drug to pull Democrats and Democratically leaning independents out of the progressive fold and into the Republican dark side, or at least get them to drop out of voting altogether.
- Prep Bobby Jr. as a Trump VP candidate or at least campaign surrogate and future Cabinet member.
- Wreak havoc and multiply distractions in the path to Biden’s re-election.
The last three are basically the sorts of political gamesmanship with which we all have some familiarity, and I therefore will spend most of my time on the first prospect, which is much more insidious and worthy of attention.
Playing Conspiracy Theory Politics
The totalitarian style of political propaganda had not been a major factor in American politics before Trump began capitalizing on the “birther” lie against Barack Obama in 2011. Certainly, the foundation had been laid for such dark disinformation campaigns, with test cases such as climate change denial, NRA myths that the government is coming for your guns and Karl Rove’s despicable Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry – all of those Big Lies amplified by Fox “News” and its imitators.
But few before Trump were shameless enough to treat facts as utterly disposable and irrelevant, and to repeat lies literally thousands of times AFTER they had been thoroughly disproven and debunked. This is not only aberrant behavior in a democracy, it indicates a war upon our very system of self-government, because democratic elections require an informed electorate – not one thoroughly detached from reality.
Conspiracy theories play an outsized role in totalitarian-style propaganda. Most people, not being academic intellectuals, are not persuaded by the cold recitation of facts and statistics but prefer to be told stories. Stories with heroes and villains, the latter hiding in the shadows or disguised as trusted authority figures, the latter maybe not having emerged yet – so they could end up being one of us regular folks galloping to the rescue. These often-ridiculous morality plays simplify actual reality by stripping out all inconvenient details and making all the pieces add up in ways that fits one’s prior assumptions (as in “I knew Hillary was evil, so of course she’s leading a nefarious plot to kidnap and eat children!”).
Like other kinds of dishonest propaganda, conspiracy theories are a power play over supporters’ minds – an attempt to create a seamless new reality for them to live in, under the control of the manipulator(s) in charge. This is why conspiracy theorists relentlessly work to discredit legitimate sources of truth, including every possible expert or researcher, be they scientific, academic, journalistic, or governmental. No one must be allowed to challenge their warped version of the world in which, much like cult leaders, they aim to keep their followers captive.
And make no mistake – Bobby Jr. is a world-class conspiracy theorist. That is basically his profession at this point. Even as I was writing this piece, more examples came to light – most notoriously, his statement, caught on camera, that COVID-19 was bioengineered to spare Jews and Chinese.
RFK Jr. is best known for his disinformation campaigns against vaccines – for years spreading false narratives about vaccines causing autism (very well debunked by Naomi Klein in The Guardian) and more recently taking advantage of our recent pandemic trauma to spread howlers about COVID vaccines, including the one about Bill Gates somehow using vaccination to, um, implant microchips in people’s bodies.
He also recently doubled down on speaking as Putin’s mouthpiece over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, claiming that Russia “acted in good faith” in seeking peace treaties in which Putin only sought to “protect [the] ethnic Russian population” of the Donbas region and to “denazify” Ukraine’s government – which even Fox host Piers Morgan had to point out was an incredibly offensive and ridiculous thing to say about a government led by a Jewish man, Volodymyr Zelensky.
You can just about name any prominent conspiracy theory and find someplace where Bobby Jr. promoted it. Chemtrails? Yep. 5G? Yep. But those who consider him an environmentalist may be surprised to learn that he is also an enthusiastic promoter of the fossil fuel industry funded propaganda that the climate crisis is a vast hyped-up conspiracy: “Because climate has become a crisis like Covid that the Davos groups and other totalitarian elements in our society have used as a pretext for clamping down totalitarian controls.”
MAGA’s Last Stand
Okay, you may be asking: why does any of this matter if this dude has no chance of winning the Democratic nomination? But that is the wrong frame with which to approach the question of the RFK Jr. campaign. After Trump won one election in 2016 by Electoral votes only, and lost the next three for his party, it is certainly obvious to Roger Stone, Steve Bannon and the like that the MAGA base must find a way to expand or die.
Now, as becoming reasonable and moderate is not an option (duh!), arguably the best place for them to look for help is among the outer fringes of the far left. This is not a dumb approach. Particularly during the scrambled politics of the pandemic, subgroups normally considered to lean left have been brought into the anti-vaxxer fold, e.g., certain alternative medicine and lifestyle gurus.
Those on the extremes of the far left have also flirted with other key parts of the MAGA platform, including embracing the Russian position on Ukraine as well as on Putin’s interference in US elections. Alleged lefties like Tulsi Gabbard and Glenn Greewald managed to migrate all the way over to the Tucker Carlson wing of the GOP, appearing on his now-deceased show.
So it is not far-fetched for MAGA schemers to try to lure more lefties to follow that path, jumping from one end of the horseshoe to the other. As Naomi Klein notes, Bobby Jr. could appeal to some progressives with his rhetoric by “tapping into a wellspring of real pain and outrage…a great many voters are hurting and rightfully angry: about powerful corporations controlling their democracy and profiting off disease and poverty. About endless wars draining national coffers and maiming their kids. About stagnating wages and soaring costs.”
In other words, he plays right into the same sort of phony “populism” that Trump has so successfully tapped, taking regular folks’ real anger and redirecting it against convenient bogeymen – rather than directing it toward practical solutions that could actually help any of those angry people in any way, as real populists would do.
So, a lefty fake populism to match and merge with Trump’s on the right could be a real shot in the arm to the MAGA movement (even if, well, these guys don’t much like shots in the arm). But the benefit for Republicans need not even consist of progressives holding their noses and pulling the lever for the GOP. Lefties just need to be turned away from the Democrats in disgust.
Stir enough anger and cynicism among folks on the left that they stay home or vote for another stupid third-party candidate (as has doomed us before) or just endlessly hurl bile and invective against Democrats trying to beat back the MAGA fascists and…it could be enough to put Republicans back in power.
I’m not saying that this scenario is foreordained or likely, just that these are the types of tactics and math that we should be considering when it comes to the RFK Jr. challenge – not his odds of beating Biden in a primary but the odds of his turning enough of the far left away from Democrats to make a difference. And it’s also about more than just one election, as the more Americans turn away from reality to conspiracy theory land, the more our democracy suffers from an ill-informed and mentally twisted electorate.
So tempting as it may be to ignore Bobby Jr., I would recommend that Democrats keep an eye on him and the MAGA dirty tricksters attempting to prop up his campaign. There’s too much at stake to allow the Crackpot of Camelot to lead us down another dark alley.