Few serious people think Robert F. Kennedy Jr. will be elected president of the United States in 2024. The nephew of President John F. Kennedy and the namesake of his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, who was also assassinated (six years later in 1968), is at this moment the main rival for the Democratic nomination to President Joe Biden. The Democratic race is not set up to allow Biden’s defeat. There will be no debates, and the primary rules are all geared to ensure that the process will be a coronation of Biden that will not require him to expose himself to the rigors of campaigning or the scrutiny that attends his every stumble, both literal and figurative.
But even those pundits most dismissive of his efforts are admitting to surprise at the level of support that RFK Jr. is generating, as evidenced by the 20% he received in the latest CNN poll. Some are starting to believe that dismissing him as a crackpot extremist might be a mistake for an incumbent who began his re-election effort with only 26% of Democrats saying they wanted him to run again and with a job-approval rating that’s been deep underwater for the last two years.
That’s why Kennedy’s tweet last week in support of aging rock star/antisemite Roger Waters shouldn’t be ignored.
Though it was soon deleted and the candidate then tried to rationalize what he had written (which was also eventually deleted), it’s worth probing what would have led him to praise Waters after one of his most despicable performances.
Let’s start by noting the irony of Kennedy’s support for someone who is as dedicated to the destruction of Israel and to defaming the Jewish people as Waters. His father was, after all, murdered by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian Arab who claimed that his crime was revenge for Bobby Kennedy’s support for the State of Israel. Though, ignoring all the evidence, RFK Jr. doesn’t believe Sirhan killed his father and wants him freed, a bizarre stand that may, at least in part, help to explain his willingness to embrace Waters.
The timing of the tweet was also appalling.
It came just as Waters was being assailed by critics for a performance in Germany, of all places, where he added images of Anne Frank and dressed in a black costume with red armbands that while reminiscent of his “The Wall” days looked very much like an SS uniform. The Pink Floyd star has long been known for peddling conspiracies involving fictional Israeli crimes against humanity and his hostility to Jews, even as he denies being an antisemite. Not to mention employing antisemitic imagery in his past shows, such as flying a pig balloon with a Star of David.
But his new tour, launched in Berlin, in which he compares Frank to Palestinians allegedly killed by Israel and fires a fake gun, made headlines around the world and caused a new round of denunciations for his offensive conduct. It also generated an investigation from German authorities since in that country any use of Nazi imagery is against the law.
So for Kennedy to tweet what he did was shocking. He wrote: “Roger You are the global hero Orwell had in mind when he said, ‘In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act’ The high priests of the totalitarian orthodoxies are trying to silence you with censorship, gaslighting and defamation. Please keep speaking truth to power!”
After he came under fire for this astonishing whitewash of a flamboyant Jew-hater, Kennedy backtracked, writing: “In my remarks about Roger Waters, I was referring to his dissent on COVID and the war in Ukraine. I have only recently learned about some of his other views, which I do not share.” He then added, “I support Israel’s right to exist within secure borders and I also support the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people.”
His apology lacked credibility.
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To assert being a fan of Waters’ music and still claim ignorance about the musician’s political views is a stretch. To say you know about his views on COVID and Ukraine, but not about his years of anti-Israel smears, doesn’t pass the smell test.
The problem this reveals is that while some aspects of Kennedy’s agenda are resonating with American voters, he is still someone with strong ties to the far left, where hatred for Israel is normative.
RFK Jr. grew up in the media fishbowl in which his famous family lived and he embodied the dysfunction that seemed to stem from their tragic history. His youthful run-ins with the law, drug problems involving cocaine and heroin, as well as claims that he was repeatedly guilty of philandering during her first two marriages would, in a different era of American politics, rule him out of consideration for a run for high office. However, after Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, we can’t say that anymore.
Kennedy’s adult life has been spent pursuing environmental activism, and more lately, promoting opposition to vaccines. His advocacy for clean air and water put him in the mainstream, but his willingness to advocate for the false theory that vaccines caused autism put him squarely out of it.
Until the pandemic, his life was better known for its soap-opera aspects. He became a different type of celebrity once he emerged as a leading critic of government coronavirus policies.
Not everything he has said on the topic should be believed, and his comments about vaccines being dangerous still tend to be conspiratorial. Still, like many other skeptics of the lockdowns, school closures, mask mandates and vaccine requirements were proven to be closer to the truth than a lot of what we heard in 2020 and 2021 from authority figures, like former chief medical advisor to the president Dr. Anthony Fauci, about whom Kennedy wrote a highly critical bestselling book.
That has given Kennedy a degree of credibility few would have thought he could ever achieve a few years ago. In addition to that, his opposition to the Biden administration’s blind commitment to an endless and unwinnable war in Ukraine also resonates with many Americans. Though he and others who believe the U.S. priority should be working to end a destructive war rather than to ensure it goes on indefinitely are smeared as stooges of Russian President Vladimir Putin (whose brutal and illegal invasion started it), his stand is far more popular than the Washington establishment would like to believe.
His pushback against the COVID authoritarianism and the government/Big Tech censorship of dissent that was rampant under both Trump and Biden, as well as his stand on Ukraine, resonate precisely because the D.C. establishment isn’t interested in these issues. His effort to also focus attention on the plight of America’s working class, which has been impoverished by the impact of open borders and illegal immigration—and ravaged by the opioid epidemic as well as Wall Street’s focus on sending jobs overseas—gives him traction outside of Washington.
Kennedy is a lone voice on these issues in his own Democratic Party, but the same concerns are working to create a realignment in American politics as more Republicans are appealing to working-class votes while Democrats have become the darlings of Wall Street.
This realignment has also meant that some anti-establishment figures on the left, like journalist Matt Taibbi, who helped expose Twitter’s past censorship policies, are now seen as in tune with the political right. While conservatives who cheer their new allies on these issues are overwhelmingly pro-Israel, that is not true of people like Kennedy and Taibbi, who also defended Waters last week.
Though he’s running as a Democrat, Kennedy’s views on big government overreach, Ukraine and the need to defend the interests of a working class that the establishments of both parties have written off, do resonate on the right and with many centrist Democrats. But what must be remembered is that many left-wingers who have turned on their party’s leadership on these realigning issues retain their ideological ties to the intersectional beliefs that prevail on the left.
That explains why Kennedy’s first instinct was to defend Waters when he came under fire for his latest acts of provocative antisemitism. Though some may be willing to embrace him for pushing back against the establishment, the 69-year-old remains a figure of the radical left on a host of other issues. That inevitably places him in the category of someone who, at best, can’t be relied upon to support the U.S.-Israel alliance. Anyone looking to cast a protest vote against Biden that won’t be tainted by such views needs to look elsewhere.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.