Election 2024

Do Conservatives Actually Like RFK Jr., or Do They Just Think He'll Hurt Biden?

Democrats spent tens of millions of dollars last year's midterms meddling in Republican primaries. Republicans may now be borrowing a page from their playbook.


After announcing he would challenge President Joe Biden for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. saw a burst of popularity, polling as high as 21 percent. More notable than a Kennedy polling well among Democrats, however, might be that RFK Jr. has received substantial support from figures on the right. This raises the question of whether that support is sincere.

"Dismissing Robert F. Kennedy Jr. might be a mistake," Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote at National Review, arguing that Kennedy could "revive left-leaning skepticism of government and corporate power" and "denounce crony capitalism, censorship, and the CIA to boot." Tucker Carlson said of Kennedy on his Fox News show, "it's nice to have a truth teller around."

Former George W. Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully went further this week, describing Kennedy in National Review as a fearless iconoclast. "The source of Kennedy's troubles is a chronic inability to tolerate the intellectual dishonesty he finds in his antagonists," Scully wrote. "He would fully recover, returning to the life of liberal accolades he once knew, if only he didn't have so much integrity."

As Reason's Matt Welch has written, Kennedy has a long and shameful history of authoritarian pronouncements, including stating that his political opponents should be arrested and dissenting corporations "given the death penalty." Kennedy also praised Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez as the "kind of leader my father and President Kennedy were looking for."

And that's to say nothing of what became Kennedy's signature issue for nearly two decades: a full-scale opposition to vaccines that only intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the years, he has repeatedly compared vaccination to Nazi experiments, including using the term "holocaust."

Scully huffs that tarring Kennedy as a conspiracy theorist or an anti-vaxxer is "lazy and slanderous, telling us nothing about the merits of his arguments or about what has or has not actually been 'debunked.'" However, Kennedy's long-held insistence that there is a causal link between childhood vaccinations and autism spectrum disorder has been debunked. Kennedy's prediction that Bill Gates would design a COVID-19 vaccine with a microchip, ushering in a cashless society, has also proved incorrect. He has further claimed, without evidence, that 5G wireless signals "could have almost unimaginably devastating impacts on our health [and] environment"; and that they will enable insidious forces to "harvest our data and control our behavior."

During the pandemic, many conservatives turned against vaccines, both the companies that make them and the people who mandate we take them. But there is another issue that puts Kennedy and the right at odds.

Last year, National Review—in whose pages Dougherty and Scully gushed over Kennedy's refreshing seriousness—published a staff editorial claiming, "The U.S. should have zero hesitation to make use of its energy resources," summing it up with, "Drill, baby, drill!" And in July 2022, Carlson said on his Fox show, "Fossil fuels are the only thing that make the United States a rich country and not a poor country."

Kennedy, meanwhile, served on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's commission on hydraulic fracturing, better known as "fracking"; the commission successfully lobbied Cuomo to ban the practice. In 2016, Kennedy secretly lobbied New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to impose a "corporate death penalty" by terminating ExxonMobil's authority to operate within the state. Kennedy's campaign website promises that his platform will include "curbing mining, logging, oil drilling, and suburban sprawl."

So, why would conservatives support a leftist with whom they agree on exactly one issue?

Last year, groups aligned with Democrats spent tens of millions of dollars boosting illiberal Republican primary candidates to sabotage moderate Republicans who would've had a better chance of winning a general election. Those fringe Republicans won their respective primaries but lost to Democrats in the November general elections. The practice was controversial even within the party: Thirty-five former Democratic elected officials condemned the tactic during the primary season, calling it "destructive" and "risky and unethical."

Perhaps Republicans are now boosting Kennedy—an eco-warrior who wants to jail his opponents and shut down companies that disagree with him—not out of a sincere desire to see him prevail but to weaken Joe Biden. Or maybe jailing opponents and shutting down dissident companies are now tenets of American conservatism.

Kennedy's actual viability in a Democratic primary is anyone's guess, but he is already polling better against Biden than any of President Donald Trump's intraparty challengers did in 2020.