Robert Kennedy Jr. Is a Flawed Heretic

Robert Kennedy Jr. Is a Flawed Heretic

Robert Kennedy Jr. Is a Flawed Heretic

But on security and Ukraine, he’s making more sense than the crackpot establishment.


The framers of our Constitution understood that democracy is incompatible with imperium abroad.… John Quincy Adams spoke for all of them when he said that ‘America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.’”

With these words, standing on a stage festooned with five American flags at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, Democratic presidential aspirant, Robert Kennedy Jr. called for this country to end its forever wars, and choose a “radically different path” towards peace, restraint abroad and rebuilding at home.

Scion of political royalty with a troubled past, a former environmental attorney, anti-vaccine crank, Kennedy has been dismissed by the liberal establishment and the mainstream media—largely because of his role attacking not just Covid vaccines but a broad array of childhood inoculations, and his willingness to traffic other assorted fantasies of the conspiratorial right.

But on this night, Kennedy offered a common sense too rare in our political discourse

His voice a signature rasp, Kennedy spoke more like a teacher than a politician, offering logic rather than rhetorical flourish. He grounded his presentation in “my uncle’s”—President John F. Kennedy’s—historic American University address of 60 years ago, in which JFK called on Americans to put themselves in Russia’s shoes and understand that it, too, had legitimate security concerns and it, too, wanted to avoid catastrophic war. President Kennedy announced that he would seek a nuclear test ban treaty and that the US would not be the first to test again.

Robert Kennedy Jr. segued to the war in Ukraine, arguing that while he “abhorred’” the “brutal and bloody” Russian invasion of Ukraine, we should understand that “our government has also contributed to its circumstances,” criticizing both Democratic and Republican administrations for extending NATO to Russia’s borders, something he noted that we would never tolerate if it occurred on our borders. Worse, he warned, the US has now raised the stakes in Ukraine, with Biden and others suggesting that the US goal was not simply self-defense but “regime change in Russia, disabling and exhausting the Russian military, dismembering the Russian federation.” Ukraine, Kennedy said, has been turned into a “pawn in a proxy war between the US and Russia.” And as that war escalates, the dangers of a direct conflict and of nuclear war increase. He once more invoked JFK, arguing that his uncle understood that nuclear powers should never be forced to choose between humiliating retreat or nuclear war.

Kennedy argued that the US has become “addicted to comic book good vs. evil narratives,” with constant belligerence and repeated military confrontations, “none of which has made us safer.” Violence, he argued, has overtaken us within our own borders—just as the founders warned. The “wages of war,” he argued, include our “decaying economic infrastructure, our demoralized people, toxins in our air, soil and water, deteriorating mental and physical health.” He called on our “present leadership” to start de-escalating, to reach out to Russia, to exercise restraint, and avoid hostile rhetoric. He urged every person to join in a new peace movement.

Kennedy’s speech got no attention in the mainstream media. The strategy of the Democratic Party establishment, all in behind President Biden, with no plans for any primary debates, is simply to ignore Kennedy and other challengers. Party unity is necessary, they argue—because Trump, abortion, the whole Republican madhouse. Progressive leaders have for the most part acceded to this argument, since Biden has been a better president than most expected, breaking with the neoliberalism of his Democratic predecessors, launching new initiatives to rebuild the country, revive US R&D and restore manufacturing, while addressing climate change and curbing corporate excesses.

Those reforms, however, do little to address the deep anger of voters who rightly feel the system is rigged against them. Big money dominates our politics. Corporations and billionaires profit from disease and corruption. Wars that never end consume resources while leaving human wreckage in their wake. Wages stagnate as the costs of basics—health care, housing, and education—rise unchecked. Trump mined that anger in 2016 and 2020, while carrying out a failed conservative agenda. But even in his rhetoric, Biden fails to relate to that anger.

The current Democratic lockdown slights the political energy that has been building since Occupy and Black Lives Matter through the Sanders campaigns. Biden’s pragmatic reforms are a far remove from the dramatic change championed by those movements: the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, debt forgiveness, empowering of workers, a bold challenge to systemic racism and more. And on foreign policy, Biden has lurched into a new cold war with both China and Russia, continued the forever wars (even after withdrawing finally from Afghanistan), and signed on to the mindless expansion of our bloated military.

Kennedy, as Naomi Klein has detailed, is a flawed and slippery heretic seeking to occupy that vacuum. Far better at the indictment than the agenda, he condemns the corruption of Big Pharma and our preposterous health care system, but offers the pablum of a “public option,” instead of Medicare for All—which he says is impractical (the same line taken by Biden in 2020). He is forceful in describing the corruption of big money in our politics, but says he will “play by the rules as they exist,” refusing to take a knife to a gun fight. He has a credible record as an environmental champion, but now risibly suggests that the free market is the answer to the climate catastrophe.

Despite all this, a May CNN poll shows Kennedy supported by 20 percent Democratic-leaning voters, while a majority of Democrats still indicate that they wish Biden would not run. Much of Kennedy’s initial support may well derive from name recognition and nostalgia, but the political support for a candidate who talks about radical reform—even one with controversial ideas and inconsistent ideology—is stronger than most pundits think. And Kennedy, if his June 20 speech in New Hampshire is any indication, is working to tap into that support. He may be a nut, but on security and Ukraine he’s making more sense than the crackpot establishment.

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