Robert F. Kennedy Jr. attends a Cesar Chavez Day event at Union Station in Los Angeles, March 30, 2024

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RFK Jr. Isn’t a Spoiler

He’s a legitimate presidential contender who wrestles with real questions and inspires hope, in the face of well-organized and well-funded efforts to destroy him

Teddy Macker
April 16, 2024
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. attends a Cesar Chavez Day event at Union Station in Los Angeles, March 30, 2024

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Outside Union Station in Los Angeles on the Saturday before Easter a small group of people display signs protesting Robert Kennedy Jr. The presidential hopeful is at the train station holding a campaign event celebrating “the life and legacy” of civil rights and labor leader Cesar Chavez.

The protesters outside the station do not speak. The signs—seemingly written by one hand—tend to share a theme: Kennedy is a “spoiler powered by MAGA.” As people stream into the venue, the station’s retired ticket concourse, the protesters—Black and middle-aged—hold their signs with visible unease. When I ask one of the protesters what brought him to the event, he simply turns his sign toward me. Disquietingly, two people nearby in full face coverings stand against the station watching the sign-holders. Something in the body language of these two suggest they are the managers of what appears to be a staged protest.

Inside the vast, high-ceilinged concourse—part art deco, part mission revival—people don campaign buttons, eat chicken skewers, order drinks. Volunteers talk to passersby about getting Kennedy on the ballot in California. Short-haired bodyguards stand sentinel, aware, no doubt, that 56 years ago Kennedy’s father, Robert Kennedy, during his own run for the White House, was assassinated a few miles away at the bygone Ambassador Hotel. Members of an all-female mariachi band strum their instruments and sing their songs, paper flowers in their hair. Journalists, cordoned off in the back, scroll through iPhones, reposition cameras, type on laptops. Sunlight falls through the large cathedrallike windows onto the station’s shiny floor.

When I ask a white man in his 30s—Garrett B.—what brought him to the event, he says he appreciates Kennedy’s “earnestness,” “respectable bloodline,” and that he is “against corruption.” A Latino man in his 20s came to the event because “no one is policing the different realms of government.” A Latina in her 50s, there with her elderly mother (who would later repeatedly utter “yes” as Kennedy spoke), says she likes Kennedy because he is “neutral around all the party politics” and has “been through a lot and is stronger because of it.”

When I strike up a conversation with an older man wearing a ball cap (“Make Earth Great Again”) in the back of the crowd, he informs me that he served on the United Farm Workers board for many years and worked closely with Cesar Chavez. This man’s name is Oscar Mondragon. When I ask Mondragon what brought him to the event, he says “my heart is with this campaign.” Then he speaks about the Kennedy family’s relationship with Chavez and Robert Kennedy Jr.’s own work on behalf of those in need.

I ask Mondragon, who now works in support of day laborers and housekeepers in Los Angeles, what he thought of the Chavez family’s recent disavowal of Kennedy’s candidacy. He responds by saying Chavez’s granddaughter works for the Biden campaign. When I ask Mondragon his thoughts on Kennedy’s negative press, he says he doesn’t spend much time following the news. “The press is about who owns it, that’s all.” They’re trying to “position him as a spoiler,” he adds, but “he may end up being the real guy.” Mondragon says to me, “If Chavez were alive, he’d be right here.”

The extreme resistance Kennedy elicits within the DNC—and by extension much of the mainstream media—arguably reveals something large moving beneath the surface of our politics.

Once the preliminaries are dispensed with, the presidential candidate steps onstage before a full crowd. Standing with a hipshot stance, in a dark suit, with his square shoulders and large hands, Kennedy is less blue-blooded Hyannis Port sprezzatura and more Sicilian boxer on his wedding day. Kennedy proceeds to speak extemporaneously, without notes or a teleprompter, with his rickety-voiced aplomb. When not speaking, Kennedy sometimes nods his head minutely, an effect perhaps of his spasmodic dysphonia.

Kennedy has been criticized for bowling over listeners with torrents of language. This is an understandable criticism. While speaking about his parents’ close relationship with Chavez and his own relationship with Chavez, the torrent, at times, is buffeting. Names, dates, anecdotes, and mid-sentence digressions pour forth, as he speaks in a somewhat muddled way about Robert and Ethel Kennedy helping Chavez conclude hunger strikes by personally serving Chavez communion. We also hear about how Robert Kennedy Jr. himself worked with the United Farm Workers on dozens of campaigns. At times, one can’t help but feel Kennedy is straining overmuch to prove his Chavez bona fides. Or perhaps the strain mainly reveals honest gratitude. Kennedy recalls how his father wouldn’t have won the state of California (which he did the night he was killed) without the political organization of Cesar Chavez.

In this part of his speech Kennedy also touches on his immigration policy of “tall fences and wide gates,” a policy he has stated before. According to Kennedy, the “tall fences” would curb an unrestricted flow of immigrants, which he sees as a humanitarian crisis for the immigrants because of horrors endured on their journeys and once they arrive, and an equal crisis for American citizens whose towns and cities are being overwhelmed. The “wide gates,” Kennedy says, would sponsor a more orderly migration, suited to the needs of citizens and immigrants both. Such a vision, Kennedy states, is aligned with that of Chavez who reportedly decried unrestricted immigration as it rendered undocumented migrants easy prey to unscrupulous employers, and harmed the livelihoods of the California field workers Chavez sought to protect.

Moving on from Chavez, Kennedy turns his attention to the predicament of Latinos in our country, a group which, he says, is suffering the consequences of a deteriorating middle class. “Fifty-seven percent of Americans cannot put their hands on a thousand dollars if they have an emergency.”

Commenting on the other two candidates, Presidents Biden and Trump, and their purported blindness to such straits, Kennedy offers a metaphor. The other candidates, he says, are overly concerned with small waves on the surface (which are the culture wars, Kennedy adds). Meanwhile, underneath these smaller waves, underneath the surface of our nation, great unspoken currents move—“currents that are sweeping our country away.” Both other candidates, despite differences in temperament, personality, and rhetoric, are in fact similar, Kennedy argues, for both ignore our country’s “existential problems.” Tweaking his maritime metaphor, Kennedy says the other two candidates are merely “changing deck chairs on the Titanic … and the ship is sinking.”

Kennedy names the alleged unspoken existential problems: our $34 trillion debt, the damaging merger of state and corporate power, our declining health, the war machine. Speaking about these issues, Kennedy’s power is plain. His varied knowledge, his chapter-and-verse exactitude, his considerable capacity for bird’s-eye-view synthesis, his knack for haunting quips (“When I was a kid the Democrats were the antiwar party and the Republicans were the war party. Today they’re both the war party”), and his willingness to step outside the bounds of acceptable discourse and reveal the dark side of our empire (especially insofar as Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Tech, and the military industrial complex), thereby speaking realities that are felt by many but often insufficiently acknowledged—these traits rouse the crowd filling the old ticket concourse to impassioned applause.

Kennedy—sweating, his arms moving in an unrehearsed way—is now firing on all cylinders. Soon, a staffer motions to Kennedy to wrap things up (he apparently has a press conference following the event). Perhaps aware that he’s on a roll, Kennedy, with playful warmth, literally thumbs his nose at the staffer, and continues on.

Toward the end of his speech, Kennedy criticizes the latest iteration of the Democratic Party, linking the protesters outside the train station to the party’s efforts to vanquish him. Of the Democratic Party, he says: “They’re ending democracy in order to save it … this is the kind of cognitive dissonance they want us to swallow.”

Since Kennedy launched his presidential campaign in March of 2023, he has often been called a “long-shot candidate” and “conspiracy theorist.” Now he is often called a “spoiler.” And recently the DNC has taken to bankrolling powerful people to derail him. On March 20, 2024, Gabriel Debenedetti wrote in New York Magazine:

In recent weeks, the Democratic National Committee has built a unit dedicated to monitoring and responding to third-party candidates. The effort, overseen by longtime senior strategist Mary Beth Cahill and led by veteran operative Ramsey Reid, with strategist Nick Bauer and comms [sic] work from Lis Smith, recently added Matt Corridoni, a frequent deputy to Smith … Simultaneously, former Biden deputy campaign manager Pete Kavanuagh launched Clear Choice, a super-PAC whose goal is to help liberals coordinate their efforts to minimize third-party candidates’ political influence by the fall. Rather than planning a big negative-ad campaign now, the push is intended to organize … to mount legal challenges to third-party campaigns’ attempts to get on ballots, and to research the candidates’ pasts.

The extreme resistance Kennedy elicits within the DNC—and by extension much of the mainstream media—arguably reveals something large moving beneath the surface of our politics. The DNC and mainstream media (and to a lesser extent, for now at least, the RNC) make Kennedy out to be an untethered fringe figure few take seriously. Polling does not support this contention. For example, various polls in the last months show Kennedy having the highest favorability rating among the presidential candidates.

According to research firm YouGov:

Third-party presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., is among the best-liked figures in national politics. 45% of Americans have a very or somewhat favorable opinion of him, while 34% have an unfavorable opinion, according to the latest Economist/YouGov Poll. Among 16 political figures included in the poll … only Donald Trump is viewed favorably by as many Americans. And 50% view Trump unfavorably. Everyone else falls short of Kennedy’s favorable number …

During Kennedy’s recent uneven “VP announcement” campaign event, a man named Ryan Cole spoke. “When the horse track is muddy,” Cole said, “all horses have a chance to win. Look at where politics is in our nation and our world today. It’s a muddy horse track. Bobby has a great chance ...”

Perhaps the repeated slamming of Kennedy, along with the open formation of powerful groups to research his past and mount legal challenges to prevent him from getting on ballots, will indeed derail his candidacy. Or perhaps the establishment—Democratic and Republican both—is not worried Kennedy is a wacky long-shot spoiler but a taut racehorse on a very muddy track who has a shot at winning.

Within hours of the event in Los Angeles, the Kennedy campaign posts on Twitter a picture of the protesters outside Union Station. In the photograph two wear face coverings; one wears sunglasses; all wear hoods. The campaign also posts a screenshot of a recent job listing on MoveOn, an organization whose homepage says, “This year, MoveOn’s millions of members will help Democrats keep the presidency, hold the Senate, and take back the House!” Under “Position Description” in the job listing one reads: “Senior level political organizer to organize and support institutions and activists to drive campaigns to help inoculate progressive and other non-MAGA constituencies from voting for RFK Jr. …” Among the job’s responsibilities, one reads: “Educate the press and serve as spokesperson to the anti-RFK Jr. efforts across the political ecosystem.”

In this same social media post the Kennedy campaign also states that a staffer, in conversation with these protesters, learned they spoke little English, were homeless, and took the job for the money.

I reached out to MoveOn to learn more about the nature of such a job and as of this writing have not heard back.

Teddy Macker taught literature at UC Santa Barbara for many years. He lives on a farm in Carpinteria, California, with his wife and daughters.