A new threat to American democracy
Published by The i paper (17th July, 2023)
It seems extraordinary that Donald Trump remains the runaway favourite to win the Republican Party nomination for next year’s White House battle. He has lost a rape trial. He became the first former president to face criminal charges – for paying hush money to a porn star, then again for mishandling top-secret intelligence documents. More indictments may follow over his destructive bid to claim the last election was stolen and his ties to the subsequent assault on Congress.
A savage war in Europe exposes the stupidity of his appeasement of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and his confrontational stance on Nato. Yet the Grand Old Party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan remains in thrall to this infantile egotist and his fund-raising abilities.
Trump’s first term was chaotic, played out to the backdrop of a cacophony of abuse and paranoia on social media. Reports suggest his team is already working hard to ensure a second term would be far more focused and transformational, a terrifying prospect for many US allies and Americans. He would almost certainly be running against an incumbent who has been successful on the world stage but is obviously too old for the job while seen as achieving “little or nothing” by almost two-thirds of his electorate.
What a damning indictment of the world’s most important democracy, that hugely energetic nation of 336 million people, that voters may end up with such a pitiful choice between these two geriatrics. Pundits predict Joe Biden would beat Trump, although the race looks tight and the former president’s conviction for a felony would take their politics into unchartered terrain.
The fissures in US democracy are shown even more starkly by a YouGov poll carried out for The Economist last month, which found another candidate in the race with substantially higher favourability ratings than either of the two presidents.
This man bears the most sacred name in Democratic politics and has won prized endorsements from famous celebrities and billionaire technology barons – and yet he is a raging conspiracy theorist who makes Trump look like a bastion of honesty as he fosters antisemitism and pumps out torrents of fake news.
Robert F Kennedy Jr, who was charged with heroin possession in 1983 and later became a respected environmental lawyer, is the fifth member of his clan to run for president. He claims to be flying the flag for their liberal values. Yet in place of the bright optimism associated with his uncle JFK and the shiny era of Camelot, his view of the world is dark and dystopian as he pitches for power by attacking sinister “elites” and establishment cover-ups – despite hailing (like Trump) from one of the nation’s most privileged families.
He is running a guerrilla campaign, which was initially dismissed as a vanity project by a fringe conspiracist, yet polls have shown support running as high as 20 per cent – a frightening reminder of his close friend Biden’s fragility and the electorate’s volatility.
Kennedy’s views are so bizarre, so conspiratorial, that he has been praised by some of the most loathsome figures in the country such as Alex Jones, the talk-show host fined hundreds of millions of dollars for claiming a notorious school shooting was a hoax. Now Kennedy has been accused of antisemitism after saying Covid was a bio-weapon designed to spare Jewish and Chinese people, digging himself deeper into the mire with his attempted clarification.
He has suggested before that chemicals in water turn children transgender, antidepressants can be blamed for school shootings and Wi-Fi causes cancer. And he has spread persistent misinformation about vaccines, including pushing widely discredited links with autism – among key figures, including the struck-off British doctor Andrew Wakefield, dubbed “the band of predators” for cruelly preying on the fears of parents.
Even his own siblings have publicly condemned his corrosive views on vaccines. Yet Kennedy – third child of the charismatic man sharing his name who was shot dead while running for the White House in 1968 – carries on spewing out poisonous nonsense, as seen with the latest furore.
Two months ago, he insisted there is “overwhelming evidence” the CIA was involved in murdering his uncle. He blames Washington for the war in Ukraine, saying the “political establishment” manipulated Kyiv into the conflict while Putin supposedly acted in “good faith” by responding with an invasion. He has hugely exaggerated Ukraine’s losses, claiming last week that “hundreds of thousands” of Ukrainian youth have died, to drive home his deceitful message.
Most Americans do not think Biden should run again, so Kennedy benefits from justifiable concerns over the President’s age, although a pensioner himself. He is boosted also by name recognition and the power of his family brand, although this may wane as he gains more coverage for his weirdest views.
Many are far removed from mainstream Democrats, including his foolish opposition to gun control and his Kremlin-echoing stance on Ukraine. Almost nine in 10 party backers think healthy children need MMR vaccinations to attend school. Analysts also suggest much of his surge in polls – and some funding – is coming from Republicans, lured by his fierce opposition to pandemic lockdown and regular appearances on Fox News.
Yet again we see how noxious populism can unite political extremes, along with more alarming evidence of the disenchantment of many voters in democracies and lack of faith in elites. Kennedy styles himself as a warrior against the establishment, a crusader against injustice, a campaigner against corrupt institutions – and he is aided by the grotesque failure of politicians and scientists to tackle their own abuses and obvious systemic failings.
No doubt this man is tormented still over seeing his uncle killed so publicly when he was nine, then his famous father assassinated five years later. Yet how sad to see this latest Kennedy run for the White House after morphing from a valiant fighter for the environment into such an obscene conspiracy theorist.