Friday, June 23, 2023

RFK Jr.'s Chances

RFK Jr,'s Chances

Jim Kavanagh

Robert Kennedy, Jr. enters the 2024 presidential race as a figure in whom many people across the political spectrum invest their hope for a politics that is at least intelligent, articulate, and honest. He has shown a willingness to engage in reasonable discussion that is vanishingly rare in today's American political climate. Even those who reflexively bristle at the “anti-vaxxer” label applied to him recognize that he stood up for what he thought was important, in the face of ostracism and ridicule that—as a scion of American and Democratic Party royalty—he did not need.

Nothing exemplifies what makes him a pole of attraction in the current American situation better than this tweet from a self-identified libertarian podcaster:

Joe Rogan asked RFK Jr. how it feels to be treated like a conspiracy theorist by his own family, and his response was to give a short lesson on Albert Camus’s The Plague, the Myth of Sisyphus, and the Stoics.

I think the reason people are drawn to RFK Jr. is because he's a breath of fresh air.

Compared to the routine bureaucrats you expect to run for president, he's actually an impressive person, with an impressive mind, that seems earnestly interested in ideas and the truth. He doesn't have to be your preferred candidate to see that.

We have such unimpressive fiat elites, and it wears on people, so people like RFK Jr., whether they're good on policy and should be president, just sound better. We need a higher standard for these people.

There are significant issues I disagree with RFK about, but this was a cool moment nonetheless.


Leftists of various stripes have also taken hope from Kennedy’s entrance into the political fray, because of his forthright anti-establishment stands on censorship, corporate capture, the Ukraine war, and COVID policies and vaccines, as well for his refreshing open-mindedness. He comes across as the intelligent candidate.

In that regard, to increase his chances with the left, the left, RFK, Jr. has been making the rounds of various left-ish independent media channels. His exchange with Krystal Ball worked in his favor, I think, demonstrating again, even to those who disagree with him on vaccines, that he believes in and will stand up for, the work he has done, and will push back to the “parroting” of establishment talking points. His exchange with Glenn Greenwald on Israel, however, generated a lot of disappointment among leftists who understand the fundamental problem of Zionism and Palestine/Israel, and recognize the parroting of establishment talking points thereon.

Because he’s perceived as intelligent, honest, and open-minded, leftists, like others across the political spectrum, also implicitly hope he will agree with them on positions they would consider the logical conclusions of any intelligent, honest assessment. And for many leftists—an increasing number, it pleases me to note—opposition to Zionism is one such position. Thus, their surprise and disappointment that RFK, Jr. revealed himself to be a “genuinely pretty hardcore Zionist.” 

I must say, I don’t know why anyone would be surprised about that. Supporting Zionism is the default position of all major American politicians, including Bernie Sanders. and probably still most citizens.

If RFK, Jr. has boldly gone where other U.S. politicians dare not tread, into the forbidden territory of critiquing the sacred object, vaccines, he has not felt the need of trespassing on the aura of sacrality around that other exceptional object: Israel/Zionism. His bravery in broaching one of these two untouchable—"sensitive and radioactive” as Kennedy puts it—subjects stands out; his comfort in accepting the mandated conventional wisdom about the other fits right in.

Kennedy’s comfort with the conventional wisdom on Israel and Zionism was certainly on display in his interview with Greenwald. The questioning was quite moderate, staying within the framework of allowing criticism of “Israeli policy.” Even in that regard, Kennedy was either shockingly ignorant of those actual policies or was dishonestly evading them by repeating precisely the kind of MSM talking points he so sharply critiques elsewhere. He likes to talk about opening the Overton window, but on this subject, Kennedy sees only through the establishment-fixed aperture of the Overton eye slit.

I mean, does Robert Kennedy, Jr. really think the “historical context” shows that “the Palestinian leadership” is to blame for what happened in “1947 or 1948”? Does he not know that, in 1947-48. Palestinians didn’t “walk away” but were forcibly expelled in what Israeli Jewish historians acknowledge was a program of deliberate ethnic cleansing (the Nakba), which they had every right to resist—a program of expulsion that continues today under the slogan of “Finish ‘48”?

Does he not know that it wasn’t the Palestinian leadership but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak who walked away from the Taba talks (presumably what Kennedy meant by “again in 2001”)? That the talks tended because Barak, knowing that “the concessions Israel would need to make would be suicidal politically,” went home to lose an election to Ariel Sharon who, backed by 62% of the Israeli public, “said he intend[ed] to disregard what transpired at Taba” anyway?

Does he really believe Israel does not have a “deliberate policy….to target civilians and kill them”? He should talk to Human Rights Watch about Israel’s weeks-long “calculated, unlawful” mass killing and crippling of unarmed protestors during the 2018 Gaza protest, where senior Israeli officials ordered snipers to shoot demonstrators who “posed no imminent threat to life”; he should pay attention to the thousands of people shot by those snipers, including 19 paramedics in one day, among them 21-year-old medic, Razan al-Najjar, killed while tending to the wounded; he should hear IDF spokesmen bragged about such shootings (in a quickly deleted tweet):  “Nothing was carried out uncontrolled; everything was accurate and measured, and we know where every bullet landed” and explaining to the New York Times that Razan’s killing involved “a very precise identification of a target, where the sniper asks for permission, the officer would grant that permission, and then the sniper would execute that order.” Here’s the precisely identified, deliberately killed, civilian target:

Does RFK, Jr. really believe there’s a “double standard” operating in the U.S. and the West that works against Israel? Can he name another country in the world that could commit such crimes and get barely a drop of protest but a tsunami of apologia from Western politicians and media? (By what, besides Pharma, might they be “captured”?) That the “double standard” is not from those who are not calling for unconditional financial, military, and diplomatic support for repressive and reactionary regimes in “other (Arab) countries”; it is from those who are demanding that perk for a regime whose state-salaried religious authority teaches that science and math are “nonsense” and black people are “monkeys”?

Does he not understand that Israel is indeed a “model democracy”—for a certain segment of its population, like the American South and South Africa were for white people? That, in Israel, you’re not killed “If you're a transvestite,” you’re killed and your home is demolished if you’re not Jewish and get in the way of what Israeli human-rights organization B’Tselem calls, “A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid.”?

Greenwald and Kennedy both avoided the fundamental issue of the settler-colonialist project that Israel is. That—the illegitimacy of colonialism— is the single standard Israel demands, and its supporters give it, impunity from.

Beside a brief remark that “a lot of people” do think Israel deliberately kills civilians, Glenn Greenwald did not challenge Kennedy on all these establishment talking points. That’s perhaps understandable. It’s quite disconcerting that someone presenting as the intelligent candidate could repeat so many shallow shibboleths. Kennedy should know that, in the United States in 2023, people on the left cringe at hearing a presidential candidate blithely parrot these talking points about Israel, for the same reason he cringes when hearing Anthony Fauci talk about Remdesivir. They know better. They know what the talking points are hiding.

Greenwald might have asked some specific questions, on Kennedy’s own terms, about what “Israeli policies” he is willing to criticize: Do you support Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights? Will you abrogate Donald Trump's recognition of that? Do you acknowledge that Israel possesses nuclear weapons? Do you agree that Israel has a responsibility under UN resolution 194 to allow the Palestinian right of return? Do you accept that Israel has the right to attack Syria at will? Lebanon? Iran? Is there any action or “policy” taken by Israel that would cause you as president to withdraw or even limit financial, military, or diplomatic support?

These are questions a presidential candidate should expect to be asked, and should answer. His answers to those questions would either confirm or erode the public's confidence in the honesty and forthrightness Kennedy has shown in confronting other establishment taboos.

In regard to his Roger Waters flip-flop, it’s ironic that RFK, Jr. seems unable to see or unwilling to acknowledge that the smearing of Waters as an "anti-Semite" by Zionists—to which he caved—is just like the MSM's smearing of him as an "anti-vaxxer"? It’s a way of policing a taboo against reasonable discussion of what we are expected to treat as an exceptional, sacred object. It is not anti-Semitism to criticize either Israeli government “policies” or the settler-colonialist, ipso facto apartheid, project that is Zionism. Too many now realize that this is the unavoidable nub of the Palestine-Israel issue, and it’s hard to believe either Glenn Greenwald or Robert Kennedy, Jr. doesn’t know that.

So these are the limits of his thinking on Israel and Zionism that RFK, Jr. displayed in his interview with Glenn Greenwald, and they are not likely to change in the next 18 months. Indeed, his recent proclamation that, like Joe Biden, he will continue Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA only confirms his “hardcore Zionist” stance:

To ensure the security of Israel and, indeed, the Iranian people, Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. This is non-negotiable. It will require constant vigilance and stringent verification.

The JCPOA is based on outdated assumptions and conditions, and is not appropriate to our time. But I will set my sights on real peace in the Mideast, including between Israel and Iran. 

When I am President, we will set a new standard for international behavior. The US bears historical culpability for much of the tension in the region, which is partly the result of our regrettable history of regime change operations, coups, and support for despotic regimes in Iran and elsewhere. RobertKennedyJr/status/1669571756976398336?s=20

Sorry, but, when Israel must and Iran must not be allowed to have nuclear weapons, that's not for “the security of the Iranian people.” Nor is it a “new standard for international behavior.” What it is, in fact, is the same old double standard for Israeli behavior. More of “our regrettable history” that RFK, Jr. does not seem to recognize as such, and does not want to change.

What does all this mean for his presidential campaign?

Well, it's certainly turned off that segment of the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist rejecting-both-parties left, who saw some glimmers of hope in Kennedy’s anti-censorship, anti-war, anti-corporate/Pharma-capture positions, and in his honesty and intelligence. For that segment of the left, these kinds of attitudes regarding Israel and Zionism can only result from historical ignorance, deliberate disingenuity, and/or outright ethno-religious (Jewish) supremacism.

Many of that segment, myself included, supported Bernie Sanders in 2016 and/or 2020 despite him having similar limits on Israel/Zionism and the Democratic party, because he came in with a history as an independent socialist who fought for social-democratic programs that would make a real difference (i.e., Medicare for All). Indeed, there are more than a few anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist leftists who still shy away from anti-Zionism. But, today, because of the increasingly blatant reactionary and apartheid character of the Israeli Zionist regime and the increasingly war-mongering, corrupt, and anti-democratic character of the Democratic Party—not to mention the craven capitulation of Bernie—many, many of that segment have lost all tolerance for Progressive Except Palestine (PEP) and Democratic-party politics, if not electoral politics per se. After the Greenwald interview, and with Cornel West now in the race as a third-party candidate, RFK, Jr. is going to lose his chance with most of that segment.

To clarify my own position: I am not endorsing or denouncing RFK, Jr. for president. I am far from deciding whether or for whom I will vote in November 2024. I consider myself a member of the socialist, anti-imperialist, and anti-Zionist cohort of the left, who is extremely skeptical of U.S. electoral politics, as my writing attests. I’ve also taken a vaccine-skeptical position for some time, on my social media and with a 2016 article and a 2021 article opposing vaccine mandates. I am someone who’s taken the fallout for both radioactive subjects.

I have thus supported RFK, Jr.’s work over the years in his Children’s Health Defense project, criticizing corrupt, Pharma-captured government agencies and the mandatory vaccine program in a way that is, I think, correct, courageous, and important. I’m pleased that his work is getting more favorable attention as the cogence of his critiques became obvious in the wake of the disastrous Covid policies.

I have also had direct, friendly correspondence with him since he read and praised my 2021 article. I welcome his entrance into the “primary” process as an anti-censorship, Ukraine-war-critical, and reasonable, open-minded voice, that will, as no one else can, productively discombobulate what the Democratic political and media apparatus hoped would be a smooth, quiet, continuation of its failed strategy. I also clearly have fundamental differences with him. I hope he reads my article on Gaza and Zionism. He’s shown his willingness to question one widely accepted and well-enforced false certainty in the face of ridicule and ostracism. I hope he’ll be open to questioning another.

Kennedy is right that Peter Hotez should debate him on the truth about vaccines, and, for the same reason, he should be willing to have a “respectful, congenial, informative debate” about Israeli impunity and the legitimacy of Zionist colonialism. It’s important. 

Peter. Let’s finally have the respectful, congenial, informative debate that the American people deserve. 

On Rising, I invited @RobertKennedyJr to a live discussion at The Grayzone about the reality of Israeli apartheid that I witnessed while reporting from occupied Palestine, and about the influence of the Israel lobby on American life.

His grassroots supporters deserve better than uncomfortable recitations of Zionist cant and photo-ops with Likudnik race hustlers like Shmuley Boteach. 

If Bobby can suffer through Krystal Ball condescendingly lecturing him on The Science, he can engage in a civil and open-ended discussion with me on the effects at home and abroad of $4 billion in annual US aid to a nuclearized, borderless apartheid state. 

Is such a discussion possible, or is the influence of the Israel lobby so strong that it can effectively muzzle an outsider candidate who is so outspoken on so many other third-rail issues?

Though the Zionism issue is of importance for all Americans, the pressure to reconsider it comes from a segment of the left that is unlikely to have much influence on RFK, Jr. He is not, and has never claimed to be, a person of the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist left, and that is not his primary audience.

RFK, Jr. identifies as a lifelong, committed Democrat. To those who still have hope in restoring the party but are fed up with the corporate-captured corruption of the present party apparatus, he presents himself as, in the tradition of his ancestors, a good-old as opposed to bad-new Democrat—the “Spirit of the Classic Democrat.” Well, “hardcore Zionism” is an integral part of that good-old stance, and most of those attracted to it on the “progressive” end of the Democratic party would themselves rather not think too hard about Zionism. For them, as Krystal Ball exemplifies, “anti-vaxxer” is the biggest hurdle he has to overcome. As his Joe Rogan interview indicates, I think he can, and will help himself by not evading it.

Kennedy’s appeal to that “progressive”—and even to the more “left”—constituency would benefit from strong Bernie-like stances on what progressives of every stripe in today’s America see as necessary, long overdue, social reforms like Medicare-for-All. But, in rather typical Democratic liberal fashion, he has demurred on that, with can-kicking, “I would if I could” responses: "I don't know how politically realistic that is but if you ask me, if I were to design a system from the beginning, that is what I would do."

For him to say arguing for a universal-coverage, single-payer program is too “politically difficult” is especially lame: It would be much less difficult to institute such a program, which is already enormously popular and would immediately and tangibly change everyone lives for the better, than it has been to overcome the quasi-religious idolatry as well as economic interest that block consideration of vaccines—if he, as president, committed the same energy, enthusiasm, and persuasive intelligence to it. 

As I’ve said many times, nothing would be more politically advantageous, more likely to guarantee your election, than running on—really promoting and explaining—single-payer, universal coverage, ending the disgrace of medical bankruptcy and choosing which member of your family can get medical treatment. It’s not the Republicans who have stopped it, and there’s nobody who could stop it from being instituted, if a Democratic president, congressional delegation, and allied media would really fight for it, would ferociously demand of any opponent: Name the person who should be afraid to go the hospital to treat their cancer or their vaccine injury. Name the child whose parents should be afraid to take her to the doctor because they can't afford it—for a single day, for lack of a single nickel. And if you don't name your own child, then sit right the fuck down.

Yup, the only reason we don't have universal-coverage, single-payer is because the Democratic apparatus and politicians like Kennedy do not want to fight for it. They just don’t think it’s important enough. That’s the “political difficulty.” For RFK, Jr. specifically, the damage done to people, and the capture of the political process, by the for-profit health-insurance industry can be tolerated in a way that Pharma’s same pernicious effects cannot.

So, despite his undeniable appeal, in the mind-numbing Biden-Trump political landscape, as someone who’s fought for what he thinks is right at the cost of ridicule and ostracism and is willing and able to have an intelligent conversation, these are some of the issues on which Kennedy will face resistance from the broad left—from the vaguely progressive to the staunch anti-capitalist anti-imperialists. Not because they refuse to make any “lesser-evil” choices—Bernie disproved that!—but because everybody has a deal-breaker, some thing or set of things they consider ethico-politically disqualifying—whether that’s supporting apartheid, forcing questionable pharmaceuticals on children, medical triage to protect insurance companies’ profits, criminalizing abortion, waging nuclear war to ensure NATO’s expansion into Ukraine or prevent China's reunification with its island province or guarantee Israel’s hegemony over its neighbors, or [your issue here].

But, of course, none of this matters at all (least of all what my segment of the left thinks), until and unless Kennedy can overcome his first and biggest obstacle: the Democratic Party. If Joe Biden is alive and presentable, the Democratic Party, which has ridiculed and ostracized Kennedy for years, and is decidedly undemocratic, will not allow RFK, Jr. to become its nominee for president.

Whatever his illusions about Israel, I do not believe Kennedy doesn't know that. What he also knows is that a lot of shit is going to hit the fan in the next 16 months, including a lot the Democratic Party cannot control, and that we are far from knowing what the political terrain will be like in November 2024. A lot of that crap, starting with the outcome of the Ukraine war and ending with the progression of Joe Biden's dementia, is, despite their illusions, out of the control of the Democratic Party and its allied media and oligarchs.

I bet that Kennedy’s first bet—and I bet he’s right—is that Joe Biden will not be the Democratic Party’s nominee. I also bet—I guarantee—the Party knows this is likely and is considering all its options right now.  Because if that happens, Kennedy instantly becomes the front-runner. What can the party do to stop him?  All its options are disastrous.

They could continue to prevent debates and try to ensure the candidate they control gets nominated by keeping Joe on stage for as long as possible and presenting the Vice-President at a propitious moment as the new “presumptive nominee.” They could, but Kamala Harris? Even the Dems are not delusional enough to think she could credibly lead, let alone win, a presidential election campaign.

To address that problem without any racism/sexism taint, Kamala would have to step aside in a convincingly “voluntary” way. They can certainly order/pay her to do that, but when and for whom? For the Dems to keep the “S/he’s the presumptive nominee, no debate” claim going, Kamala has to resign and be replaced as Vice-President some reasonable time before the election, by someone whose credibility as a national leader the Democratic constituency will accept, and will believe the wider electorate will accept. Williamson? Buttigieg? Klobuchar? Gimme a break. The only figure I can see who might fit that bill is Gavin Newsom, and I believe that is exactly whom the Democratic Party is going to prep and promote as a presidential nominee, starting right now.

Pick another scenario. No matter how well prepared and executed, replacing Joe Biden will be an embarrassing and complicated political fumble. Of course, keeping him wandering around, saving the Queen, and snapping at “Big Guy” questions, as Russia defeats Ukraine, the United States goes from uncontested hegemon to declining pariah, and the domestic social economy deteriorates more radically, isn’t going to work out any better.

In neither circumstance will the Democrats and their handlers assuage the public’s anger or shut up a voice like Robert Kennedy’s. In either case, there will be interviews that will be seen by millions of people and there will be primaries in which Kennedy will beat Joe Biden. It will become clear that nobody among the 29% of the electorate in the Democratic Party can touch the appeal of RFK, Jr. among the 47% of the electorate that is independent of the two parties.

This is the threat Kennedy poses to the Biden-focussed Democratic machine right now, and it’s not going to get any better:

The true threatening power of RFK, Jr.’s presence in the political scene today, which works at a more primal level than any explicit political ideology, is that the “good old” stance, embodied in “Kennedy,” evokes poignancy and anger over all that has been lost and stolen in America. Pegged to indelible historical images, it has powerful and inescapable emotional appeal, across the political spectrum. Anti-capitalist leftists, anti-censorship and anti-crony libertarians, and progressive Democrats appreciate having his voice in the mix. We are all pissed off at what’s become of the country, we all imagine that it could have been better, and we all share the images of “if only.”

This is the kind of appeal that the ruling establishment perceives as a deadly threat and will, if it gets out of hand, resist with deadly force. Nobody knows that better than RFK, Jr.

Of course, because of this threatening appeal, the other option for the producers of this show, which they very well may come to see as the best, is not to stop, but to co-opt, RFK, Jr.

They can see that RFK, Jr., like Obama, is the only one of the duopoly crowd who has a chance to restore some credibility and appeal to the American project, whatever that is. Unlike Obama, he has not developed as a political opportunist and con-man, and has demonstrated a willingness to get taken down politically for something he believes. That makes him more attractive and more dangerous. But his roots in the whole of American political and socio-economic culture are as deep as can be, and he’s not threatening to revolutionize but to restore it. If he assuages the fears of the producers at his fund-raising events, even as he honestly dialogues with Rising and Rogan audiences—well, the smartest among the producers know that they’re going to have to live with Russia and China, and they will even let Pharma take a hit, as long as Israel is protected. They know what’s most important to them.

It’s true that there may not be many producers left in our American political theater smart enough to see the play.  Delusion has run rampant. But the more I consider it, I think Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. made a smart decision to run at this time, and there’s a good chance he’ll be successful.


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