At the urging of a friend, I recently listened to an hour-long interview with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. I’m not sure why she wanted me to hear it, but she seemed both alarmed at, and intrigued by, some of the points he was trying to make.
Given how he has insinuated himself into the next election — the wildest of wild-card presidential candidates — I felt obliged to listen. Mostly, I found it sad.
To start with, it was on the podcast of Danica Patrick. Yes, that Danica Patrick, whose iconic status as a race car driver does not readily translate to an unrelated field like, say, presidential politics.
Rather, she reveals herself to be quite the plastic ditz, with absolutely nothing meaningful to contribute to what amounted to a Kennedy monologue. She did manage some less-than-seamless editing, including a few clumsy non sequiturs that inserted Formula 1 racing, shamelessly, into the conversation.
But as for Kennedy himself, all I could think was how far down he’d come. A brilliant guy from a brilliant if deeply flawed family, his long and stellar track record in the forefront of environmental law would be legendary, if legends could be made from such difficult but necessary work.
Instead, he’s on a third-rate podcast, several steps down the food chain from the mainstream media. If there was once a legend there, he has dirtied it.
His candidacy can accomplish nothing beyond the further upset of a political system that’s already on the brink of collapse. Even if he were to gain traction among a small number of voters, those voters could do plenty of harm, conceivably tipping the balance of a swing state in one direction or another. Which is why nobody likes wild cards.
Yet there he is, scamming gullible donors into thinking the Kennedy name still carries weight. Citing his own suspect polling, he makes the ludicrous claim that Biden can’t beat Trump, but that he can. There are plenty of rubes who will pay good money to hear that, which is most likely the point.
In the decade leading up to this dangerous path, Kennedy steadily descended into his own version of reality. Once an eloquent spokesman for progressive causes, he slowly morphed into the conspiracy-addled nutjob we now see in full flower.
He is an outspoken anti-vaxxer, promoting all sorts of pseudo-science that tries to tie vaccination to autism. He’s a hawker of racially-tinged, antisemitic theories about Covid. Among his wilder claims, he has said that ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine were never accepted for use against Covid, not because they were quack medicines, but because the “big drug companies” didn’t want any competition for their vaccines.
And yet he talks about none of these things in the interview. He’s well aware of what they sound like. And far be it from ditzy Danica to confront him on them, or anything else.
Instead, he gets to speak eloquently and, yes, knowledgeably about the myriad ills afflicting the country. He has much to say about the corrupting influence of corporate interests, about the energy industry, about the drug and healthcare industries, and about the pernicious means they use to reach even more pernicious ends.
And it’s not that what he’s saying is wrong. Much of it is astute and erudite, the sort of things I used to hear him say back in the early aughts, when he had his own radio show on Air America. He knows his stuff, and he knows how to express it. He articulates reasonable ideas that reasonable people would agree with, ideas that might deserve a place in the national discussion, if we were actually having one.
And that’s the problem, both with this interview, and with his whole quixotic run at the presidency. He is not in touch with the political realities of these Trumpian times.
It’s not just that he offers no solutions to anything, beyond a vow to “bring both sides to the table” — like he’s the first person to think of that — it’s rather that he shows no feel for the imminent threats we face, no interest in the continuation of the American Experiment he has devoted his life to. There’s no outrage, no urgency, no sense of imminent danger. In a man with his background and intellect, this is inexcusable.
Worse, his very presence in the presidential race serves no purpose but to throw gasoline on a fire that’s already well stoked. His behavior can best be described as Republican, and his father — among his many storied elders — would be appalled.
Kennedy’s stubborn candidacy speaks, regrettably, of mental illness, which is what his entire family has been hinting at for a while now. I don’t know what will come of that candidacy — nothing, I hope — but listening to the interview served to underscore, at least for me, exactly what’s important, and what’s not, in the next election.
We all know what’s wrong with this country. We all know how poorly its troubles have been addressed. But societal crises — and their possible solutions — will not play any role in this election. There will be one, and only one, issue: the survival of American democracy.
This means, depressingly, that we’ll be kicking the same old cans down the same old roads, yet again. Climate, healthcare, infrastructure, education, public health, rule of law, and all our other existential crises will all have to take a back seat, yet again. Likewise Gaza, Ukraine, and all foreign involvements. These things are all secondary concerns, our ability to address them contingent, yet again, on winning a national election.
Not that these concerns can’t be used tactically against the MAGA insurgency. The abortion issue, in particular, should be weaponized. It should be rubbed in the face of every Republican candidate, up and down the ballot. But regardless of the tactics, there is only one overarching strategy: Democracy must be saved. Failure is not an option.
So please spread the word that this election will be not about changing the system, but about keeping it.
As flawed as it is, as unfair as it is, as cruel as it can be, we desperately need to preserve the system intact, because it’s far, far better than what Republicans have in mind.
The threats are real, and we’ll need to stay riveted on them. We can’t afford to be distracted by shiny objects like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Or by anyone else who wants our attention but does nothing to either earn it, or deserve it.
I'm reluctant to actually recommend it, Danica Patrick's interview with Robert Kennedy resides here, on her website.