Why is RFK Jr. gaining popularity? Everyone is afraid, and everyone is traumatized.
It was a bit of a shambles inside the dim, noisy pavilion. I was at the annual Free State Project-sponsored camping festival, PorcFest, to see presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and had snagged a seat, but it was a close call. The steamy, garage-like structure was filling up, and the line to get in still snaked through the campgrounds in the foothills of the White Mountains. (The speech was in late June, before the latest accusations that Mr. Kennedy shared racist and antisemitic claims about Covid-19.)
I have a peculiar relationship with libertarians and, in particular, with Free Staters, a loose affiliation of libertarians who have moved to New Hampshire to establish a stronghold for their ideology. I strongly share some of their values: their emphasis on liberty, civil rights, small government and the freedom to teach one’s own children and to worship without restriction. But I loathe others: bodily autonomy and self-reliance that extends to the point of callous disregard for the poor, the unborn, the disabled and the underage—and their obsession with guns, guns and more guns.
Still, there is a tiny part of me that understands libertarians and sympathizes with their cause. Who isn’t sick to death of the government? I think it was P. J. O’Rourke who once said that, when you’re poor, the government seems to simultaneously control every aspect of your life and care nothing for you at all. You could apply that idea to most citizens today and get a pretty good picture of the lumbering, blindly malicious, wasteful yet horribly necessary behemoth we are all languishing under. No wonder libertarians look at our country, look at the solutions both Democrats and Republicans offer, and say, “No thanks.”
Libertarians are usually right about what is not working. The trouble is, they generally think the answer is to hunker down in whatever self-made kingdom you can cobble together, and to hell with everyone else. This attitude alone makes libertarianism incompatible with Catholicism, because we are obligated to care for one another. That’s where I land.
There is a tiny part of me that understands libertarians and sympathizes with their cause. Who isn’t sick to death of the government?
But these are strange times. Every election in recent memory has been difficult for me as a Catholic. I cannot remember the last time I voted for someone. It has simply been a matter of voting to do the least damage, or to stop someone else from doing more damage.
So there I was, waiting to hear what R.F.K., a Democrat, had to say to a crowd of Free Staters, many of whom are so extreme that even the Libertarian Party disowned them. I was ready to hear anything and curious about his appeal. A Newsweek poll showed that 31 percent of those who voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 general election supported Mr. Kennedy’s decision to run in the Democratic primaries.That is extraordinary, considering how thoroughly Mr. Kennedy has earned his reputation as a conspiracy theorist.
I wanted to know what my fellow Catholics, in particular, thought about R.F.K. Jr., and I had spotted a few by the miraculous medals around their necks. We made plans to meet up after the speech.
We waited. Half an hour later, an organizer stood up and began to shout, “Some of you don’t belong in here!” I froze, thinking she was on to me. I had voted for President Biden (albeit gloomily), and I think the Second Amendment is O.K. (at best). But it turns out 20 to 30 people had mistakenly jumped the line and were sitting in a section that rightly belonged to the folks who had been waiting in the hot sun for hours. She acknowledged that it is a “voluntary society” and no one can force them, but she hotly pleaded with the line-cutters to do the honest thing and leave.
Two people left.
Maybe half an hour later, the last seat was filled and the speech began.
Mr. Kennedy sounds like a football coach who has been hollering his lungs out through a losing game in his final season. In fact, Mr. Kennedy has been singing the same tune for decades, and although he is a Democrat, and a Kennedy, some of those well-worn messages are so extreme, they have bent right around in the infamous ideological horseshoe and came to meet this crowd of libertarians and conservatives right where they sat.
There I was, waiting to hear what R.F.K., a Democrat, had to say to a crowd of Free Staters, many of whom are so extreme that even the Libertarian Party disowned them.
It was an unstructured, digressive speech, sometimes perseverating on wonky policy details about environmental health regulations, sometimes sailing comfortably from one demonstrably absurd assertion to another.
R.F.K. said he knows the media (boos, jeers) will say he is spreading more paranoid conspiracy theories (laughter, cheers). And that is what he did. He told us Bill Gates, who is apparently pen pals with shadowy forces in Wuhan, deliberately produced a glut of phony vaccines to dump on the American market, and then conspired with Anthony Fauci to abruptly yank them once he cashed in. He told a dark, meandering tale of the misdeeds of the F.B.I., the C.I.A., Avril Haines and even Richard Nixon—I think. This part was confusing—accusing them all of conspiring to put everyday people like you and me (and Julian Assange and Edward Snowden) under their thumbs.
The crowd nodded and murmured and sometimes cheered and hollered throughout. When he said we need to keep our children safe from school shootings, they sighed, but when he said we need to keep them safe from big pharma, they screamed with joy.
Only one line fell flat. He promised not to take anyone’s guns away (big cheers), but thinks the Second Amendment doesn’t need to be interpreted as broadly as it is. The room hated this. It would be hard to overstate how many guns there are at PorcFest. Some folks were enraged that R.F.K.’s security team brought metal detectors, and someone set up a sign outside his tent reading “Grassy Knoll.”
But his very honesty on this unpopular topic could work for him—and in fact, the crowd was cheering again within seconds. This is one reason I think Mr. Kennedy, or someone like him, could gain significant political ground: People are exhausted. The last several years have pounded everyone’s psyches into a paste, and many people simply don’t have the energy or the capability to care about specifics anymore. They just want to hear someone say: “Yes, there’s a serious problem in the way Americans are living now. Yes, I will help you.”
When he said we need to keep our children safe from school shootings, they sighed, but when he said we need to keep them safe from big pharma, they screamed with joy.
I spoke with a family after the speech. They weren’t comfortable using their last name—Francesca (who is Roman Catholic, and one of only a few of the people of color I saw at the festival), because she’s a private person, and Alex, who is Greek Orthodox, because he feels religious conservatives have a target on their backs. Their 17-year-old daughter, Trinity, is finishing up homeschooling and preparing for college.
Like me, they were out of place at PorcFest; but they are big R.F.K. supporters. They’re not Free Staters, or even libertarians, but conservative independents; and although many of their values jibe with libertarian ideals, they all expressed disdain for the “anything goes” end of the libertarian spectrum on display. Alex recalled that someone had offered them drugs, and Trinity shook her head over how many pentagrams she had seen.
PorcFest is nothing if not diverse. Even as rainbow banners fluttered between the “Don’t tread on me” flags, a speaker broadcast one presenter’s theory that, when you are growing up and you feel like you don’t fit in, you may think you’re gay, but maybe you’re just libertarian. The festival’s schedule includes everything from A.A. meetings to crystal workshops, and homemade signs advertised “Klub Libertine” and “alcohol, tobacco, ammunition, edibles & fireworks.”
[The Editors: A healthy democracy does not fear its leaders.]
So how do people like Alex and Francesca’s family fit in?
Francesca said she didn’t vote at all last election. She believes Donald J. Trump is being treated unfairly, but he is also too divisive. This is what appeals to her about R.F.K.: She thinks he may be capable of bringing the country together.
He did end his speech with a call for unity. He was answering a question about whether, if he was elected president, he would respond with violence if New Hampshire tried to secede from the Union; but his call for unity was met with cheers and applause.
Francesca said that she, a pro-life conservative, never imagined herself voting for a Democrat, whom she always associated with taking her money and freedom away. But the very fact that R.F.K. is a Democrat who is willing to speak to libertarians but also appeals to a conservative like her? That might make him the one to help people overcome labels that typically divide us, Francesa said.
Alex got a little more intense. He believes that “the establishment” is deliberately causing divisions among the American people, with the aid of the media, to make them easier to control.
Americans do feel their freedoms are at risk, even if they don’t agree about which freedoms—and even if some fears are more justified than others.
This paranoia about the deliberate sowing of confusion is extremely common among libertarians (Christian and otherwise) and among R.F.K. supporters; but something akin to it will likely appeal to more grounded voters: The idea that we are overdue for some honesty. And there was something weirdly compelling about the raspy sincerity of R.F.K.’s message, even while so much of the actual content of it was insane. After the nonstop lies of the Trump presidency and the misery and confusion of the pandemic, it was oddly refreshing to find someone who seems to be saying what he thinks, even though what he thinks is nuts. Maybe I’m not alone in that.
The family I talked to thought Covid-19 was a social experiment and that masks don’t work. They think their bishops let them down during the pandemic and should have done more to fight for their flock. Find me an American Catholic who doesn’t feel that way about the church, if not about Covid, then about something.
Most voters don’t believe the F.B.I. and C.I.A. and C.D.C. and F.D.A. were founded to spy on you, to keep you docile and to make money off you. But many voters feel that way about some institution. If there is one hallmark of the year 2023, it is mistrust of institutions—some institutions, if not all institutions. I found myself wondering whether simply being anti-establishment would make R.F.K. appealing to voters, even if the establishment they deplored was some other establishment entirely.
Alex said at one point, “When you traumatize a nation, they become so much more malleable.” He meant that the privations of the pandemic had been deliberately inflicted on Americans to make them easier to control. But in another context, he’s absolutely right. The nation has been incredibly traumatized, and I’m afraid we are incredibly malleable right now. We may not be so flexible that we’re ready to accept and support a flagrant screwball like R.F.K., but people’s standards are not what they used to be. Call it open mindedness or call it a disintegration of discernment, but we have changed. We are ideologically incoherent, and it doesn’t even bother us.
There is something weirdly compelling about the raspy sincerity of R.F.K.’s message, even while so much of the actual content of it is insane.
One other aspect of the R.F.K. crossover appeal stood out to me. Everyone in the room had one thing in common: They all seemed convinced that their basic freedoms were at risk. He understood this very well and leaned hard on that fear. I was fascinated to realize that, even though much of the crowd identifies freedom almost exclusively with carrying guns, this Democrat who favors gun control did not lose their favor. That is kind of incredible.
It reminded me, frankly, of the way pro-lifers convinced themselves that Donald Trump was probably pro-life enough, because they liked his style otherwise. There was enough there that carried them over the hump of their dearly held ideological divide.
Americans do feel their freedoms are at risk, even if they don’t agree about which freedoms—and even if some fears are more justified than others. Conservatives believe they are going to be forced to accept sexual ideologies they despise; liberals believe they are going to be forced to carry fetuses they don’t want. Religious people think their religion is being outlawed; secular people think religion is being forced down their throats. Everyone is afraid. Everyone is traumatized.
When you traumatize a nation, they become much more malleable. For better or worse, it’s true. I don’t really think R.F.K. will win the election, but I think this election will be marked by historic levels of incoherence and incongruence, and motivated chiefly by exhaustion and fear.
The very presence of this family at PorcFest was telling. This conservative, carefully coiffed homeschooling family drove two hours to carefully pick their way in between 12-foot skeletons, bong sellers, and signs advertising “Beergasm” and group showers to hear a buttoned-down Democrat speak for nearly an hour on freedom. Strange times indeed. It’s hard to rule out any possibility.
I never did find the other Catholic I had arranged to interview. She may have been one of the few in the crowd who, when asked to self-police, got up and left the tent. Whether others will follow her lead is anyone’s guess.
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify that 31 percent of 2020 Biden voters said they supported Robert F. Kennedy Jr. being on the ballot, not that they would vote for him.