Why RFK Jr. claims that Biden is a ‘much worse threat’ to democracy than Trump

Robert Kennedy Jr., who hails from one of the most distinguished political dynasties in the country, began his run for the White House last year as a Democrat. Several months after launching his bid, though, he decried the Democratic Party as corrupt and dropped out of the primaries to take his White House bid independent. Now he’s adopting an openly hostile position toward his former party, arguing that President Joe Biden poses a greater threat to American democracy than former President Donald Trump.

Kennedy is peddling an unpersuasive narrative about Biden predicated on a bunch of misleading or outright false claims. But his outsized distaste for the president tracks with a political journey in which he appears to feel more at home on the right than on the left.   

It’s odd that Kennedy would say Biden is the worse threat on speech when his fictitious complaints about Biden would apply more naturally to Trump.

During an interview with CNN on Monday, Kennedy said Trump is a threat to democracy but he “can make the argument that President Biden is a much worse threat to democracy, and the reason for that is President Biden is the first candidate in history, the first president in history, that has used the federal agencies to censor political speech, so to censor his opponent.” 

Kennedy argued that the greater threat to democracy is “not someone who questions election returns” but a president who forces social media companies “to open a portal and give access to that portal to the FBI, to the CIA, to the IRS … to censor his political critics.” 

Kennedy mischaracterizes a First Amendment lawsuit pending before the Supreme Court brought by Republican attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri and five social media users. The question there is whether the federal government crossed the line from persuasion into coercion when it requested that social media platforms remove content tied to misinformation about Covid and the 2020 presidential election. The lawsuit does not accuse the Biden administration of forcing social media companies to hand all their data to the federal government. Nor does the lawsuit accuse the president of censoring his political rivals. 

The government’s communications involved lobbying for social media companies to enforce their own guidelines on regulating misinformation. Social media companies sometimes turned down requests. There is no evidence that the government punished social media companies for what they did. Notably, while the lawsuit pertains to Biden’s tenure, these kinds of communications from the government to social media companies were also happening under the Trump administration.

The Supreme Court’s oral arguments in March signaled that the vast majority of the court’s justices are skeptical that the plaintiffs can prove that the government violated the First Amendment.

The question of if and how the government should interface with media companies about information is a legitimately tricky one. However, it is not the issue that Kennedy raised. Instead he made up stuff about Biden forcing social media companies to hand over data en masse and censoring opponents. Kennedy has claimed that Instagram and Facebook previously removing his accounts for spreading vaccine information was orchestrated by the government, but he has not provided evidence to support that claim. Those social media companies were enforcing their own policies against spreading misinformation about Covid-19. 

It’s odd that Kennedy would say Biden is the worse threat on speech when his fictitious complaints about Biden would apply more naturally to Trump. Trump asked Twitter for “derogatory” tweets to be taken down. Trump has threatened to shut down entire social media companies in an act of vengeance. Trump has threatened the freedom of the press through lawsuits and harassment. And if Kennedy is concerned about the repression of political rivals, then he should be gravely concerned about Trump’s threats to weaponize the Justice Department to try to lock up political rivals or incite violence against his opponents. 

Instead, Kennedy downplays Trump’s main threat as someone who “questions election returns.” That’s Trump-friendly propaganda. Trump didn’t just question the results; he and his associates knowingly pursued a number of plots to overturn them.

Kennedy’s decision to single out Biden could be in part a decision to cast himself as a man of the right — or at least friendly to the right — to regain attention from a right-wing media that has lost interest in him. It also makes sense that on the issues that seem to matter to him the most — anti-vaccine activism and advocating for libertarian public health rules — he wagers that he’s more likely to find common cause with citizens under the anti-Biden banner than anti-Trump banner.

Kennedy’s facile rhetoric about Biden and democracy makes him an even more disagreeable candidate than before. He’s not just pushing a dangerous agenda to encourage people to distrust parts of the medical establishment that deserve trust. He’s also taking the wrong side on the central domestic political crisis of the moment. We don’t have to imagine the kind of threat to democracy Trump would be. We saw it live last time.