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    Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Biden may be a bigger threat to democracy than Trump

    In late January 2021, with thousands of people dying from covid-19 each day and the first vaccines targeting the coronavirus rolling out, baseball legend Hank Aaron died.

    Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose political activism in recent years centered around elevating skepticism of vaccines, saw an opportunity.

    “#HankAaron’s tragic death is part of a wave of suspicious deaths among elderly closely following administration of #COVID #vaccines,” Kennedy wrote in a social media post. “He received the #Moderna vaccine on Jan. 5 to inspire other Black Americans to get the vaccine.”

    There was no “wave of suspicious deaths” among elderly Americans. There was, instead, a deadly virus — proved to be particularly deadly for older people — raging around the world. And then there were people like Aaron, 86, who died of old age. But the argument, however obviously dubious, fit Kennedy’s political goals. So he offered it up with the veneer of authority that his last name has provided him his entire life.

    That tweet specifically is why Kennedy — a long-shot independent candidate for the presidency — declared on CNN Monday night that President Biden might be a “worse threat” to democracy than Donald Trump, someone who tried to overturn the results of a democratic election.

    Kennedy was being interviewed by CNN host Erin Burnett. Burnett asked Kennedy if he really felt that there was no important difference between Biden and Trump.

    “I can make the argument that President Biden is a much worse threat to democracy,” Kennedy replied. “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.

    “The greatest threat to democracy is not somebody who questions election returns,” he added a moment later, “but a president of the United States who uses the power of his office to force the social media companies, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter to open a portal and give access to that portal to the FBI, to the CIA, to the IRS, to CISA, to NIH to censor his political critics.”

    Burnett pressed him on the point, noting Trump’s response to his 2020 loss and its obvious implications for democracy.

    “I can argue that President Biden is [a worse threat], because the First Amendment, Erin, is the most important,” Kennedy replied. “But Adams and Hamilton and Madison said, we put the guarantee of freedom of expression in the First Amendment because all of our other constitutional rights depend on it.”

    Everything Kennedy said in the quotes above is false or misleading.

    Let’s start with that last point, about the Founding Fathers and the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment is not first because it is most important. It is first because the first two proposed amendments to the Constitution — ones articulating the size of Congress and how legislators got paid — were not ratified. This relatively abstract point is a good example of how Kennedy works: He comes up with a tidy bit of rhetoric and is indifferent to its accuracy.

    Kennedy’s claim about Biden “using the power of his office” to “force the social media companies” to “censor his political critics” is also untrue. Thanks in part to the rampant spread of misinformation during the 2016 election, the government — including during the Trump administration — worked with social media companies in 2020 and 2021 to combat false claims about the election and the pandemic. But there was no “forcing” them to act.

    Kennedy inadvertently proved that point.

    “Thirty-seven hours after he took the oath of office,” he told Burnett, “[Biden] was censoring me.”

    He wasn’t. Kennedy’s referring to the Aaron tweet, which a White House staffer flagged for staff at Twitter (now X) in an email. “WONDERING IF WE CAN GET MOVING ON THE PROCESS FOR HAVING IT REMOVED ASAP,” the email read.

    But the post wasn’t removed. He was later banned from Instagram for spreading vaccine misinformation but remained on Twitter, sparking third-party criticism of the platforms for not acting in response to his false claims.

    When House Republicans began trying to turn these efforts to combat misinformation into political grist, House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) also highlighted the White House response to Kennedy’s tweet as somehow problematic.

    “Misinformation is when you don’t have the facts right; you’re saying things that aren’t true,” Jordan said at a hearing in July. “When you look at Mr. Kennedy’s tweet, there was nothing in there that was factually inaccurate. Hank Aaron, real person, great American, passed away after he got the vaccine. Pointing out — just pointing out facts.”

    This was when Kennedy was running as a Democrat, so it was useful for Jordan and his party to elevate his complaints. But Jordan’s presentation is nonsense, ignoring the “wave of suspicious deaths” bit, which was Kennedy’s point.

    As soon as Kennedy declared as an independent, of course, Republicans shifted their presentation of his arguments. Fox News host Sean Hannity, for example, went from fawning to critical as Kennedy went from being a threat to Biden to threatening both major-party candidates. Recent Quinnipiac University polling shows that Kennedy draws from Biden and Trump. That might have different effects in different states, should Kennedy get on the ballot.

    But the damage Kennedy can do to Biden isn’t simply electoral. Remember his argument for why Biden is perhaps a worse threat to democracy than Trump — that Biden censored his opposition, which he didn’t, whereas Trump only … tried to subvert democracy. (Never mind the other threats posed by Trump, like his legal argument that presidents should have legal immunity.) Kennedy’s claim about Biden is rooted in misinformation (about the primacy of the First Amendment) that he applies to misinformation (about the White House restricting speech) about misinformation (his post about Aaron).

    Burnett’s question about Biden and Trump was predicated on Kennedy’s having warned Ralph Nader in 2000 that there was an important distinction between the major-party candidates that year that Nader’s third-party bid threatened. Kennedy’s rhetoric about Biden and Trump — rooted entirely in exaggerated or untrue claims — similarly blurs the distinctions between the candidates, possibly with similar effect.



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