There’s an alternative to Trump and Biden. Sadly, it’s RFK Jr.

American politics is so intensely stupid and nasty that it sometimes seems as if somebody made a series of wishes with a monkey’s paw. The dark moral of “The Monkey’s Paw,” a 1902 short story by the English writer W.W. Jacobs that became a pop culture trope, is that you should be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.

In 2008, the widespread wish for an African American president who would usher in a new “post-racial” politics yielded to an era of heightened obsession with and tensions over race. In 2016, the ancient dream of a capitalist outsider who would run government like a business delivered a man who ran the government like it was in the business of promoting and enriching him. In 2020, the notion that a non-military threat could unite a divided country around a common challenge gave way to sharp polarization over the management, treatment and origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And then there’s the dream of the third-party or independent candidate who can break the Republican-Democratic duopoly and deliver rational politics and policies unbeholden to special interests and fringe ideologues. Few scenarios are more attractive to Americans exhausted by the partisan bickering and sclerosis that define Washington.

The hitch is that while voters and donors love the idea in the abstract, many recoil in the face of a flesh-and-blood third-party candidate. Organizations such as No Labels and the Libertarian and Green parties rightly highlight voter hunger for an alternative to Donald Trump and President Biden, but they have struggled to find a human as popular as the wish.

In some respects, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. looks just like what people are longing for. He rejects both parties. And he claims to want to break the stranglehold of government bureaucracy, the cult of experts and the outsize power of corporate interests.

But while the wish is for a passionate centrist independent of the extremes, Kennedy in reality is a crank who attempts to transcend left and right by peddling a dog’s breakfast of conspiratorialism from across the ideological spectrum.

Long before Trump, RFK Jr. was the original election denier, insisting that Republicans stole the 2004 election. Before COVID, Kennedy was already famous for falsely claiming that all vaccines are dangerous and that some cause autism. He also stands by his claim that cellphones and Wi-Fi cause cancer despite the lack of evidence of an increase in cancer rates amid exploding use of those technologies.

Kennedy’s default position is that official explanations are suspect, which is another way of saying that all conspiracy theories — from 9/11 trutherism to fringe theories about the assassination of his own father to the idea that the COVID virus was engineered to spare Jewish and Chinese people — deserve the benefit of the doubt. It’s as if his entire political persona were designed to monetize what the political historian Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics.” It’s a testament to the pervasiveness of the paranoid style that it’s difficult to figure out which party Kennedy will take more votes from.

“Our campaign is a spoiler all right,” Kennedy said last week while announcing his running mate, Nicole Shanahan, in Oakland. “It is a spoiler for President Biden and for President Trump.”

But there’s the rub: The same duopoly that Kennedy is running against ensures that he can be a spoiler for only one candidate. Hofstadter also said, “Third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die.” And the party they sting is the one they are closest too. As of now, it looks like Kennedy wants to sting leftward, at Biden. His choice of Shanahan — a progressive, young, Asian American, California-based tech lawyer — is one indication. Another: Timothy Mellon, the biggest donor to Kennedy’s Super PAC, is also the biggest donor to Trump’s. It seems unlikely that spoiling Trump’s candidacy would be his priority.

In Jacobs’ story (spoiler alert), the protagonist uses the monkey’s paw to wish for 200 pounds to pay off his mortgage. The next day, he learns that his son was fatally mangled in an industrial accident and receives a bereavement payment in that amount. After the funeral, the grieving father wishes his son brought back to life. But as he hears a knock on the door, he realizes that the fulfillment of his wish would be a disfigured abomination and, panicked, makes his last wish. When he opens the door, no one’s there.

If you’ve ever fondly wished for deliverance from our two-party system, the man you hear knocking is Robert F. Kennedy Jr.


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