Speaking at a festival hosted by a libertarian group in New Hampshire, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. criticized the “mainstream media” for serving as “propagandists for the powerful.” Every time he mentioned the perfidy of the press — for silencing dissent, for toddling the government line, for labeling him a conspiracy theorist — he drew a barrage of mockery of support.
It was a page from the Donald J. Trump playbook. But for Mr. Kennedy, who is presenting a long-term challenge to President Biden for the Democratic nomination for president, it was more than a rhetorical flourish.
Censorship is a central theme of his campaign, uniting an unlikely coalition that includes longtime acolytes in what is known as the “health freedom” movement; Silicon Valley donors; and new admirers from across the political spectrum.
“The mainstream media here today is going to report that I, you know, have paranoid conspiracy theories, which is what they always say, but I’m just going to tell you facts,” Kennedy said at the last event. week. He added: “When the press thinks it’s their job to protect you from dangerous information, they’re manipulating you.”
In fact, Mr. Kennedy, an environmental lawyer and scion of the famed Democratic Kennedy clan, is now a leading vaccine skeptic and purveyor of conspiracy theories. He has misrepresented the facts about vaccine development by presenting information out of context; he embraced unsubstantiated claims that some clouds are chemical agents spread by the government; and promoted the decades-old theory that the CIA killed his uncle, former President John F. Kennedy.
The idea that the press has a stranglehold on public information is a core belief animating the health freedom movement, which is widely opposed to regulation of health practices, including vaccinations. Two political action committees supporting Mr. Kennedy were formed by people who knew him through this movement, representing some of his most ardent support.
Censorship, and specifically disdain for attempts to regulate the flow of misinformation and hate speech, is also a motivating factor for its powerful backers in Silicon Valley. Tech executives and investors amplified Kennedy’s anti-establishment message and celebrated his willingness to challenge liberal orthodoxies and scientific consensus, even though in doing so he often spread widely discredited claims about vaccines and other public health measures.
And, for many potential voters drawn to Kennedy, anger over censorship is a natural outgrowth of a deep distrust of authority that has accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic, particularly in response to shutdowns that public officials have called for to stem the spread. of the virus.
This last group is the most diverse. Some are libertarians looking for a standard bearer; others are disgruntled Democrats; some are Republicans looking for an alternative to Trump. Kennedy’s New Hampshire audience of at least 250 people included at least one person wearing a Trump 2020 cap.
A fundraising email from his campaign on Tuesday said he had raised “less than $4 million” since he entered the race in April. Official figures will be released in July, along with PAC figures from him, who have separately said they raised several million dollars.
Kennedy’s recent public appearances have tended to be before either conservative or libertarian audiences. Last week, he spoke about environmental stewardship at a sold-out dinner hosted by the Ethan Allen Institute, a free-market, center-right think tank in Burlington, Vt. This week, she was scheduled to speak at an event presented by Moms for Liberty, a conservative organization that, among other things, pushed for a ban on books that discuss race, gender and sexuality, but later canceled that appearance, citing a scheduling conflict. according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Despite this rightward lean, Kennedy has become a lingering thorn in Biden’s side, posing less of a serious threat to the president’s re-election than a high-profile reminder that many Democratic voters would prefer new blood. .
Kennedy’s support among Democrats has topped 20 percent in polls in recent months, but a Quinnipiac University Survey this month also found that Kennedy’s ranking among Republicans was quite high: 40 percent viewed him favorably, compared with 31 percent of independents and 25 percent of Democrats. In New Hampshire, a survey by the Saint Anselm College Survey Center put his Democratic support in June at 9 percent.
Kennedy’s longtime admirers aren’t surprised. Debra Sheldon, 48, a Democrat from New York state, campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008. But when she had a son, she said, Mr. Kennedy’s Children’s Health Advocacy, a nonprofit group that he trained and who has campaigned against vaccinations, “it really helped inform me, as a new mom, about what was good for my son.”
Children’s Health Defense has been widely criticized for spreading misinformation about vaccines, including debunked claims linking them to autism.
Ms. Sheldon is now a volunteer for Mr. Kennedy’s campaign and was in New Hampshire selling his books and other materials on autism at the libertarian retreat, the Porcupine Freedom Festival. She described her mission in almost spiritual terms: “We are here to protect the soul of America.”
Some of Kennedy’s newer supporters said they were drawn to what they saw as his message of unity and justice, an almost nostalgic perspective he often presents in stories of his childhood in one of America’s most famous political families. But others described feeling “awakened” during the pandemic by Kennedy’s questions about vaccines, masks and school closures, topics they felt the mainstream media ignored or, worse, stifled.
“All those people watched for many years as Bobby was censored in all the major places,” said Tony Lyons, whose company, Skyhorse Publishing, has curated authors deemed distasteful or risky by other presses, including filmmaker Woody Allen, the former president of Trump. attorney Michael Cohen and Mr. Kennedy. Mr. Lyons is co-chair of a PAC that supports Mr. Kennedy.
“Every TV show, place, just wouldn’t let him talk about his views on what Big Pharma was doing to the American public,” Mr. Lyons said. “He So he became a hero of the free speech people,” a group that includes many political identities, he said.
Mr. Kennedy was banned from social media platforms during the pandemic on the grounds that he had spread discredited claims about the virus. Instagram lifted his suspension in June, citing his presidential candidacy, after Kennedy complained about the suspension on Twitter. The complaint prompted Elon Musk, who calls himself a free speech absolutist, to invite him to a discussion on Twitter Spaces.
Mr. Kennedy has also embraced cryptocurrency: He spoke at a major Bitcoin conference in Miami last month, and his campaign is accepting Bitcoin donations.
He has also embraced podcasts, recently recording a three-plus hour appearance with Joe Rogan, whose immensely popular show reaches 11 million listeners per episode. The show, which has been criticized for spreading misinformation, largely caters to young men, and many of its listeners are on the center-right of the political spectrum.
On the show, Kennedy described the modern Democratic Party as the “party of censorship.”
Jason Calacanis, co-host of a popular podcast Kennedy appeared on in May, He said in response to questions about Kennedy’s attractiveness that his willingness to speak for hours on a podcast contrasted with that of Biden, who has held few news conferences.
“In the age of podcasts, Americans want someone who is smart and willing to engage in vibrant discussion,” Calacanis said. “Trump won in 2016 thanks to social media, and the next president will win thanks to podcasts.”
Kennedy and his PAC draw significant support from the tech world, including Jack Dorsey, the Twitter founder who endorsed Kennedy, and David Sacks, a venture capitalist who has raised money for Republicans and Democrats alike.
Mark Gorton, a New York City merchant who created the file-sharing service LimeWire, helped create and finance a PAC that supported Kennedy. The PAC, American Values 2024, has received at least $5.7 million, leadership says from him; official figures will be released next month.
Mr Gorton said the pandemic “unlocked all this energy” among a “very marginalized group” of people who were rejecting public health protocols and found themselves marginalized or “deprived of a platform” on social media. In Mr. Kennedy, they saw a hero.
Bill Barger, a 31-year-old man from Manchester, NH, who attended Kennedy’s speech Thursday, said he was “definitely interested” in Kennedy. But he was still not convinced of Kennedy’s commitment to free speech.
He said he would like to see Kennedy debate Trump, whom he described as “funny as hell.”
On a radio show Monday, Trump praised Kennedy’s polling numbers, calling him a “very smart guy.”
The two candidates share common fixations. During his speech in New Hampshire, Mr. Kennedy repeatedly invoked the New York Times as an example of a corrupt media.
“The New York Times, which is in this room today,” he said, as an audience member pointed to the Times reporter’s seat, prompting a chorus of boos so angry that Kennedy’s campaign manager, the former presidential candidate Democrat Dennis Kucinich. He — he told the audience member to stop.
Mr. Kennedy smiled for a few moments and then walked back across the stage. “I am not saying the reporter who is here. He is a very sweet person, by all accounts.”
ruth igielnik contributed reporting.