RFK Jr. Tests a ‘Post-Party’ Campaign for President at Libertarian ‘PorcFest’

‘My campaign is about bringing those two groups together — the left and the right — in a populist movement,’ he tells Joe Rogan.

Lisa Lake/Getty Images for SiriusXM
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on June 5, 2023, at Philadelphia. Lisa Lake/Getty Images for SiriusXM

A Democratic presidential candidate, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., is making a direct appeal to libertarians and government skeptics on both sides of the aisle. Libertarians, though, are divided on whether to support the scion of America’s most famous Democratic political dynasty.

Mr. Kennedy spoke last week at the Free State Project’s annual festival in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, defying calls from the Granite State’s Democratic Party chairman, Raymond Buckley, to stay away. Mr. Buckley called the libertarian group “fundamentally at odds with the values of the NH Democratic Party.”

The Free State Project is a 20-year-old movement to persuade “liberty lovers” to move to New Hampshire to influence state politics and build a libertarian homeland. About 7,000 Free Staters have already moved to the state. The New Hampshire house majority leader, Jason Osborne, is a Free Stater, and there are about 30 others in the 424-person legislature.

PorcFest is the group’s annual camping and ideas festival, which combines talks on Austrian economics, Bitcoin, medical freedom, and homeschooling with open drug use, children’s programming, and even a nudist tent called Body Freedom Village. A large percentage of attendees open carry. The overarching philosophy is one of voluntaryism and the non-aggression principle: “Don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff.”

“We feel it is essential to underscore the fact that the Free State Project’s dark, dystopian philosophy and their actions have already had a significant and negative impact on New Hampshire,” Mr. Buckley wrote in an open letter to Mr. Kennedy. “We ask that you reconsider your decision to attend and speak at PorcFest.”

Mr. Kennedy pushed back. “The Democratic Party Bosses who promote censorship, who have stripped New Hampshire of its rightful First in the Nation primary status, who have shut down debate, who refuse to campaign in New Hampshire, are in no position to tell me who to talk to,” he responded on Twitter. “I’m going to speak at Porcfest because I believe in freedom, unity, healing the divide, and truth. #LiveFreeorDie.”

“Libertarians are so great for this country,” Mr. Kennedy said to a packed pavilion at PorcFest. He railed against press and government censorship and the intelligence agencies’ role in the Covid pandemic response. He spoke about a peace settlement in the Ukraine war and how to “wind down the empire abroad,” calling American bases overseas “a platform for future war.” He also promised to pardon Julian Assange and Edward Snowden — causes popular with the group.

Mr. Kennedy has also defended Bitcoin, calling it “a bulwark against totalitarianism and the manipulation of our money supply,” and promising as president to “make sure that your right to use and hold Bitcoin is inviolable.” He is making the rounds of libertarian podcasts and did an interview with Nick Gillespie on Reason TV Thursday. “I’ve always been aligned with libertarians on most issues,” Mr. Kennedy said. “You know, there are tweaks I have as an environmentalist. I don’t think libertarianism works well in the commons.”

Mr. Kennedy’s strategy of courting the libertarian vote is smart politics in the “Live Free or Die” state. A plurality of Granite Staters — 41 percent — are undeclared in party affiliation, which means they can vote in either party’s primary. Free Staters constitute a well of 7,000 potential votes in a state of just 1.4 million people, where election margins are often in the hundreds or low thousands.

The Granite State is defying the Democratic National Committee’s new primary calendar, which puts South Carolina ahead of New Hampshire, so President Biden’s name likely won’t be on the state’s ballot. Mr. Kennedy needs to win New Hampshire for his long-shot campaign to gain any momentum and to show Americans across the aisle — who otherwise might vote in a Republican primary — that a vote for him is not a wasted one.

“Kennedy comes out on top for the issues I care about,” the chairwoman of the Free State Project, Carla Gericke, tells the Sun. “We’re in a post-party politics. What do I mean by that? I don’t think it matters if it’s a D or an R or even an L. I think it matters who are the candidates.”

Mr. Kennedy is running on this post-party politics model. He is building a coalition of support among anti-interventionist Republicans, libertarians, “health freedom” advocates, Silicon Valley investors, independents nostalgic for the Kennedy brand, and Democrats who feel the party has lost its way or are looking for an alternative to Mr. Biden, who they feel is too old to run.

“Both parties have lost their way,” Mr. Kennedy said on Joe Rogan’s podcast. “My campaign is about bringing those two groups together — the left and the right — in a populist movement.”

During a News Nation townhall of Democratic voters Wednesday, Mr. Kennedy framed this coalition as a return to what it means to be a Kennedy Democrat.

“I’m running because I feel like my party has lost its way. That the values that my uncle represented, that my father represented when they were Democrats have been neglected,” he said. “I want to try to bring the Democratic Party back to those values, values that were in favor of focus on the middle class in this country, focus on labor, on the wellbeing of minorities in this country, focus on the environment, particularly on civil liberties and freedom of speech, which the party seems to have forgotten about. And the party was traditional anti-war as well.”

Mr. Kennedy’s bid for the White House is at best a long shot. Yet he is polling higher than many expected. Most polls show his support in the high teens.

Enthusiasm — or at least curiosity — for his candidacy is palpable in the crowds he attracts to his events. At Mr. Kennedy’s foreign policy speech last week at St. Anselm College, the line to get in snaked up a hill and was hundreds long. Attendees with whom the Sun spoke were a mix of Democrats, Republicans, and people who said they weren’t political.

Democrats want an alternative to Mr. Biden. A June NBC poll finds that 68 percent of Americans think Mr. Biden “doesn’t have the necessary mental and physical health” for a second term. A majority of Americans don’t want either Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump to run.

Mr. Kennedy isn’t the only presidential candidate reaching out to libertarians. Two Republican presidential candidates, Vivek Ramaswamy and Larry Elder, also spoke at PorcFest. Mr. Elder’s talk sounded more like a standard stump speech, but Mr. Ramaswamy came prepared to woo the group.

“The case for me, for a libertarian, I think I have the deepest understanding of anyone who has run for president in modern history of how to actually shut down the administrative state,” Mr. Ramaswamy tells the Sun. “The real divide in this country right now is not between Republicans and Democrats. That’s an optical illusion. It’s between this managerial class and the everyday citizen across the country.”

There have long been predictions of a “libertarian moment” in American politics, though these often prove short-lived. The 2016 candidacy of Rand Paul, coming on the heels of his father’s runs, fueled speculation of such a moment, which crashed and burned with the election of Donald Trump.

In the last three years, though, there is a palpable shift: Covid lockdowns, vaccine mandates, and tech censorship have fueled a deep distrust in government and elites that is making Americans receptive to anti-government, anti-“expert” messaging. Trust in the press, the FBI, and government are at all-time lows. This doesn’t mean people are running out to read Murray Rothbard or Milton Friedman, but the populist discontent is reminiscent of Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign, when he widened the Overton window and realigned his party’s base.

“The libertarian moment should have arrived three years ago,” a libertarian author and economist, Jeffrey Tucker, tells the Sun. Yet he says “all the major libertarian institutions completely failed” by staying silent during Covid. “That was the greatest missed opportunity for the so-called libertarian movement in modern history,” he says.

Yet Mr. Tucker concedes that libertarian ideology is resurging. “This loss of trust is not restricted to or isolated to government. The loss of trust is in universities and public health officials and doctors and pharmaceutical companies and big media and big box stores,” he says. He cites the Bud Light and Target boycotts as proof, qualifying that he is not a cultural warrior. “What you call the populist movement is really about regaining the people’s control over the systems under which they live,” he says.

Mr. Tucker supports Mr. Kennedy because he’s “really good on foreign policy” and understands that the “fusion of big business and government” is the biggest threat to liberty today. “He represents an emancipatory force in American life in ways that I don’t think I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Mr. Tucker says.

Other libertarians, though, are wary or even critical of this embrace. Reason Magazine is not on the Kennedy bandwagon, as evidenced by the line of questioning at Thursday’s Reason TV interview: digging in to Mr. Kennedy’s vaccine claims, writings on Aids, and his suggestion on Joe Rogan’s podcast that studies showing altrazine in the water changes the gender of frogs could explain the rise in transgenderism today. An editor-at-large at Reason, Matt Welch, wrote a scathing article about Mr. Kennedy, calling him “a Hugo Chavez–admiring scion of the Establishment who has serially fantasized about throwing his political opponents in jail.”

At PorcFest, Mr. Kennedy’s presence drew a mixed response. Many Free Staters were upset that Mr. Kennedy required attendees of his speech to disarm and go through metal detectors. Outside the pavilion where Mr. Kennedy was speaking, a small group of heavily armed individuals assembled in symbolic protest.

“I am not going to take away anybody’s guns as president of the United States,” Mr. Kennedy assured the crowd. Yet at a News Nation town hall this week, Mr. Kennedy said he would sign an assault weapons ban if Republicans and Democrats supported it in “a consensus.”

This last comment drew online ire. So did Mr. Kennedy’s defense of affirmative action in the wake of the Nine’s ruling Thursday striking down the practice at colleges and universities.

“I woke up this morning thinking seriously about endorsing RFK for president,” the host of a popular libertarian podcast, Clint Russell, tweeted Thursday. “I go to bed tonight absolutely certain that I will not.”

A Free State Project board member and founder of LBRY, Jeremy Kauffman, tweeted while at PorcFest, “Vaccines save lives” — a troll clearly directed at the sizable strain of libertarians who have become not just anti-vax mandates but anti-vax period. He also tweeted “guns save lives.”

“RFK is easy to understand: he just believes every conspiracy theory. Systemic racism, 5G causes cancer, autism from vaccines, Bill Gates planned Covid, deep state assassinations, climate change — if it’s a conspiracy, he’s in,” Mr. Kauffman tweeted.

The wider, populist anti-authoritarian support for Mr. Kennedy, though, may still be strong. The comments section of the Reason TV interview was filled with Kennedy supporters. The Sun has spoken with Kennedy supporters at multiple events who frame the 2024 election in “Flight 93” terms: as Michael Anton wrote in his 2016 essay in the Clairmont Review, “charge the cockpit or die.”

Mr. Anton argued for conservatives to support Mr. Trump despite his flaws and some positions with which they disagree. Kennedy supporters argue that he is the best candidate for this post-Covid, tech censorship moment. Even Mr. Tucker concedes he disagrees with Mr. Kennedy on issues like energy and the environment, but says Mr. Kennedy is “a tremendously reasonable person” and open to new ideas.

As Mr. Kennedy campaigns and does more interviews, he will likely articulate other positions with which libertarians disagree. He’s vying for the Democratic Party nomination, after all, not the Libertarian Party one.

For the Free State Project, getting Mr. Kennedy and Messrs. Ramaswamy and Elder to speak at PorcFest is a victory itself. “Real politicians who are running real campaigns understand that Free Staters in New Hampshire are a voting bloc that is influential enough that they have to talk to us,” Ms. Gericke says.

The New York Sun

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