Taza Khabre

For RFK Jr., Biden, not Trump, is the biggest threat to democracy

Former President Donald J. Trump refused to accept his loss in the 2020 election, painted as martyrs supporters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, laid the groundwork for a denial of the 2024 election results if he loses, and said he would be dictator on his first day back in office if he wins.

But according to independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., it is President Biden who poses the greater threat to American democracy — a view that Mr. Kennedy shares with Mr. Trump himself, and which democracy experts have called “absurd” and “absurd.”

That perspective is possible because Mr. Kennedy, who built his political career on promoting vaccine misinformation and government conspiracy theories, sees the Biden administration’s efforts to limit the spread of misinformation as a fundamental issue of our time. Censorship, as he calls it, overrides all other concerns about the political system.

Mr. Kennedy’s stance drew fresh criticism this week after it he said in an interview with CNN, “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 to use federal agencies to censor political speech, to censor his opponent.” He repeated it on Fox News on Tuesday, saying that a president like Mr. Biden is “a real threat to our democracy.”

The remarks by Mr. Kennedy, who carries the name but not the support of a prominent Democratic family, were an escalation of his attacks on Mr. Biden and the Democratic Party.

He has long argued that the government’s engagement with media companies and technology platforms — to prevent the spread of misinformation or illegal material or, in Mr. Kennedy’s case, the arguments he and his allies have made against vaccines — amounts to illegal censorship, an argument that last month in the Supreme Court court was met with skepticism.

In interviews with CNN and Fox News, Mr. Kennedy — an environmental lawyer who was himself a Democrat until last fall — took his ire directly at the Democratic leader, whose allies worry that Mr. Kennedy could advise Mr. Trump.

Democratic officials have devoted increasing resources to a multifaceted effort to undermine Mr. Kennedy’s campaign, fearing that his presence on state ballots could draw votes from Mr. Biden.

At the same time, it remains unclear whether Mr. Kennedy — whose anti-establishment message has also made him popular among some disgruntled Republicans, independents and libertarians — would draw more votes from Mr. Biden than from Mr. Trump. A a recent Fox News poll has shown he leans equally on both candidates, with Mr Trump last week attacking Mr Kennedy as the candidate of the “radical left”, in a potential sign of nervousness about his candidacy.

In pre-election appearances, Mr. Kennedy has often drawn comparisons between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump. Last week, when he announced his running mate, Nicole Shanahan, a Silicon Valley lawyer, Mr. Kennedy said that to young Americans, Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump “seem like two sides of the same coin.”

But several scholars who have studied democratic governments and the ways in which they can backfire told the New York Times that it is preposterous to suggest that social media moderation — which the Supreme Court has seemed inclined to uphold as a legitimate government goal — constitutes greater the threat of what Mr. Trump did.

They pointed to his refusal to accept electoral defeat, his fueling of political violence and his efforts to consolidate executive power and undermine public confidence in independent sources of information.

The two most basic tenets of democracy are that politicians “must always unequivocally accept the results of elections and must always unequivocally reject political violence,” said Steven Levitsky, a Harvard government professor who co-authored the book “How Democracies Die.” “I don’t think you’ll find a democracy expert in the world who will argue that mild efforts to regulate social media in the United States are somehow equal to or worse than attempts to overturn elections or incite political violence. ”

Sheri Berman, professor of political science at Barnard College, said that Mr. Kennedy didn’t just downplay the denial of Mr. Trump in the election — a threat that is “fundamental” and “must be recognized as such if democracy is going to work,” she said — but also blasted Mr. Biden’s actions.

“If we had a president who used federal agencies to persecute his opponents, to put them at a disadvantage politically, to prevent them from talking to citizens and voters, that would be a huge violation of democratic norms,” ​​said Dr. Berman. “That’s not what Biden did.”

In an interview with CNN, Mr. Kennedy said the attempt by Mr. Trump to nullify the 2020 election “clearly” poses a threat, but added: “The greatest threat to democracy is not someone questioning a return to the election, but the president of the United States using the power of his office to force a social media company — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – to open a portal and give access to that portal to the FBI, the CIA, the IRS, the CISA, the NIH, to censor his political critics.”

He then said he wasn’t making the argument he just made, he was simply saying it was him could make.

He also provided no evidence of any “portal” through which federal agencies can remove posts. On the contrary, he mentioned lawsuit filed last year, alleging that, by threatening regulatory action, the Biden administration “coaxed” social media companies to restrict speech — including anti-vaccine misinformation — in a way the First Amendment would bar the government from acting directly.

A federal judge in February issued a temporary injunction but stayed it until the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Murthy v. Missouri, in which the case of Mr. Kennedy consolidated. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has allowed the government, including the FBI, to continue contacting major social media companies — and during a case hearing last month, the justices appeared skeptical of the government’s arguments.

The government’s attorney, Brian H. Fletcher, told the court that banning the ordinance in question would by itself prohibit speech, including public comments by press secretaries or other officials seeking to discourage posts that are harmful to children, anti-Semitic or Islamophobic. He added that social networks operated independently of the government and often refused requests to remove posts.

A senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee called Mr. Kennedy’s comments “MAGA talking points” that removed “any doubt that he is a spoiler candidate.”

“With a straight face, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said that Joe Biden is a greater threat to democracy than Donald Trump because he is banned from pushing conspiracy theories on the Internet,” said adviser Mary Beth Cahill. “There is no comparison to calling a mob to the Capitol and promising to be dictator on day one.”

In the CNN interview, Mr. Kennedy also falsely said that Mr. Biden was “the first president in history to use his power over the Secret Service to deny Secret Service protection to one of his political opponents for political reasons,” referring to the administration’s past refusal to provide protection to Mr. Kennedy.

“Major” presidential candidates are entitled to Secret Service protection, but they are not guaranteed it. Whether to grant protection depends on the secretary of homeland security, in consultation with congressional leaders from both major parties, and independent and third-party candidates are less likely to get it than Democrats and Republicans.

In a fundraising email Tuesday morning, Mr. Kennedy’s campaign repeated its complaints about the Biden administration and the Democratic Party, describing the party as corrupt and attacking its escalating legal efforts to challenge access to his ballot and its refusal to allow a debate between Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Biden.

“The Democratic political machine is pulling every trick in the book to stop our tremendous momentum,” the email said. “With endless resources, establishment Democrats want to shut down the debate between Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Biden. They are using a vast network of shady money groups and nefarious lawyers to keep the Kennedy-Shanahan ticket off the state ballot and spread malicious smears.”

Dr. Levitsky and Dr. Berman noted that it is rare, in a democratic country, for a politician to explicitly reject democratic norms. More often they try to create a cloud of doubt so voters struggle to find out what the truth is.

“Those who deal with disinformation about democracy, those who muddy the water about what is and what is not democratic, are complicit in the attack on our democracy,” said Dr. Levitical. “The behavior that sustains democracy has not changed over time.”

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