RFK Jr’s somewhat predictable flop at the Libertarian convention

RFK Jr’s somewhat predictable flop at the Libertarian convention

Generally speaking, it’s a bad sign when people start running — not walking, but running — for the exits before your speech even begins.

Luckily for Robert F Kennedy Jr, most of them came back — including the man walking around without pants (yes, really).

Friday’s appearance by America’s leading independent candidate at the Libertarian Party’s national convention in Washington DC began an hour late. Thirty five minutes after the scheduled start time, a friendly female voice came across the speakers, announcing that the candidate was just 15 minutes away. Groans immediately arose from the audience.

The confusion and chaos was far from over. With minutes to go, people suddenly began standing up in the audience and making their way for the exits. Some left the room in a jog. The reason? News had just broke of a major vote taking place downstairs on the convention floor — all delegates were needed.

The candidate finally took the stage around 4.30pm. With a voice that sounded like he was battling sickness, Robert F Kennedy Jr got right to the meat of his pitch to a room full of skeptics towards federal power: the numerous alleged violations of the Constitution committed under the Covid-19 pandemic.

Presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy Jr speaks to supporters in Austin, Texas (Getty Images)
Presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy Jr speaks to supporters in Austin, Texas (Getty Images)

The Constitution’s Bill of Rights, he told attendees, had no “pandemic exception”. Many of his strongest criticisms, as it turned out, were aimed at the former president for his management of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Many of our most fundamental rights disappeared overnight,” he warbled. He also recounted telling an NBC News crew that he chose not to wear a mask during the pandemic to avoid “living like a slave”.

His railings against the Trump administration’s “lockdowns” — which were actually instituted at the local level — earned him one of the loudest cheers of the night, one that was only overshadowed by chants of “Free Assange” that broke out after RFK Jr called the Wikileaks founder a hero and pledged to drop the DoJ’s case against him if elected.

Other points of the speech were clearly aimed at his unique audience; there was little mention of kitchen-table issues like inflation, the availability of jobs or even immigration. He did find time to bring up MK Ultra, the CIA’s much-popularized drug experiments from the 1960s.

The candidate also projected confidence that he would eventually make it on a debate stage with Donald Trump and Joe Biden, a prospect that looks increasingly unlikely with the two campaigns collaborating to set up debates and cutting out the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.

Holden Culotta, a marketing staffer with the RFK-aligned American Values PAC, gave a favorable review of Mr Kennedy’s performance after the speech.

“I think it was great. I think he, you know, really made clear his position on the Second Amendment, which I think was a big, you know, question for people showing up here,” said Culotta. “So, he, you know, totally solidified on that. And then with Julian Assange as well ... Trump and Biden you're not gonna hear that from. And so, having a major party candidate on stage like that, you know, in the election going forwards. I think it's been resonating with a lot of Libertarians.”

But many of those who attended the first day of the Libertarian Party’s convention on Friday were true believers, and their contrast with RFK’s doe-eyed optimists could not have been clearer. Set up directly next to the Kennedy campaign’s booth on the main floor of the convention was a booth hoping to raise support for a voting system known as “approval voting”, wherein voters mark numerous candidates instead of just one — while not ranking them by preference, as ranked-choice voting requires.

Frank Atwood, a longtime Libertarian Party member who told The Independent he was a supporter of Ross Perot (arguably the most successful independent candidate in modern US history), helmed that booth.

“He doesn’t have a f*****g chance” unless he gets a major boost of big money donations, Atwood said of Kennedy’s electoral prospects.

“I have witnessed how hard it is for the Libertarians to get ballot access,” he continued. “I don't know if the Kennedy effort is well enough organized to establish that.”

Others who spoke at the party’s open comment forum on Friday were even less charitable towards party leaders for rolling out the red carpet to not just RFK Jr, who has said that he won’t run as a Libertarian, but for Donald Trump, the presumed 2024 Republican nominee, as well. Trump’s appearance in particular rankled more than a few people, and the juxtaposition of Kennedy’s campaign blaming Trump for icing them out of the debate process a day before the former president was to speak was more than a little awkward.

“We are a libertarian convention!” one frustrated Libertarian shouted into the mic at the open convention forum. “We do not need to give our time to non-libertarians!”

The former president’s appearance on Saturday will be his second pitch to a unique audience of the week.

Former President Donald Trump throws a pen during a campaign rally in the south Bronx on May 23 (AP)
Former President Donald Trump throws a pen during a campaign rally in the south Bronx on May 23 (AP)

Mr Trump was in the south Bronx, a deep-blue liberal stronghold, on Thursday for his first campaign rally in the state of New York since 2016. He vowed to win the state, a prospect that will be a massive uphill battle for any Republican candidate.

It’s unclear exactly how Mr Trump will massage his typical campaign stump speech on Saturday to match the expectations of his audience, or whether he’ll be subject to interruptions from the less-welcoming members of the party.

One thing is for sure: Trump will make history tomorrow with his address to the Libertarians. And the speech itself will present a question for Joe Biden and the president’s campaign, as they face their own wandering voter problem ahead of November.