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The Myth of the GOP Puppet Master
Democrats and minority groups who disagree with leftist dogma are not all useful idiots.
In last Sunday’s New York Times, opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote that Robert Kennedy Jr.’s campaign looked like either a “farce or a dirty trick, one boosted by MAGA figures to weaken Biden ahead of the 2024 election.” A month earlier, the paper had declared, “Robert Kennedy Jr. pushes right-wing ideas.” On June 19, the Washington Post announced, “Robert F. Kennedy Jr. sounds like a MAGA Republican.” On June 23, New York magazine said RFK Jr. is “not a real democrat.”
These charges against Kennedy should come across as strange. After all, he is a lifelong progressive, from a dynasty of Democrats, and he has waged countless legal battles to protect the environment from polluters, fought against factory farms, and defended the land of indigenous peoples—about as far as one can get from a Republican. Yet the MAGA allegations persist.
But this is not just about RFK Jr. Seen through a wider lens, the RFK Jr.-as-right winger narrative is part of an ethos of the leftist political and media establishment: any stance, even if taken by a veteran of the left, that goes against the favored views of the progressive influencer class must, by default, be Republican or right wing; and any group or individual supporting that position must only be doing so as part of a GOP plot.
According to the legacy media, if you are a Muslim, Asian American, or a heterodox thinker who disagrees with a particular position of the leftist elite, you are a patsy who has been hoodwinked by the GOP. This line of reasoning—or political tactic, if you will—not only condescends to the people it targets, it also may backfire by shrinking the size of the Democrats’ voter base.
Last week, former Biden press secretary, and now MSNBC talking head, Jen Psaki, in reaction to Muslims protesting certain transgender policies, claimed on her Sunday show that the GOP was trying to recruit Muslim Americans against transgender people.
These allegations echo a charge I repeatedly heard leveled at me and others—many of whom are Democrats—during the pandemic: advocates for opening schools were, at best, dupes, and, at worst, co-conspirators with the Kochs and other right-wing groups. Even when it was acknowledged that no money was exchanged, and no collaboration took place there was an implied guilt-by-association. (Apparently, the Koch network must have infiltrated progressive, socialist Western and Northern Europe, where schools opened in the spring of 2020.)
The notion that any time a group or individual who may have been generally aligned with the left but then veered from leftist orthodoxy was not doing so because of their own volition but, rather, because a GOP puppet master manipulated them is—to be candid—racist, prejudiced, and demeaning. It is based on the idea that if you disagree with the leftist elite you lack personal agency, and the only way you could have arrived at a differing view was not through your own thought process and values, but because you were conned by clever conservatives.
A recent piece in The Nation took the narrative a step further, claiming that “Asian American anti–affirmative action activists have not been simply ‘used’ by white activists and duped into this white supremacist policy. They are active, militant co-conspirators with white conservatives.”
Is it possible that an Asian American parent might be pro choice, for wealth distribution, in favor of environmental protections, and desirous of a liberal immigration policy and want their child to not be held to a higher academic standard than other high school students by college admissions officers? According to much of the media, the answer is no—the only explanation is that an otherwise liberal person was “used” and that their beliefs are now “right wing.” Similarly, does Psaki not realize that some Muslim Americans have always been socially conservative?
What about those MAGA views by RFK Jr.? Some examples cited in the pieces mentioned above were on vaccines and the war in Ukraine. Granted, many of RFK Jr.’s specific medical claims appear to be outlandish, but they are rooted in a general critique of Big Pharma that used to be a hallmark of the left. Beyond that, the granola patchouli set on the left have long been at the forefront of vaccine skepticism. And anti-war isolationism is hardly exclusive to the right. In a 1936 address, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “We shun political commitments which might entangle us in foreign wars” and “we seek to isolate ourselves completely from war.” Obama famously was reluctant to directly involve America in the war in Syria and other foreign conflicts.
In general spirit, RFK Jr.’s views on these topics represent classic liberal positions. Yet because the Democrat political and media establishment is in favor of intervention in Ukraine, and during the pandemic all but abandoned its suspicions of the pharmaceutical industry, to express a contrary view is now somehow magically Republican.
There are also plenty of terms that are now code for “you are not one of us” by the establishment left. The Times repeatedly has referred to people who had questions about Covid vaccines or who were against mandates—many of whom were vaccinated themselves—as “anti vaxxers.” Suggesting it was possible that SARS-CoV-2 came from a lab made you a “racist.” These labels—and of course the ultimate mark of dishonor, “right wing”—are intended to cleave the social and political landscape into base tribalism. They fallaciously render people—who are complex—into simplistic, binary actors.
The purpose of this narrative, as I see it, is to cower independent thinkers into silence who are afraid of being seen as being on the “wrong” team. This may be effective at cocktail parties in Park Slope, but it remains to be seen whether it will win people over at the polls.
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