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Observing a political sideshow

Somewhere along my three-hour drive to Philadelphia, I couldn’t help but realize the announcement of a third-party candidacy by an outcast offspring of a storied American political dynasty was the perfect event to begin my non-journalistic, sometimes-serious, sometimes-satirical 2024 presidential election coverage.

I thought to myself: here’s a guy with a golden last name—Kennedy—who’s married to Larry David’s television wife, and who’s supported by tech billionaires, trying to convince Americans that he is somehow different from a traditional member of the political establishment. So, somewhere along my drive, I realized it didn’t matter whether Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s announcement was truly “historic” because I was more interested in observing, first-hand, the cultural undercurrents in America that have steadily morphed our politics into a WWE-style multimedia entertainment complex rather than a serious platform for sustained thoughtful discourse.

Now, I should note that I’ve engaged with American politics as if it were a form of entertainment for some time. Realistically, I’ve viewed politics as a personal source of entertainment since 2006, when I was 13-years-old and started regularly watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central. Here was an avenue for me to learn about the world and my country, while also laughing at the contradictions and serious problems we, as a world and country, face.

Having been educated in-part through critical satire during my formative years, I’ve remained generally skeptical of the serious suit-wearing political pundits who litter cable television with their hot takes between commercial breaks for insurance companies and the all-new Chevrolet Silverado—political pundits who always remain self-confident in their commentary and analysis regardless of reality or a personal history of having been proven wrong in the past. I’ve never been able to fully accept the false facade of highbrow seriousness and objectivity that establishment media and political pundits perpetually maintain. 

“Let history decide what did or did not happen. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man’s beliefs never will.” – Stephen Colbert, 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner

Today, in fact, most serious reporters and politicians seem to feel a professional obligation to maintain the false facade of highbrow seriousness and objectivity. If they ever exposed the true nature of their work—the truly useless mirage that is professional political punditry—their century-long stint as gatekeepers of American politics and culture may begin to evaporate. Suddenly, we might realize that they are no better positioned to understand the world than we are and, in fact, their proximity to “power,” and their regular lets-get-drinks camaraderie with the staffers for the politicians they seek to cover “objectively,” might actually undermine their ability to see the world as it is.

For example, I couldn’t help but laugh whenever a reporter on CNN or MSNBC stated “I was texting with a Republican member of Congress…” or “a Republican staffer texted me…” during the on-again, off-again Groundhog Day Speaker elections of the 117th Congress. Journalists have come to believe, it seems, that they must be friends or friendly with the very people they pretend to cover objectively, and the very people we entrust them to cover objectively. Over and over, the media was unprepared and unable to effectively cover the chaotic speaker election because they rely on reports from unreliable sources—sources who, isolated within a certain kind of self-sustaining bubble, are equally unaware of what is actually happening in the world. But, the mere proximity to power tantalizes the young, intrepid DC reporter who is lured by the siren song of the Beltway brunch scene (and some, I assume, are good people).

The WWE analogy is apt, and I’ve used it previously to talk about the disgraced and twice impeached ex-president’s cult-grip on the Republican Party. When news of RFK Jr.’s self-described historic announcement first crossed my metaphorical desk, I knew immediately he’d announce a third-party candidacy—there’s a universal truth about hyper-tanned political types which always pull them toward the most chaotic, self-aggrandizing position possible regardless of the possible repercussions of their actions. These types are happy to collect a recurring $50 donation from someone in poverty who is captured by targeted political advertisements and rhetoric. Still, because of the establishment media’s self-appointed role as objective observers of American politics, most members of the press, at least publicly, had to ignore that self-evident conclusion and wait until RFK Jr. made the announcement “official.” These entities, we should understand, have to maintain some level of kayfabe in their public behavior—accepting staged political performances at face value—or otherwise they risk angering individuals who provide them with endless access and behind-the-scenes text message exclusives. 

Entering the Political Theater

In Philadelphia, I sat across from Independence Hall and, as I wrote the first draft of this essay, observed with appropriate patriotic reverence the space where the Declaration of Independence was signed by our nation’s founders. Then, I made the short walk from Independence Hall to the National Constitution Center where RFK Jr.’s historic announcement was set to take place. This short walk from the steps of American democracy marked, in my mind, the official start of my professional role as an outcast political pundit covering the all-important 2024 presidential election. 

It was a mild October morning with light overcast and a cool breeze. From a distance, as I approached the venue, I was impressed and struck by the setup. It was a picturesque backdrop with the name KENNEDY littering the horizon. I was initially struck by the theater and production of it all, having a lifelong fascination with American presidential politics, which of course includes an affinity for John F. Kennedy who, as a fellow Irish Catholic, was one of my childhood heroes. But, much like the highly produced theatrical nature of American politics in general, the closer you were to the action, the more the mirage began to fade away. 

I entered the venue at 10:30am and my first observation from inside the circus was the extraordinary amount of press present to cover what amounted to a political sideshow. But I had to check myself: having been credentialed as a member of the press by the Kennedy ‘24 campaign, I was personally contributing to this oversaturation of needless media coverage. Still, I wondered, why exactly were we there? What attracted us to this event—to this sideshow of American politics? 

As I looked around, it seemed as though there was one member of the media for each member of the crowd, and each paired up to generate the all-important content required to keep the wheels of America’s political entertainment complex turning. Soundbites, hits, opinions, and takes. We each accepted and embodied our American obligation to consume or produce, whether we were spectators in the crowd or press in the stands. I subjectively observed the objective engagement reporters maintained while interviewing apparent RFK Jr. supporters. I observed, much to my own personal entertainment, the professional press impressively maintain their neutral-faced objective demeanor while interviewing a Village People-like cast of characters: a woman wearing a mink hat and pearl earrings, a man wearing salmon pants, a woman wearing a tie-dye onesie, and a man wearing a black shirt with a painted “Z” emblem, representing support for Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. These impressive members of the press never broke—they nodded and smiled, no matter what the supporter said into their camera, recorder, or notebook.

The journalists (myself among them, I suppose) congregated behind the crowd on an elevated platform. This is where we placed our cameras to capture American history, that conveniently doubled as our own private space to mingle with one another as fellow spectators of the spectators of the event for which we’ve all gathered, and for which we’re paid to cover, so that our employers can produce content that virtual spectators, who couldn’t attend, will soon click on and generate revenue.

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Entering the venue, I was greeted by kind volunteers who helped check me and other guests in. These volunteers, who I assume are not paid, though I haven’t fact checked that claim, had a noticeably different and more genuine demeanor relative to the suit-wearing Kennedy ‘24 staff inside the venue. I watched as most of these well-tailored staff members walked around, pretending as though they were hovering above the crowd, on their way to talk to Yet Another Very Important Person. For these paid politicos, it seems as if the Kennedy campaign is more of a vehicle than an actual, viable campaign they believe can win. They can attach their identity to Kennedy ‘24 so as to say to the world: yes, indeed, I am a seasoned political staffer who is well-connected—hell, I work for a Kennedy!

These staffers stand out, of course, because they’re dressed relatively well in a sea of mink-tie-dye-pearl-earring-wearing spectators, so your eye catches them as you scan the crowd. When you spot one of these types, especially if you make eye contact with them, there’s an urge to look away—if only because they’re wearing a suit, outside, on a Monday afternoon. During one of my regular eye-scans of the crowd, staffers, and press, one of these well-dressed individuals stood out. In what must’ve been nanoseconds, my brain fired synapses that hadn’t fired since 2009, rapidly opening mind drawers and dusting off forgotten memories before sending a question to the front of my brain: is that… Dennis Kucinich?

After a quick Google image search and, more importantly, after hearing someone call him Dennis, my suspicions were confirmed. 

This, I knew, was my big break. This was my first opportunity as an intrepid reporter-on-the-trail to dig deeper, to uncover truths yet uncovered, and to deliver to the American people an all-important nugget of information that, without my impressive investigative abilities, might otherwise never come to light.

With purpose and conviction, I walked over to Dennis Kucinich and asked him two questions. I asked these questions honestly, and almost existentially. I hadn’t thought about Dennis Kucinich since 2008, when he ran for president, and he seemed like a nice enough guy. Now he’s backstage at an RFK Jr. event? That’s what his career has come to? So, when I asked these questions, my tone was polite and genuinely curious, but perhaps with a certain glint in my eyes that betrayed my objective journalistic responsibility.

“Dennis! Can I ask what brings you here today?”

“Yeah… this event…” he answered quickly and confusedly, as started walking away.

Reader, what you must know is that politicians like Dennis and journalists like me are meant to have an adversarial relationship. So, I was not surprised nor thrown off by such a short answer. These politicians don’t want to be talking to a hard-hitting reporter like me—a guy wearing a red hat that says SATIRE on it. They fear me, and I fear them.

“Are you excited?” I asked as a hard-hitting follow-up, hoping to establish some report.

“Yeah…” he said, turning and walking away.

Huh, I thought, what a weird interaction. Why is he acting so strange? I decided now was a good time to resume my Google search of Dennis Kucinich, tabbing out of images and adding “RFK” to the search term. That’s when I discovered that Dennis Kucinich is RFK Jr.’s campaign manager. I laughed out loud as I made my way back into the sea of supporters and reporters, and actively tried to re-forget that Dennis Kucinich exists. 

Meanwhile, the circus atmosphere continued. On the two Jumbotron televisions, montages of RFK Jr. played. The crowd’s chatter clashed with the loud audio of the well-produced videos. Still, phrases like spearhead of a populist movement and drug addict at 15 made their way through the crowd noise and into my ears. The atmosphere had a positive sheen that was undercut by the rhetoric in the well-produced videos, which were filled with warnings and worries for our collective future. 

In my limited experience attending these types of events, the organizers don’t often let you see behind the curtain. Such behind-the-scenes visual access can disrupt the attempted theater and event production. But at this event, if you stood in the right spot, you could see behind the curtain. I’m always fascinated by fences that separate Us from Them, so I spent a lot of my time observing Kennedy ‘24 staffers and VIP guests mingle with one another. A few of Them, including Dennis, occasionally wandered over to the fence to interact with Us before taking a business card from eager would-be staffers. As the event began, the crowd was asked to bow their heads for a prayer. Meanwhile, behind the curtain, the staffers and VIP guests laughed and posed for pictures. 

Finally, History Begins

The first speaker declared they were doing this for Bobby. Then they declared they don’t trust the media. Then they declared something about twenty positives to every one negative. That’s where my notes on the first speaker end. A short time later, this speaker, some guy named Kyle, threw t-shirts into the Us crowd from the Them side of the fence. Meanwhile, the next speaker spoke of a vision. Holding up a clipart drawing of a train car, she declared that her vision was of a train—the same train that brought us to the western front—going back onto the tracks. She told us that if enough of us drew our visions on a clipart printout of a train car, then the visions would “become real and true.” The train car clipart was available under the trees near the event entrance, she said in conclusion, but I never saw or heard another word about this.

It was around this point that I realized that the event security—and there was a lot of security—looked like Secret Service agents. They wore suits with sunglasses and small circular pins, much like the Secret Service wears. They walked around and talked into their sleeves, listening for a response on the small receivers spiraling out of their ears. But a quick Google search informed me that they were not, in fact, members of the Secret Service. Just more political theater. 

After botching my opportunity to ask the Kennedy’ 24 campaign manager a serious question (although I think botching my opportunity was the funniest outcome, and therefore the best possible outcome) I decided I should prepare a question for RFK Jr. just in case. I decided I would ask him about his recent comments where he said Elon Musk is like the American patriots who died during the Revolution. I never had the chance to ask my question. 

At 12:10pm, I overheard two comments.

The first comment was by a crowd member: “Are you feeling this? It’s all about the magic, the spirit.”

The second comment was by a staffer on my side of the fence, who saw RFK Jr. walking toward the VIP tent: “He’s definitely wearing a vest,” she said excitedly, referring to a bullet proof vest. 

At 12:15pm, Larry David’s television wife spoke to introduce her IRL husband.

At 12:20pm, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. took the stage for his historic announcement and launched his third-party candidacy: 

“I need my speech,” Bobby Jr. said as the crowd laughed. “They… you… you can read anything. You can’t read anything.” The crowd stopped laughing. “What? Yeah. It’s… it’s upside down. It’s upside down. Right here. Okay.”

Then RFK Jr.’s scripted speech began, which you can watch for yourself if you so desire. It included words and phrases like: Powder keg. Smug elite. Orchestrated. Corporations. Revolution. Hanged. Pledge. Political addiction of taking sides. We become evil if we participate.

At one point, Bobby Jr. declared, “I take inspiration from the one President who had no political party…” Without missing a beat the staffer who had been excited by the possibility that RFK Jr. might be wearing a bulletproof vest exclaimed, “Ross Perot!” 

But, we shouldn’t judge too harshly. The staffers on my side of the fence had to maintain a difficult balance: they had to appear to be listening to and enjoying the speech while, at the same time, and perhaps more important to their individual goals and aspirations, had to take pictures of themselves at the speech to text to friends and share on social media. When the crowd laughed, the staffers would look up from their phones and laugh with them. When the crowd clapped, the staffers would rejoin reality and clap along with them. And, for good measure, they gave an occasional “WOO!! BOBBY!” to ensure their active participation was noted by Them on the other side of the fence. 

Meanwhile, as Bobby Jr. spoke about shadow institutions and big tech funding for the Democratic Party, I began thinking about the many contradictions this speech had already offered. Primarily, the idea that the offspring of an American political dynasty married to a Hollywood actress and backed by Silicon Valley billionaires is the leader we need to solve our present problems just because he says he isn’t an establishment figure. But the truth is that Bobby Kennedy Jr. is an establishment-backed figure—he’s just backed by a different and emerging establishment that isn’t presently in political power, and an establishment that sure seems interested in dismantling our liberal democratic institutions. 

My brief reflection was interrupted when a woman ran over to the fence and asked one of Them for water. “Someone fainted,” she said, “we don’t have water.” Event security, which wasn’t Secret Service, didn’t let Us bring water into the event, but water was soon provided by Them—two bottles.

My attention was ripped back to the speech as I heard RFK Jr. talk about “going over the castle wall together,” concluding an analogy about kings and queens celebrating as their subjects fought one another instead of the crown. Bobby Jr. then spoke of Moses and MLK, declaring he had seen a glimpse of the mountain top in his lifetime. I looked around and noted the lack of diversity—the mountain top he was referring to was, apparently, more of a financial mountain top.

I was struck by how individuals in the crowd, who otherwise seem eager to portray themselves independent and free, became quickly consumed by the speech and by the production, theater, and atmosphere the event offered. Their smiles and tie-dye shirts were quietly set aside, their individuality stripped from them as they listened to a Camelot-wannabe charlatan weave a vague web of grievance and fear, hope and possibility. They suspended disbelief, embraced kayfabe, and channeled their personal frustrations into the idea of a third-party Kennedy candidacy. I realized at this point for my work to be successful, I would have to embrace some level of kayfabe as well. I would have to accept that a significant portion of politics in America is simply a well-staged production, and that many of those participating in the system are actively aware of that fact, but refuse to confront it or even eagerly embrace it. 

After the event, I briefly spoke to the man wearing a black shirt with a painted “Z” emblem on it. I wanted to confirm that it was, indeed, an active display of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The man was talking intently with another man, who I overheard identify himself as being Ukrainian-American. As the Z-painted shirt man spoke to the Ukrainian-American, the veins in his neck were popping out. 

As they continued talking, I walked over and asked, “is that Z for Russia?”

I pointed to the emblem on the man’s shirt. 

“Yeah, it is,” the Ukrainian American said quickly, and with a level of astonished certainty, having already confirmed himself that the man was, indeed, wearing a pro-Russian war symbol at RFK Jr.’s historic announcement.

“Yeah, it is,” the man wearing the Z-painted shirt confirmed.

“Yikes, that’s no good!” I said, breaking kayfabe. “Good luck with that buddy!”

Some Concluding Reflections

One of the quiet contradictions offered by this obscure event highlighted the kind of contradiction I find most interesting in our present moment: that a fair number of Americans believe the solutions to our problems will emanate from the minds of wealthy individuals who are members of the wealth class that perpetuate the very problems they promise to solve.

In positioning themselves for power, these wealthy individuals often pretend they’re not actually wealthy, or they suggest, one way or another, that their wealth is actually an indication of intelligence, or they ignore their wealth all together, and certainly ignore that their wealth is usually due to generational inheritance or privilege. Regardless of any one presidential candidate’s individual wealth, plenty of billionaires remain waiting in the wings to fund these self-assured candidates, thereby assuring the continuation of America’s horse-race-meets-circus presidential campaign atmosphere. Candidates from both political parties line up to kiss the purse. 

The establishment media’s self-insisted role as the primary neutral observers of reality has been acutely undermined by the technology we all have access to. The press must have a view and opinion of the world, we know, that underpins their analysis of our present moment, and that informs how they organize their thoughts and report the news. Objectivity in news is dead, if it was ever even alive to begin with. Meanwhile, the expansive conservative media empire has entirely dropped this false facade—the new kayfabe on the right is that everyone is in on the joke, everyone knows they’re all rooting for one side over the other, and their entire approach relies on balancing both a pretend objectivity injected with lies and rhetoric which advance their cause and undermine the cause of their political opponents, and, ultimately, of our democracy. 

The left, meanwhile, remains fractured, with many still clinging to the idea that simply stated facts can win the day. There is a pervasive refusal to understand the moment we’re in, the challenges we’re up against, and the dark forces we face. Focused on trying to uphold the mirage of objectivity, the establishment left seemingly cannot bring themselves to appropriately critique the very system which sustains their wealth and power, and enables them to serve as highly paid consultants and political pundits, but which breaks the backs of an increasingly disillusioned working class who keep this country moving forward. 

The WWE analogy is fitting, I think. This politics-as-entertainment complex requires a suspension of disbelief on our part, as readers and viewers. When we suspend disbelief, we accept the produced reality that highly paid talking heads perpetuate as they pretend to know what they’re talking about. We eagerly consume the content they generate to fulfill our basic human need to try and understand the world. And yet, underneath the suspension of disbelief is an even deeper sense that no political pundit really seems to know what’s going on in the world. But as this deeper sense of truth briefly crosses our mind, we often decide, for some reason or another, that it’s easier to continue allowing self-assured pundits the power to interpret our shared reality, if only because of their proximity to a camera and audience, than it for us to challenge their authority and remove ourselves from their Beltway echo chamber. 

After the event, I ran into Dennis Kucinich again. I asked him how he thought the event went, and he gave me a big smile and thumbs up. I asked him if he was still excited, and he continued holding his thumb up as he walked away.

A week later, Dennis Kucinich was fired by the Kennedy ‘24 campaign. 

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