Robert F. Kennedy Jr. pushes conspiracy theories at Salt Lake City rally

RFK Jr., son of the former U.S. attorney general and independent presidential candidate, spoke to a crowd of several hundred Utahns on Thursday night.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Independent Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks to the crowd at a rally in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. brought his independent presidential campaign to Salt Lake City for a rally on Thursday afternoon, where hundreds of Utahns braved the cold and poor air quality to hear a stump speech from the longtime environmental activist and lawyer.

Kennedy initially challenged President Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination in the 2024 presidential election but shifted to an independent bid in October. Kennedy has said he wants to play spoiler for both Republicans and Democrats next year.

Ron Russell, a Marine Corps veteran, said his wife supported Kennedy’s presidential bid, and she’s the reason he found himself at Thursday’s event.

“I always obey my wife,” Russell said with a chuckle.

He voted for Donald Trump twice but is open to voting for someone else in 2024. “Our country is in trouble, and something needs to change,” Russell said.

“I like Trump, but if he gets back in, they’re going to throw the same stuff at him that they did the first time,” Russell lamented. “The Democrats are going to come at him 10 times stronger.”

Trump is currently facing 91 felony charges in several cases related to his handling of classified documents and his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss.

Former Republican legislative candidate Steve Aste said he’s intrigued by Kennedy’s message because Kennedy is not beholden to either of the two major political parties.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A supporter listens as Robert F. Kennedy speaks at a rally in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023.

“He’s in the middle, politically, versus the extremes with Trump and even Biden,” Aste said. “A lot of people have noticed the division and see it as a big problem. He seems to be more of a unifier.”

Aste also cited Kennedy’s opposition to vaccines as another reason he may support him in 2024.

“What I like about him is his stance on COVID and the COVID shots,” Aste said. “He’s outspoken against them. I happen to agree with that point of view. That’s something that resonates with me in a big way.”

Kennedy has falsely claimed the COVID-19 virus could be a bioweapon engineered by China that targets white and Black people, but not Chinese people and Ashkenazi Jews. Kennedy has also pushed the evidence-free claim that vaccines cause autism.

Much of the political red meat that has become ubiquitous in today’s political discourse was absent from Kennedy’s talk. Instead, Kennedy spent several minutes talking about the impacts of homelessness on San Francisco to make a point about the economic struggles of younger Americans.

“A whole generation believes their lives are going to be worse off than their parents. We have betrayed them,” Kennedy said. “We’re going from an ownership society to a rental society. That means we’re going from citizens to subjects.”

Kennedy used that appeal to populism to jump into a conspiracy theory he had recently latched on to about high housing prices. Kennedy claims that two companies, BlackRock and Blackstone, are buying up single-family homes and turning them into rentals.

The Washington Post’s Phillip Bump called Kennedy’s claims “financially illiterate poppycock,” pointing out that BlackRock does not currently buy single-family homes. Blackstone is in the home-buying business, but they don’t purchase enough houses to make a difference, Bumps writes.

When asked why he continued to push that narrative when there was no evidence to support his claims, Kennedy doubled down.

“BlackRock is now mounting an advertising campaign to get me to stop talking about them. The fact is Blackrock is the biggest owner of Blackstone, and Blackstone is a major buyer of housing and is targeting single-family homes all over this country,” Kennedy said while taking questions from the media after the event.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Independent Robert F. Kennedy speaks at a rally in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023.

That’s not exactly true, according to Bump. Blackstone and Blackrock split in 1990s. Kennedy also claimed that BlackRock owns large chunks of two other financial firms — Vanguard and State Street. Those companies, Bump writes, do not invest in single-family homes.

One of the biggest applause lines during Kennedy’s speech came in response to a mention of a conspiracy theory that rose to prominence on the political far right during COVID-19 known as the “Great Reset.” It claims the World Economic Forum, a popular boogeyman on the far right, is working to subjugate humanity while a handful of elites rule the world.

“They’re doing it right in front of us,” Kennedy told the crowd. “They know we know, and they don’t care.”

“They’re getting away with it because they have a strategy to keep us at each other’s throats,” Kennedy added, saying that his independent run promised to break through partisan animus.

The crowd was mostly subdued as they strained to hear Kennedy speak — he suffers from spasmodic dysphonia, a disorder that affects his voice box.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Independent Robert F. Kennedy speaks at a rally in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023.

During a short pause in his speech, one man yelled from the balcony, “Yeah, Bobby! Give us back our country!” Kennedy ignored the outburst and plowed ahead.

Donors from Utah have only contributed about $78,000 to Kennedy’s campaign effort, according to the Federal Election Commission, less than 1% of the $15 million he’s raised overall.

As attendees filed into the venue on Thursday, they were met by a small army of supporters circulating petitions to secure Kennedy’s spot on the 2024 ballot. He’ll likely reach that goal, as independent candidates have to collect just 1,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot in Utah.