The Utter Absurdity of Donald Trump and RFK Jr. Running as ‘Outsiders’

Updated at 12:26 p.m. ET on May 5, 2024

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One irony of the 2024 election is that, at a time when Americans profess exceptionally low faith in their government and institutions, their choices for president represent the most insider slate of candidates in at least a quarter century, and perhaps longer.

The Democratic nominee is Joe Biden, the sitting president, a former vice president, and a former U.S. senator of 36 years. The Republican nominee is Donald Trump, who is the most recent former president. The leading third-party candidate, the ostensible alternative, is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is, well, exactly who his name suggests.

This produces another irony: Trump, despite being literally the former president, and Kennedy, despite being literally a Kennedy, have both worked to depict themselves as outsiders. During his current campaign, Trump has often insisted that he’s being persecuted by the criminal-justice system for standing up for the little guy. “Be totally unafraid to challenge entrenched interests and failed power structures,” Trump intoned in a February campaign video. “Relish the opportunity to be an outsider and embrace that label … It’s the outsiders who change the world.” Kennedy, too, has positioned himself as someone without any connection to existing power structures. “It’s not somebody who’s inside who’s going to solve the problem,” Kennedy said on NewsNation in March. “They’re the ones who gave us the problem. We need somebody who can think about it in a different way.” (“Accepted,” replied the host, Chris Cuomo, the son and brother of former New York governors.)

Biden has not tried to distance himself from the system in the same way. That’s partly an acknowledgment of the absurdity of doing so while president and partly an expression of Biden’s affinity for institutions, even as his presidency has quietly undermined many aspects of the existing system.

For Trump to claim to be an outsider requires asking voters to forget about the four years he was president—which, to be fair, does seem to be a central aim of his campaign. Trump often criticizes Biden for issues that he himself either created or didn’t solve as president. Most prominently, Trump failed to complete his paramount campaign promise of building a wall that would secure the southern border. The major rise in violent crime over the past few years—which has now dropped sharply—began during his administration. He has again promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act, having failed to do so as president.

Trump proposes different policies than Biden does, naturally, but that doesn’t make him an outsider—it makes him a typical presidential candidate. In office, his signature policy move was a tax cut that benefited wealthy Americans. This time around, his most drastically anti-system proposals involve politicizing the Department of Justice and overhauling the federal bureaucracy to eliminate the civil service. These are not populist reforms in any sense of the word, but instead changes that would encourage cronyism and political corruption.

Trump had a more persuasive claim to being an outsider in 2016, when he had never held or run for office, and had to overcome the opposition of most of the Republican Party leadership; by contrast, he controls the Republican National Committee today. But even eight years ago, the claim was questionable. Despite Trump’s umbrage at elites who he believes have long looked down on him, as my colleague McKay Coppins has reported, he is very much a product of an elite background. Trump is an alumnus of a private prep school and the University of Pennsylvania. He began his career with his family’s existing real-estate business, prospered by exploiting a tax code designed to aid people like him, and cannily used the bankruptcy system to get out of jams. During his 2016 campaign, he laid out how he had used political donations to obtain favors, such as giving to the Clinton Foundation and then getting Hillary Clinton to attend his wedding. The story demonstrated his place as a consummate inside operator.

In short, Trump is railing against a system that created him and that he declined to change. Much the same is true of Kennedy, who would plainly not be a presidential candidate if he weren’t a member of the Kennedy family (notwithstanding the nearly uniform opposition to his candidacy among his relations). Kennedy invokes his father and his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, frequently, and a super PAC supporting him even aired an ad during the Super Bowl that mimics one of JFK’s commercials. “This entire campaign is a pose, as is his outsider stance. He is a Kennedy. He is the fifth member of his family to run for president,” Rebecca Traister wrote in New York last year.

Kennedy’s claims to being against the system rest largely on his running as a third-party candidate, even though he became one only after he received practically no support as a Democratic candidate. His policy positions are less outsider than they are an incoherent mix of liberal and conservative: He backs a ban on abortion after 15 weeks and tight border enforcement, but he also wants single-payer health care and strong environmental regulation. Many are poorly fleshed out His most esoteric ideas—notably, his anti-vaccine obsession—are more expressive than wonkish, more anti-sense than anti-system. His largest campaign funder is the scion of the Mellons, a family even richer and more established than his own.

Weirdly, Biden has a claim to being both the most pro-system and anti-system candidate of the three. As recently as the 2020 campaign, the idea that he would seriously shake up the status quo would have seemed ridiculous. But in office, he has adopted a quietly revolutionary approach, attempting to overhaul the U.S. economy like no president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. Last year, Biden became the first president to ever walk a picket line, marching alongside United Auto Workers strikers—the most visible but also perhaps least consequential in a string of moves to weaken employers. His Federal Trade Commission is the most anti-corporate in memory, banning noncompete clauses and seeking to block dozens of mergers. He has pushed an industrial policy in which the federal government puts its muscle and money behind key industries, a major shift from the neoliberal consensus of the past half century. He has canceled billions in student debt.

We likely won’t hear Biden touting himself as an outsider candidate, which produces a third irony of the 2024 presidential race: Notwithstanding his anti-system policies, Biden is running as the institutionalist candidate who will preserve American democracy, while Trump is working to destroy it—all in an effort to protect and serve the most entrenched interests around.

This article originally understated the number of years Joe Biden served as a senator.

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