“God talks to human beings through many vectors,” Robert F. Kennedy Jr. tweeted on April 19th, 2023, the day he announced his primary challenge to Joe Biden. “But nowhere with such detail, and grace and joy, as through creation. When we destroy nature, we diminish our capacity to sense the divine.”
The pious opening signals how carefully Kennedy has navigated his journey to the national stage. Because it’s not the name recognition, or his reputation as an avenging environmental lawyer that puts him in the game. It’s not that he helped found the Waterkeeper Alliance (a global network that lobbies to protect water sources) or built a solid record in defending Indigenous peoples from industrial land-grabs and pollution. It’s not his muscular Catholicism.
One important reason Kennedy is polling at around 15% in the nascent race is because he leads a juggernaut of antivax misinformation that attracts a swarm of conspiracy theorists, from far-right radio host Alex Jones, to left-leaning New Age “COVID-dissident” Charles Eisenstein, who is now serving as his Director of Messaging.
Read More: Inside the Very Online Campaign of RFK Jr.
It’s not hard to see how Kennedy became the darling of broken thought leaders. He openly doubts the official account of his uncle John F. Kennedy’s assassination, which claimed that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. He’s also convinced that Sirhan Sirhan was part of a larger operation when he supposedly killed his father Bobby Kennedy in that Los Angeles hotel kitchen in 1968.
In addition to these mythic-scale stories, a more sinister strategy drew Kennedy deeper into the twilight of conspiracism: medical libertarianism. As Kennedy recounts in a 2017 forward to a third edition of The Peanut Allergy Epidemic by Heather Fraser, his son Conor needed 29 visits to the emergency room for severe allergies and anaphylactic shock before the age of three. That relentless stress started Kennedy down the road of questioning the difference between industrial and pharmaceutical crimes.
While Fraser’s book falsely argues that childhood vaccines cause deadly food allergies, Kennedy took a different angle through his Children’s Health Defense nonprofit. Since its founding in 2016, CHD has pushed the false idea that the mercury compound thimerosal makes vaccines unsafe, even though thimerosal had been largely phased out in 2001. It was a plausible equation for Kennedy, who as an environmental lawyer was obsessed with mercury poisoning in water systems and food chains.
By 2019, Kennedy was the leading buyer of antivax ads on Facebook, and was implicated in a measles outbreak in Samoa that infected 5,700 and killed 83. The outbreak followed the tragic deaths of two children who had received contaminated vaccines. Kennedy traveled to Samoa, and was pictured with a local antivax advocate. This was followed by Children’s Health Defense sending a letter to the Prime Minister of Samoa, urging him to question the general safety of the Measles, Mumps, & Rubella (MMR) vaccine. This tragedy echoed the measles outbreaks in Somali immigrant communities in Minnesota in 2011 and 2017.
The Somalis had been specifically targeted by the antivax propagandist Andrew Wakefield, whose falsified 1998 study started the still-lingering conspiracy theory that the MMR vaccine causes autism. More than a year before Kennedy lost his Instagram account for spreading medical misinformation, he used it to sing Wakefield’s praises, dubbing him “among the most unjustly vilified figures of modern history.” In 2021, the Center for Countering Digital Hate linked Kennedy on their list of the 12 influencers responsible for up to 73% of all antivax content on Facebook, and 65% of all digital antivax content overall. (Kennedy was reinstated to Instagram on June 4, 2023, on the grounds that he’s running for president.)
Today, Kennedy is trying to keep this record on the down-low, in favor of a more mainstream vibe on the stump. He wants to be known as an eco-prophet, and as an anti-corporate, anti-interventionist truth-teller. His Twitter feed blends eco-spirituality with Catholic-icon-style photos of his assassinated uncle, John F. Kennedy, and quotes that lean hard into his passion for free speech and fearlessness in the face of “unpleasant facts.”
And so far, it’s working. He hasn’t yet faced any tough, prime-time questions about Samoa, Wakefield, or the support he has from right-wing extremists who use antivax rhetoric as a recruitment tool.
Why does Alex Jones think Kennedy is “awake”? Why did Donald Trump’s former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon urge him to run for—or disrupt—the Democrats? Why does conservative political consultant Roger Stone think that Trump-Kennedy would be a 2024 dream ticket?
This MAGA-tinged, medical libertarian fanbase is hard to reckon with for anyone who associates the Kennedy name with the Camelot era of governmental idealism. In 1960, JFK’s New Frontier called for the expansion of unemployment benefits, a new Housing Act, the Clean Air Act, and the establishment of the Peace Corps. It foregrounded equal rights for women. It proposed a Medicare plan—and called for a new Vaccination Assistance Act.
JFK also famously pushed an ambitious Civil Rights agenda, with anti-racism proposals and early attempts at affirmative action. But his nephew has twisted this portion of his family’s political capital into a bizarre inversion of social justice, paid out in a risk of heightened vaccine hesitancy in Black communities. He’s formed opportunistic alliances with fringe Black leaders like Tony Muhammad to exploit the historical trauma of medical racism in the U.S., and provide the (largely white) antivax movement with sprinkles of diversity. Muhammad is a minister in the Nation of Islam, designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a Black nationalist hate group that promotes antisemitic and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. Since 2015, he has been repeating the false claim that the C.D.C genetically modified MMR vaccines to harm Back and Latino boys.
In speeches and in his 2021 docsploitation film Medical Racism: The New Apartheid, Kennedy repeatedly raises the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, implying that COVID mitigations constitute a similar medical atrocity. The study ran from 1932 to 1972, and recruited Black men afflicted with the syphilis so that government researchers, who were mostly white, could study its long-term effects. The researchers did not disclose the men’s diagnosis to them and only treated their symptoms with placebos. The ghoulish aim was to document what would happen as the disease progressed.
But Black pro-vaccine activists reject the Tuskegee comparison, because it involved withholding medication without consent. Rejecting Kennedy’s racial opportunism, they explain that whatever vaccine hesitancy exists in their communities stems from sustained structural racism, producing impacts like unequal access to care—an issue that Kennedy and other white anti-vax activists gloss over.
Kennedy’s co-optation of Black liberation efforts in community health distorts a nuanced history. We never hear from him, for example, about how in the 1970s the Black Panthers made access to free, evidence-based health care a pillar of their revolutionary vision. They established 13 free health clinics in communities across the country, offering physicals, gynecological and dental exams, and cancer screenings. They sponsored pioneering research. They also provided free vaccinations.
On January 23rd, 2022, Kennedy brought his COVID-era antivax conspiracism to new heights. He took the stage as a speaker at the Defeat The Mandates march in Washington, D.C., shouting out that over the past two years America had witnessed “a coup d’etat against democracy and the controlled demolition of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights.” He railed against the censorship of free speech—while, ironically, speaking to thousands through a microphone from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and into a livestream hosted by fellow antivax tycoon Del Bigtree.
The blueblood bona fides, the Harvard degree, and the leftward tilt make Kennedy an outsider to this mainly right-wing crowd. But his rhetoric makes him right at home.
“What we’re seeing today,” Kennedy bellowed, “is what I call turnkey totalitarianism.” Every totalitarian state, he explained, has sought to control every aspect of life, and been unsuccessful, until now. “None of them have been able to do it. They didn’t have the technological capacity.”
Kennedy went on to say that soon, Bill Gates would be spying on everyone with his 65,000 satellites. That the 5G wireless system would control all cash, and the food supply. That once vaccine passports were issued, there would be no escape. “Even in Hitler’s Germany you could cross the Alps into Switzerland, you could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did.”
A swift outcry forced Kennedy to apologize for the offensive comparison.
How does conspiracy theory bingo pour out of Kennedy so easily? Social psychologists have shown that believing in one theory predicts believing in others—even if they contradict each other. They also know about “apophenia,” or the capacity some have for seeing patterns where none exist. But political scientist Michael Barkun argues that the conspiracy theorists also seek power over their worlds by obsessing over three anxious laws: nothing is as it seems, everything is connected, and nothing happens by accident. It’s a galaxy-brained orientation, and it allows a figure like Kennedy to cosplay as a warrior-sage who can peer through all lies, in all sectors of society, and to feel the grim satisfaction of every horrible thing fitting together.
The three laws do something else as well—they provide a sense of “conspirituality,” in which political anxieties merge with spiritual hopes, and instill not only a sort of reassurance, but also a mission: every cruel plot point begets the necessity for spiritual warfare and renewal. The battles are fought on individualistic terms, which turns innocuous phrases like “bodily sovereignty,” and a directive like “do your own research” into an anxiom for contrarian thinking that rejects expertise in a harmful mantra not just for discourse surrounding vaccines, but in virtually every discipline.
Kennedy isn’t wrong when he’s said that industry lies about pollution and Big Pharma extracts odious profits while neoliberal bureaucrats shrug. But there’s a difference between seeing connections and building real-world solutions. After rejecting scientific evidence on viruses and vaccines, what’s Kennedy’s actual plan?
It’s another mystery, which is why it wasn’t surprising that amid the mania of the pandemic, Kennedy turned deeper to religion . On Sept 2, 2021, he gave a keynote address at the Autism Recovery in the Age of Covid-19 conference hosted by AutismOne at Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Thousand Oaks, California.
“We are in the last battle,” he said. “This is the apocalypse. We are fighting for the salvation of all humanity.”
Still, Kennedy’s focus has always been more on Eden than on the End Days. Children are his perennial fixation. What went wrong with the children, with their allergies and asthma, what could still go wrong? How can he defend them all in a world of confusion and assaults, where all the strong fathers have disappeared? And this is where his campaign will attract at least some scattered remnants of QAnon, where a deluded concern for children is sacrosanct. “Imagine RFK Jr. redpilling the hell out of libs on the vaccine,” as one QAnon poster put it on Truth Social.
But with a brain addled by fever dreams, it’s unlikely Kennedy can offer the safety of Camelot to anyone. When asked to comment from the campaign trail on the horror of the mass shooting in Allen, Texas, he pulled that antivax logic out of the air, opting for the least scientific answer possible. “Almost every one of these shooters were on SSRIs, or some other psychiatric drug,” he said.
This article has been adapted from Chapter 23 of Conspirituality: How New Age Conspiracy Theories Became a Health Threat by Derek Beres, Matthew Remski, and Julian Walker. Copyright © 2023. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
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