We Ignore Robert F Kennedy Jr’s Candidacy at Our Peril

‘Because RFK Jr is so eloquent about pollution, many assume he would support policies that would tame the raging climate crisis.’,Photograph: Joseph Prezioso/Agence France-Presse (AFP) // The Guardian

When Robert F Kennedy Jr announced his plan to run for president in the Democratic party primaries this April, the dominant liberal strategy towards the once tough environmental lawyer – now spreader of all manner of dangerous, unsupported theories – seemed to be: ignore him and wait for him to go away. Don’t cover, don’t engage and don’t debate. Jim Kessler, a leader of the pro-Biden think tank Third Way, called him a “gadfly and a laughingstock”; Democratic consultant Sawyer Hackett brushed him off as “a gnat.”

Well, if recent developments in the Kennedy campaign have demonstrated anything, it’s that denial is not a viable political strategy. Kennedy honed his social media skills over years to spread his anti-vaccine message, so he has simply done an end-run around traditional media and party structures: a “Twitter Spaces” tete-a-tete with Elon Musk and a string of video streams, several with hundreds of thousands of views and listens, on every channel from Breaking Points on the left to Jordan Peterson’s podcast on the right (that one quickly broke a million views on YouTube).

He has landed an apparent endorsement from Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and this week is being feted at a Bay Area fundraiser filled with heavy hitters. According to a CNN poll released in late May, support for Kennedy was at 20% among respondents who identify as Democrats or Democratic-leaning.

It’s time to abandon wishful thinking and figure out what is going on. What are the reasons his campaign is resonating with a consequential slice of US voters? (And voters beyond the US, where he has a large following?) What pain, silence and rage is he tapping into? What important truths and realities is he concealing and eliding? And, given the near impossible odds of him winning the race which he is currently running in, what is his real end-game?

Let’s start with the reservoirs of Kennedy’s appeal.

The Power of Story

After the 2016 election, when many Democratic voters were struggling to make sense of Trump’s seemingly impossible victory, a theory made the rounds that I first heard from Color of Change president Rashad Robinson: that the Trump campaign was like a blockbuster movie, full of special effects and unconcerned with archaic ideas like facts, while Hillary Clinton’s campaign was a PBS-style documentary film. In a culture hooked on highly produced drama, of course the blockbuster won.

There was some truth to that theory. So it’s worth noting that RFK Jr’s campaign is rooted in something with almost as much popular appeal: a true crime story. The traumas and mysteries that swirl around the assassinations of RFK Jr’s uncle, President John F Kennedy, and his father, Robert F Kennedy, are both American wounds and American pastimes.

These preoccupations have, of course, been supercharged by the mass fantasy-making machine known as QAnon. The cult/subculture has a longstanding obsession with the Kennedy family, one that includes the earnest belief among many that JFK’s son, John F Kennedy Jr, who died in a plane crash in 1999, is actually still alive and living under an assumed identity, perhaps even helping to write “Q drops.” Last year, believers got so carried away that they gathered in Dallas, at the site of JFK’s assassination, sure that his deceased son was about to finally reappear and announce that he was going to be Trump’s running mate in the 2024 elections. He didn’t.

RFK Jr benefits from all of that swirling narrative energy merely by showing up. (It helps that he has begun to openly support the claim that the CIA was behind the murder of his uncle and father, something he says he came around to only “five or six years ago.” )

Tapping Into the Rage

It’s not only the combined power of a dynastic family, violent crime and choose-your-own-adventure conspiracy culture that RFK Jr is riding. He is also tapping into a wellspring of real pain and outrage. These points may be obvious but they bear repeating: a great many voters are hurting and rightfully angry: about powerful corporations controlling their democracy and profiting off disease and poverty. About endless wars draining national coffers and maiming their kids. About stagnating wages and soaring costs. This is the world – inflamed on every level – that the two-party duopoly has knowingly created.

RFK Jr’s campaign speaks directly to this outrage, with its central message about “the corrupt merger between state and corporate power.” When he talks about drug companies controlling the national health agencies and polluters controlling environmental regulators, he is persuasive, which is why he was a good lawyer. When he rails against the corporations who made a killing during Covid, profiteering off the pandemic and using it to crush their rivals, he is speaking my language and it’s hard not to nod along.

When he talks about the machinery of endless war that shapes US foreign policy, and suggests that the goal in Ukraine should be to end the carnage, he is articulating ideas that have become unspeakable in too many liberal circles. There is great power there.

He also is tapping into rage at the Democratic party itself, which feels to many like a hostage situation. Inside its logic, there seems to be no acceptable way of challenging entrenched power. Not open primaries, not incumbent primaries, not third parties, not getting in and trying to change the system from the inside. All, we have been told since as long as I can remember, will help to elect Republicans. Of course this political straitjacket provokes rebellion, as well as some irrational behavior.

None of this means Kennedy is running a campaign rooted in finally telling the American public “the truth” – as he repeatedly claims. What it does mean is that a public discourse filled with unsayable and unspeakable subjects is fertile territory for all manner of hucksters positioning themselves as uniquely courageous truth tellers. RFK Jr now leads the pack.

Liberal analysts refuse to confront their own complicity in this dynamic. Instead, we have Michael Scherer in the Washington Post outrageously lumping together the baseless and dangerous conspiracies of the hard right with Bernie Sanders’s worldview, apparently because Sanders sees a society in crisis and “points to the ‘ultrarich’” – as if stratospheric wealth concentration and legalized corruption are mere figments of the Vermont senator’s imagination.

Giving Voice to Ecological Grief

As a lifelong outdoorsman and longtime environmental lawyer, RFK Jr also does something very few politicians in modern life seem capable of doing: put into words our moment of shattering ecological loss and grief. “Environmental protection binds us to our own humanity and to all of creation,” he said on Earth Day. “When we destroy a species, when we destroy a special place, we’re diminishing our capacity to sense the divine, understand who God is, and what our own potential is as human beings.”

Kennedy is fluent in the language of heartbreak about dead rivers and devastated fisheries; of asthmatic lungs and increasingly silent springs. As smoke blots the sun across entire continents, this is not a skill to dismiss lightly. Who else has it? Not Joe Biden. Not Kamala Harris. Not even Barack Obama. Bernie Sanders was great on the facts of the climate crisis when he ran, and full of righteous fury at fossil fuel companies – but I don’t think I ever heard him speak with unabashed emotion about extinction. This is another vacuum that RFK Jr is skillfully filling.

Given the undeniable strengths that Kennedy possesses as a candidate, we should expect him to continue to build momentum, and continue to find new audiences. Ignoring him is not an option. What is needed instead is a serious engagement with the myths that underlie the Kennedy performance and that are key to his progressive appeal.

Myth #1: He would be a climate champion.

Because RFK Jr is so eloquent about pollution, many assume he would support policies that would tame the raging climate crisis. While that may have been true in the past, the facts have radically changed. In recent interviews, he claims climate science is too complex and abstract to explain and that, “I can’t independently verify that.” He also says that the climate crisis is being used to push through “totalitarian controls on society” orchestrated “by the World Economic Forum, Bill Gates, and all of these megabillionaires” – a green-tinged reboot of the same, all-too familiar conspiracy theories he rode to pandemic stardom, when he opposed virtually every Covid public health measure, from masks to vaccines to closures. Now he is marshaling the same arguments against climate action.

He told Breaking Points: “In my campaign I’m not going to be talking a lot about climate. Why is that? Because climate has become a crisis like Covid that the Davos groups and other totalitarian elements in our society have used as a pretext for clamping down totalitarian controls.”

This about-face has earned him friends among the most prominent and dangerous climate-change deniers, including the Republican-aide-turned-disinformation-dealer Marc Morano, who says Kennedy is “undergoing a genuine transformation over his views on the climate agenda.” In podcast interviews, especially with rightwing hosts, RFK Jr now says he would leave energy policy to the market and describes himself as “a radical free marketeer.” It should go without saying that the markets are incapable of decarbonizing our economies in anything like the narrow slice of time left.  

Myth #2: He’s not that anti-vax.

Since announcing his candidacy, Kennedy has seemed to back off his extreme views about childhood immunizations, which has been the major preoccupation of his organization, Children’s Health Defense, since well before Covid. This is research that has been debunked by countless medical experts and retracted by the publications that once gave him a platform.

Kennedy didn’t mention vaccines in his two-hour-long campaign kick-off speech, and he told The Wall Street Journal: “I’m not leading with the issue because it’s not a primary issue of concern to most Americans.” More than that: for many voters, his views are a major liability.

Except he can’t help himself. In almost every longform interview with him that I have encountered (and there have been many), he leaps to defend this debunked position, always by citing the same series of figures. “Why is it,” he asked the journalist David Samuels, “that in my generation, I’m 69, the rate of autism is 1 in 10,000, while in my kids’ generation it’s 1 in 34?” He added, “I would argue that a lot of that is from the vaccine schedule, which changed in 1989. But what nobody can argue about is that it has to be an environmental exposure of some kind.” In interview after interview, he comes back to that same point: something changed in 1989, something that acted as a mass poisoning.

This has been left unchallenged in most interviews, so I am going to go into some depth here. Kennedy is right that something changed in the world of autism at the start of the nineties, just completely wrong about what. What changed was the medical definition of autism. The syndrome was first diagnosed by the psychiatrist Leo Kanner, who published a paper in 1943 about children with “extreme autism” who, though “unquestionably endowed with good cognitive potentialities,” lived in their own worlds, engaged in repetitive motions, became obsessed with objects, often had limited speech, and struggled to perform the basics of self-care. The condition was so extreme that very few met the diagnostic criteria.

Decades later the definition changed, thanks in part to British child psychiatrist Lorna Wing. Realizing that Kanner’s definition left out many children in need of support, she developed the idea that autism was not a fixed set of symptoms, but a spectrum, presenting in a range of different ways depending on the individual, and could include people who are very verbally and physically capable. In the 1990s, autism entered the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a “spectrum disorder” and many more people suddenly met the criteria, which is a big part of what accounts for the post-1989 spike that Kennedy blames, wrongly, on vaccines.

And that’s not the only thing that changed at the dawn of the nineties. In 1990, the United States passed the Americans With Disabilities Act, a hard-won victory by the disability justice community that led to further legal protections and support for disabled children to have individual education plans, therapies and other supports in public schools. These laws incentivized parents to get their kids tested for autism, since a diagnosis would unlock these supports. This also helps explain the spike.

Still, systemic racism in both health and education meant that it was overwhelmingly white, middle class parents who could hire lawyers to turn legal obligations into realities in the schools – far too many Black and brown kids were still more likely to be treated as troublemakers and met with harsh discipline rather than empathy. Recent advocacy has begun to close the race gap in autism diagnoses, leading to higher rates overall. We are still a long way from closing the diagnostic gender gap, however. If that happens, and rates go up still further, we shouldn’t panic: this is progress.

In short, Kennedy, by hinting ominously about something nefarious happening in 1989, is committing that most common of analytic errors: confusing correlation with causation. And there is another important factor he consistently neglects to mention. In this same period, more people, both women and men, decided to become parents in their forties. This is relevant because multiple peer-reviewed studies show that children born to older parents are more likely to be diagnosed with autism.

Acknowledging all of this – the change in diagnostic criteria, the disability rights victories, challenges to medical racism, aging parents – would give us a much fuller understanding of rising autism rates. But that is not nearly as dramatic or juicy as blaming vaccines and screaming about government cover ups.

Kennedy’s decades-long anti-vax crusade has had serious impacts on autistic people by reducing them to mere pawns and data points in these information wars. Back in 2015, Kennedy caught flak for saying, of childhood vaccines, “They get the shot, that night they have a fever of 103 [degrees], they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone. This is a Holocaust, what this is doing to our country.”

He apologized for the Holocaust reference, but that only scratches the surface. Autistic people’s brains are not “gone,” they are different, often in beautiful and interesting ways. And during the real, non-rhetorical Holocaust, the Nazis in Germany and Austria murdered disabled children, many of them autistic, for precisely those differences. At Vienna’s Am Spiegelgrund clinic alone, almost 800 disabled children were murdered, and research on their remains continued well into the 1980s. Meanwhile Hitler opposed vaccination in the territories Germany seized because he was just fine with non-Aryans dying, the better to seize their land.

Leaving out the most relevant facts in any given argument has sadly become an RFK Jr trademark. In speeches and interviews, for instance, he cites Sweden’s supposedly stunning success at combating Covid, without introducing lockdowns, as proof that lockdowns and closures were never needed in the US – even as US hospitals and morgues were so overcapacity that refrigerated trucks were filling up with bodies.

He fails to mention Sweden’s far greater social welfare protections (generous paid sick leave, universal healthcare, better funded public hospitals, smaller class sizes…), which helped to control the virus, nor does he mention the relative health of Sweden’s population compared to the US. Most critically, he fails to share the fact that Norway, Finland and Denmark, which all took Covid more seriously in those early months marked by lockdowns, had significantly lower death rates than Sweden, proving the exact opposite of the point he is trying to make. Yes, the death rates eventually leveled out between the Scandinavian nations, but that had less to do with lockdowns than with very high vaccination rates – the very shots Kennedy has claimed are killing people in droves.

We should be honest about the ways kids were impacted by school closures, and be transparent about vaccine risks, rather than dismissing all reports as conspiracy. We should also stay open to the possibility that environmental factors might be contributing to some forms of autism and other neurological conditions. We should insist on honest independent research and reporting about all of it.

But we should also be clear: actively spreading terror on the scale that RFK Jr has done for two decades is itself a public health crisis. The vaccine-autism myth stigmatizes people who are neuro-atypical, presenting them as tragic, and distracts from the urgent need to fight for greater accessibility and lifelong supports. It also discourages vaccination, which is already leading to a resurgence of diseases we thought we had defeated, from measles to diphtheria.

Kennedy complains that he used to be so marginalized for his conspiratorial views that speaking felt “like talking into a fucking tin can.” Well, thanks to his primary run, his tin can has been replaced with a global megaphone and millions more people are hearing his bogus theories. We will feel the ramifications of that for decades to come.  

Myth #3: He is anti-war and pro-human rights.  

Kennedy is most persuasive when opposing US military intervention abroad, or when he is discussing the humanitarian cost of the war in Ukraine, and calling for a peaceful settlement. But how seriously should we take his pacifism and human rights concerns? One hint rests in the blanket support he offers the Israeli government, one of the top recipients of aid from the US military industrial complex he decries, and a nation consistently unwilling to entertain peace with justice, while escalating tensions with Iran. Have a look at Antony Loewenstein’s latest, The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation Around the World, for an indispensable accounting.

This position alone should cause Kennedy’s supporters to question his supposedly antiwar, anti-surveillance stance. So should his increasingly reactionary position on border controls. Kennedy talks a good game condemning the US for overthrowing democratically elected governments abroad and destabilizing entire regions.

But that raises the question: what does the US owe to the people living in the parts of the world its policies have ravaged? Very little, according to Kennedy. He has taken to warning about the US’s “open border,” and he told Musk he is looking for ways to “seal the border permanently.” He has also cited Israel – with its network of walls and fences imprisoning Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza – as a positive example of a country successfully controlling its borders.  

Myth #4: He is a populist.

When you hear someone railing that “Our democracy is devolving into a kind of corporate plutocracy,” while telling heartwrenching stories about people having their food stamps slashed amid massive corporate bailouts and handouts, it’s easy to assume that this same person plans to do something bold and courageous to address those injustices.

Kennedy says his campaign is one of “broad-based populism.” It isn’t. Progressive populists make tangible economic offers: tax the rich and give poor and working-class people more money and supports; some call for nationalizing key industries to pay for it.

Kennedy is not actually proposing any of this. On Fox, he would not even come out in favor of a wealth tax; he has brushed off universal public health care as not “politically realistic”; and I have heard nothing about raising the minimum wage. Like Trump (and anyone wanting to get elected) he says he would protect Social Security and Medicare. But asked directly about raising taxes and whether Social Security faces bankruptcy, he dodges, claiming that to answer these straightforward policy questions, he would need to “study more” – something he never seems to feel when it comes to loudly claiming he knows more than epidemiologists about infectious diseases and more than neurologists about brain development.

Meanwhile, his sycophantic treatment of Elon Musk is about as un-populist as a person can get, with Kennedy comparing the onetime richest man alive to the heroes of the American Revolution “who died to give us our Constitution.”

In short, RFK Jr may sometimes sound like Bernie Sanders – but he is decidedly not Bernie.

The question is: why? If you are running a longshot candidacy inside the Democratic party against a centrist incumbent, why not give the base what it wants?

One possible explanation is that Kennedy is not actually running to be the presidential candidate for the Democrats. He would certainly not be the first person to use a primary race simply to raise the value of their own, highly monetized personal brand.

We also have to consider the possibility that Kennedy may have a greater ambition, one that requires those carefully worded hedges, and which would explain his backpedaling on gun control (he has floated the idea that mass shootings in US schools are caused by Prozac), and make sense of his recent trip to southern border, seemingly for the sole purpose of dog-whistling that he is on board with the Republican war on migrants.

Perhaps it’s a plan to run as an independent – or a hope for a spot in a Republican administration. Or … “Yeah. Trump-Kennedy. I said it,” Republican operative and Trump ally Roger Stone wrote on Twitter shortly after Kennedy announced his candidacy.

Trump’s former campaign manager and top advisor, Steve Bannon, likes the idea, too. “Bobby Kennedy would be, I think, an excellent choice for President Trump to consider,” he told his podcast audience, adding that when he shared the idea at a function for fellow Trump diehards, it received a standing ovation

After first seeming to leave the door open (“I would probably never end up there,” he said on Breaking Points), Kennedy now claims there are “NO CIRCUMSTANCES” under which he would join a Trump ticket. Of course, given his tumultuous relationship to the truth, nothing can be ruled out.

Would Trump go for it? He does love men with famous names who look like they are “from central casting ” – and RFK Jr checks both boxes. He probably still needs an actual Republican for a running mate. On the other hand, to get back in the White House, he also needs more secular white women and more non-white voters. And Kennedy’s relentless Covid misinformation campaign made him a hero among white moms who were sure that online classes, masks and vaccines were destroying their kids, as well as among some Black voters, who Children’s Health Defense targeted with scaremongering about vaccines that exploited deep wounds created by medical racism and abuse. Because Trump supported and indeed greenlit the vaccines, this is an area of weakness for him.

As Kennedy’s fortunes soar, the Democratic consultant class continues to sneer – seemingly learning no lessons from Trump’s rise, or the current unpopularity of their leader, or the desperate desire of so many members of their party for something that feels close enough to courage, truth, and justice that they are willing to fall for a counterfeit copy of a copy of a copy.

[Naomi Klein is a Guardian US columnist and contributing writer. She is the professor of climate justice and co-director of the Centre for Climate Justice at the University of British Columbia. Her latest book Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World is publishing in September.]

Maggie O’Donnell and Kendra Jewell provided research assistance.

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