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R.F.K. Jr. & the Latest Kennedy Tragedy

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign has arrived at a perfect moment of deteriorating social trust.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign has arrived at a perfect moment of deteriorating social trust. Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images
Baratunde Thurston
June 25, 2023

My first in-person introduction to the cult of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., occurred unexpectedly last month, when my wife and I disembarked from the annual cruise-conference hybrid, Summit at Sea, in Miami, for an impromptu post-confab party on a yacht populated by Bitcoin enthusiasts. It was like a timewarp back to mid 2022, before digital currencies began to collapse, NFTs petered out, crypto platforms went bankrupt, and S.B.F. pottered around his parents’ house with an ankle monitor. In the Miami of 2023, the Bitcoin craze lives on, and lives strong.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the only topic that was discussed more rapturously than crypto was the political aspirations of R.F.K., the conspiracy-pushing Democratic presidential challenger, who had just given the keynote at a nearby Bitcoin conference. Several of the attendees could not stop discussing how powerful and moving the speech had been. They described people crying in the audience. One person was wearing a Kennedy ’24 cap. 

I admit that I found all this extremely odd. And so later that night, back at my hotel, I watched R.F.K.’s keynote with my wife and a friend of ours. I was hoping to experience the rapture relayed to us earlier that day. I did not. But I did start to understand why people felt so moved, even if I didn’t agree. 

Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You…

Kennedy, it must be said, is not a great orator. Owing to the enthusiasm of the bros on the yacht, I was expecting some Reagan– or Obama-level speechifying. Kennedy doesn’t offer that. According to press reports, he suffers from spasmodic dysphonia, part of an involuntary movement disorder that affects the voice box. As a result, he speaks plainly yet haltingly. If I discount the sound and just focus on the content, however, he comes across as stuck in an uninspired no-man’s-land between folksy and eloquent. Within the first 10 seconds, I knew this wasn’t going to be an Obama moment. But I watched as he opened with a story about the “Freedom Convoy” trucker protests that blocked the streets of Ottawa for weeks in early 2022. 

The truckers were protesting vaccine and Covid testing mandates, and they became a cause celebre for many, largely on the right, opposing all manner of disease mitigation strategies including school mask mandates. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau invoked the powerful Emergencies Act, which authorized more severe government attempts to pressure protest organizers, including freezing bank accounts. Just like that, Kennedy had signaled his sympathy for Covid mandate protests, while connecting the Bitcoin movement to a larger movement for ostensible freedoms. 

Kennedy then recalled the dissatisfaction that many Americans had with the government’s Covid response, but he oversimplified the record by claiming that the Trump administration trampled constitutional rights and freedoms with its public health response to the pandemic. In a key moment he said, “Government suspended the rights to free assembly, the freedom of worship, property rights, trial by jury, and they censored free speech in the name of combating misinformation and disinformation. We lost our freedom to travel.” 

R.F.K. Jr. spoke as if we had a single Covid response and ignored the fact that he was delivering his keynote in Ron DeSantis’s “Free State of Florida,” which proudly rebuffed federal recommendations, as did several states and counties across the country. There was no single set of “government” mandates in response to Covid in the U.S. Multiple governments—plural—responded in multiple ways. Hi, federalism!

Nor did Kennedy mention that this was all aided by an extraordinary set of federal aid packages that will be remembered for turning a once-in-a-century plague into a boom economy, one that likely lined the pockets of many in the audience with extra money that they used to buy Bitcoin. Kennedy spent the rest of the speech praising and pandering to the audience, positioning Bitcoin as an answer to tyranny, promising to accept Bitcoin donations for his campaign, and to support decentralizing financial activities. 

And here’s where his dogma becomes worthy of our attention. If you’ve dismissed crypto as a speculative financial nothingburger, you have been missing the rabid ideological community of Bitcoin evangelists who see themselves as part of a larger fight for financial and political freedom. If the government can shut down your access to your money, they fear, you’re not really free. Kennedy understands this connection, and understands that if he can tap into the organizing and evangelizing power of Bitcoin, he can boost his name recognition, fundraising capacity, and political power—if not as a conveyer for the presidency than for ubiquitous and long-lasting demagoguery, and we know how that can turn out. 

It’s not fringe; it’s smart and is a key piece of a larger puzzle that explains why you’re hearing his name more, and why I’m spending considerable bytes of server space writing about him now. 

Camelot Less

Of course, Kennedy’s moment in the sun is not the consequence of one short speech at a Bitcoin conference. His uncle, a beloved former president, and his father, a former attorney general and senator and presidential candidate, were both cut down in their prime. His uncle spent a lifetime in the Senate and helped lay the groundwork for Obamacare. We can’t overstate how much Kennedy’s last name is the primary reason why he is polling around 20 percent in surveys of likely Democratic voters, and why he is receiving attention in the media at all. (Another other reason, of course, is that Biden is beginning the primary calendar with South Carolina in ’24.)

When most of us first heard of the younger Robert Kennedy, it was in the context of his environmental work. Kennedy, after all, was a long time practitioner of environmental law, and successfully sued companies from Consolidated Edison to General Electric to stop pollution, with a special focus on our waterways. In 1999, he founded the Waterkeepers Alliance, a global network of organizations dedicated to protecting our rivers, lakes and other large bodies of water. He became an investor in, and advocate for, clean and renewable energy. Good stuff! In 2006, he was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair alongside Al Gore, Julia Roberts, and George Clooney as a recognition of his accomplishments. But along the way, his passion for fighting pollution in our waters morphed into a misguided fixation on vaccines as a form of pollution in our bodies

Long before Covid, Kennedy was trafficking in unsubstantiated and false claims connecting vaccines to autism. (In 2017, Scientific American highlighted some of Kennedy’s more notable distortions.) Two years later, members of his own family publicly expressed their love for him while calling his stance on vaccines “tragically wrong.” More recently, Time chronicled Kennedy’s work to undermine childhood vaccination efforts and their deadly consequences. But it was during the pandemic, which supercharged public skepticism surrounding government-endorsed medical guidance, that Kennedy’s position as a leader in the anti-vaccine movement was solidified. The fast-changing, chaotic environment during the height of Covid also certainly helped—as has the unresolved question of where Covid originated. 

Indeed, the skepticism that fuels Kennedy’s campaign has arrived at a perfect moment of deteriorating social trust. Kennedy speaks of “they” and “them” and “elites” who want to hold us back, whether it’s Big Government or Big Business or the military industrial complex. After all, who among us doesn’t worry that we are subject to corporate or governmental manipulation, or that President Eisenhower’s warning about the military industrial complex wasn’t obviously prescient? 

In fact, on some level, Kennedy speaks in a language I can very much identify with—about leaning into a story where humans are inextricably connected to nature, not just exercising dominion over it, while also talking honestly about our racist past. He’s capturing the interest of a new kind of public philosophy and spirituality that exists in the voices of people like the writer and public speaker Charles Eisenstein, who joined Kennedy’s campaign and spoke on the candidate’s podcast. They chat about spirituality, the environment, the power of rediscovering our neighbors, and of sharing values even as we disagree. You can spot Eisenstein’s influence on Kennedy’s website, too, which features language about reconciliation and the role of division in American life. Kennedy recognizes and connects with people who are searching for deeper meaning in public life, who are uneasy with the world as it is, and who are happy to identify the culprit as powerful agents outside their control.

The Trump of Hyannis Port

While he does rely on his last name to do a lot of work, Kennedy is also polling surprisingly high because of what his name isn’t: Trump or Biden. We know that many Americans don’t want a repeat of the 2020 election, but every poll suggests that’s what we’re going to get. Hence the outsize appeal of man bearing the Kennedy name, who could pass as downright youthful at 69, and who is working hard to appeal to a diverse cohort of political orphans by reaching them through everything but the mainstream media. His website homepage promises he will “end the forever wars” (vague but promising) “clean up government” (it does need a good scrubbing), “increase wealth for all” (I love wealth!), and “tell Americans the truth” (who doesn’t want that?). If you just look at the surface, Kennedy is a refreshing choice.  

But when I look deeper—or just pop the hood, really—Kennedy also offers a dangerous choice. When he talks about the Russian war in Ukraine, he repeats Putin’s talking points, saying the U.S. provoked Russia into war and that the Kremlin “acted in good faith” in trying to negotiate a peaceful end to the war it started. Kennedy promises to be a close friend to Israel and the Jewish people, as most presidential candidates do, but when he has spoken about vaccines or Covid mandates, he often compares them to the Holocaust. In doing so, he diminishes the danger of anti-Semitism and encourages its practitioners. 

Beyond indulging in vaccine hyperbole and fear mongering, Kennedy has plenty of other wild things to say: that Wi-Fi causes cancer, for example, or that 5G is being used to control us. Not to mention that Bill Gates is using thousands of satellites to track our every move! I mean, there are certainly a lot of satellites and cell towers, but I’m using them to track myself—no need to give Gates credit for my obsession with GPS and location-based iPhone apps. There are dozens more examples that should disqualify anyone from being president, but after Trump, the bar for “disqualifying” comments is comically high.

He’s also receiving praise from the hardcore Trump people, like Roger Stone, Steve Banon, Charlie Kirk, and Alex Jones, who love him is because they view him as a Democratic Trojan Horse—great family legacy on the outside, batshit ideas on the inside, and the Trump-y ability to placate a smorgasbord of groups—who will weaken Biden’s shot at reelection. Kennedy, hardly a principled actor, is willing to accept that support, not merely from a distance, but in the form of media appearances on Fox News, the Joe Rogan podcast, with Glenn Greenwald, and even at fundraisers hosted by DeSantis supporter David Sacks. Next week, Kennedy will be speaking in Philadelphia at an event hosted by Moms for Liberty, a right-wing group that is behind much of the effort to remove books that mention sexuality, feature LGBGT+ stories, or teach the truth about America’s racial history from schools and libraries. If you’ve noticed your local school board meetings have gotten more heated and even violent, there’s a good chance it’s because many M4L chapters have close ties to the Proud Boys, “sovereign citizen” militias, and other right-wing extremist movements. And yet his message also lands with rich finance bros on yachts in Biscayne Bay.

Seeking alignment with these groups does not reflect a sincere effort to bring the nation together but quite the opposite. While Kennedy talks a lot about “healing the divide” in the country—and that’s a worthy goal—he’s crossing that divide with support from people dedicated to deepening it. 

As for what Biden, the Democrats, and anyone who doesn’t want to see a return to Trump or Trumpism should do about it, that depends on what happens with Kennedy’s appeal over the next few months. If he stays where he is in the polls, I suspect the practice of ignoring him will work just fine. Biden has a lot to be proud of with infrastructure, manufacturing, and climate investments. If he could repeat his agile and entertaining State of the Union performance every week, he’d probably coast to re-election. But if Kennedy moves into the 30 percent territory and beyond, he may meaningfully cut into Biden’s ability to be re-elected and help a G.O.P. candidate, with no commitment to vote counting, much less racial reconciliation, win the White House. 

If we start heading down that path, I would hope to see more Democrats, who don’t believe that Wi-Fi breaks down the blood-brain barrier, step up to give the people another option.