Demonstrators listen as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of former U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, speaks on a screen during an anti-vaccine mandate rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022. A divided U.S. Supreme Court this month blocked the centerpiece of the White House's push to get more people vaccinated amid a Covid-19 surge, rejecting an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule that would have required 80 million workers to get shots or periodic tests. Photographer: Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the most prominent anti-vaccine activist in the United States, has filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to run for president, the Associated Press reported Wednesday. Kennedy will be running as a Democrat, challenging Biden in the primaries. Even with his wealth, prominence and family name, Kennedy’s campaign is the longest longshot. But it will serve to raise his profile even further, and to generate even more useful headlines about the vaccine suspicion and medical misinformation he’s been promoting for decades.
A presidential run, will, of course, draw more attention to Kennedy’s work, and he might find support among people who feel embittered by the memory of the country’s COVID lockdowns and vaccine mandates—brief though they were—or help coalesce nascent forms of suspicion and resentment among other parts of the electorate. KFF Polling has found, in the last three years, a decline in public trust for elected officials, but it’s more pronounced among Republicans than Democrats. Democrats are also still more likely to wear masks and get vaccinated and boosted, all issues on which Kennedy has, let’s say, a pronounced stance. At this point, given that he’ll soon be more prominent than ever, it’s worth considering just how we got here. Kennedy is, of course, the son of Robert Francis Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968 during his own run for president. Kennedy began his career as an environmental attorney for a nonprofit called the Natural Resources Defense Council, and then had a long and respected career with the water-safety organization Riverkeeper, some of it concurrent with his anti-vaccine activism. His career began to take a turn in 2005, when he published a now-infamous story, “Deadly Immunity,” which ran simultaneously in Rolling Stone and on Salon. In it, he rolled out many of the false but attention-getting talking points that he’d return to repeatedly: that vaccines contained a dangerous form of mercury, that those vaccines were causing autism in children, and that the CDC and the World Health Organization were engaging in a conspiracy to cover it up. In 2011, Salon formally retracted the piece after issuing a voluminous list of corrections. (In a speech this month to the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, Kennedy Jr. claimed he was “dragged kicking and screaming into the vaccine morass,” which is clearly not true.)
Nonetheless, Kennedy’s anti-vaccine career was off and running. In 2011, he founded the World Mercury Project, which claimed its purpose was to protect people from mercury in “fish, medical products, dental amalgams and vaccines.” In reality, he focused almost entirely on the last of these, repeatedly claiming that thimerosal, a preservative once used in some vaccines, but removed from all childhood vaccines by 2001, was causing autism in children. The CDC has said repeatedly that there was no evidence thimerosal caused autism or any other health issues; crucially, thimerosal contains ethylmercury, which clears the body very quickly, rather than methylmercury, the kind found in fish, which can be extremely toxic at high levels. The World Mercury Project eventually changed its name to Children’s Health Defense, and while it still purports to be an environmental organization, its focus remains almost singularly on vaccines. (Kennedy is also fixated on 5G technology; CHD has claimed it causes harmful levels of radiation into the atmosphere, something the Alliance for Science says is based on a basic misunderstanding of how the electromagnetic spectrum works.) Very quickly, Kennedy amassed an ardent fandom among mothers who believed their children had been injured by vaccines. “Your kids,” he told a rapt audience at 2019’s AutismOne conference, a yearly and influential anti-vaccine gathering. “Some of them have been so badly damaged I don’t know how you get out of bed in the morning.”
By 2019, CHD was a top buyer of anti-vaccine ads on Facebook, and Kennedy was the most well-known anti-vaccine activist in the United States. And like many anti-vaccine activists and conspiracy theorists of other types, the dawn of the pandemic created an opportunity for Kennedy to loudly champion his darkest suspicions: about vaccines, 5G, and the functioning of the federal government. All of this has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the Kennedys; a group of RFK’s more prominent relatives wrote an open letter in 2019, calling him “tragically wrong” about vaccines. After years of public silence, even RFK’s wife, the actress Cheryl Hines, issued her own brief statement in 2022, responding to a comment RFK made at an anti-vaccine rally where he said that conditions were worse today for vaccine opponents than conditions for Jews were during the Nazi regime.
“My husband’s reference to Anne Frank at a mandate rally in D.C. was reprehensible and insensitive,” Hines wrote. “The atrocities that millions endured during the Holocaust should never be compared to anyone or anything. His opinions are not a reflection of my own.” (Hines subsequently quietly deleted that tweet.) Children’s Health Defense also spends a lot of time launching mostly doomed lawsuits against the federal government; the most recent one, which it’s spent quite a lot of time promoting, accuses the Biden administration and Anthony Fauci of “censorship.” The lawsuit calls the federal government “authoritarian” and claims it worked with social media companies to censor “alternative” views about COVID-19. With the organization’s flair for the conspiratorial, it accuses the defendants of working “to suppress facts that the government does not want the public to hear, and to silence specific speakers—in every case critics of federal policy—whom the government has targeted by name.”Suing the federal government is a time-tested strategy for people hoping to get some attention for their own political projects, and there’s every sign that’s what Kennedy and CHD are doing here. Kennedy began teasing a run for president in early March, setting up a website called Team Kennedy that solicited donations. Other prominent anti-vaccine activists, like tech millionaire, Steve Kirsch were exultant: “This is great news,” Kirsch wrote on his Substack. (He also appeared to announce that he’d started a super PAC to help Kennedy get elected.) An open question as his campaign begins is whether Kennedy will speak to the press at any point during his run, something he famously dislikes doing and handles poorly. He often argues that his claims about vaccines have been misquoted in media, and interviews with him tend to devolve into him trying to control the terms of the interview and then peevishly declaring he’s not being allowed to talk about the right things.Kennedy is the second prominent fringe candidate to announce his run; New Age guru and self-help author Marianne Williamson announced last month that she’s running too, for the second time.