Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks on stage during Bitcoin Conference 2023 at Miami Beach Convention Center on May 19, 2023 in Miami Beach, Florida. Photo via Getty Images
Over the past several weeks, anti-vaccine activist and Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has done the following things, in rough order: announce that gadfly and former Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich would serve as his campaign manager; appear at a cryptocurrency conference in Florida; receive the endorsement of Twitter founder Jack Dorsey; and hold a mostly-unlistenable Twitter Spaces appearance with current Twitter owner Elon Musk and a hive of like-minded Silicon Valley investors, who are turning out to be some of his most vocal supporters. Next week, venture capitalist and Musk lackey David Sacks, who hosted the Spaces conversation, will hold a fundraiser for Kennedy, Axios reported.
If not what one would expect from the heir to a great Democratic dynasty generally, it’s perhaps what one should expect from Kennedy specifically. In a podcast appearance with relationship expert-turned-pundit Dr. Drew— himself an increasingly overt anti-vaccine figure—Kennedy summarized one of the goals of his campaign. “My aim is to convince every Democrat that you’re not a Democrat,” Kennedy told him, “and every Republican that you’re not a Republican.” This was perhaps a more revealing quote than it was meant to be, and goes to the heart of what Kennedy is doing. From the outside, his run seems designed to accomplish a few things: raise his own profile, of course, and that of the anti-vaccine organization he founded and still leads, Children’s Health Defense.But the campaign also seems designed to untie Kennedy’s legacy solely from vaccine suspicion and present him as a more serious political figure, in line with the famed family name. This extends to the basic facts of his life: As with his campaign announcement, the biography on his campaign website makes zero direct mention of his anti-vaccine activism, describing CHD’s mission as addressing “childhood chronic disease and toxic exposures” while dwelling at length on his environmentalism and repeatedly invoking the names of his father and uncle. (When David Sacks introduced Kennedy in the Spaces conversation with Musk, CHD was described as “a nonprofit that protects children from toxic chemical assault from pharmaceutical drugs and environmental pollution,” which is one way to put it.)
While the endgame is unclear, the type of coalition-building and appearance-making he’s doing suggests that Kennedy could be laying the groundwork to run as a third-party candidate—something he is, at the least, not denying. “Mr. Kennedy is fully focused on the Democratic nomination and believes he will win,” a spokesperson told Motherboard in response to questions about whether he would support the Democratic nominee and whether he is considering a third-party run. “Any speculation about ‘what if’ scenarios is premature.”Premature or not, it’s notable that since going on the campaign trail, Kennedy has seemed less interested in courting traditional Democratic constituencies than on appearing with a wide variety of podcast hosts, all fringe in their own way but located at different points in that solar system. They include actor-turned-YouTube contrarian Russell Brand; the self-proclaimed “Health Ranger'' Mike Adams, proprietor of the shriekingly conspiratorial website Natural News; former Fox News personality and current Z-tier podcaster Megyn Kelly; and of course, a trio of crypto guys. These shows do not seem, collectively, like a credible place to reach primary voters, but the appearances, in friendly settings and with pliant, sometimes fawning, interviewers, do help flesh out some of Kennedy’s hobby horses. These are the things, besides vaccines, that he seems to genuinely care about and want to discuss.
The picture that emerges here does not paint Kennedy as a Democrat at all, but as the aspirant leader of a sort of horseshoe-theory political movement in which the likes of Kucinich and former Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard—who appeared at the same Florida crypto conference Kennedy did as well as in the Twitter Spaces conversation—sit alongside others whose position on the political spectrum seems to be in flux, like journalist Matt Taibbi, whose work Kennedy has approvingly cited.This is a nominally post-party group attached to grievances from the right and left alike, but one that—given the prominence within it of former Democratic elected officials and leftist luminaries—gives a surprising amount of lip service to Republican and libertarian ideas, in Kennedy’s case so much so that the American Conservative has published a long and approving op-ed about all the ways in which he “sounds conservative.” The New York Times noted the same thing, pointing out that in his conversation with Musk, he said he wanted to “try to formulate policies that will seal the border permanently,” a Trump-ian talking point if there ever was one, and seemingly blamed mass shootings on Prozac.
Kennedy has also recently said that he opposes trans women in women’s sports; fulminated with Brand about the “Democrat party”; and—at odds with his stated role as an environmentalist—expressed great enthusiasm about cryptocurrency, which consumes a massive amount of fossil fuels. He also has a combative and often litigious relationship with mainstream media outlets, which dovetails nicely with the viewpoints of dyed-in-the-wool old-school conservatives as well as the investor set surrounding Musk. (He spent much of his conversation with Musk fulminating about how his organization being banned from various social-media platforms for violating terms of service was a violation of the Constitution, a legal theory with very few adherents.)
It makes sense, then, that Kennedy is spending very little time talking about vaccines or even Big Pharma with friendly interviewers or the crypto bros of Florida. Instead, he’s focused on positions that would seem likely to increase his support among a specific type of alienated and extremely online voter that is, if not numerically strong overall, disproportionately well-represented among the pundit class and especially among rich investors.
He has, for instance, spent a remarkable amount of time talking about Russia. One of Kennedy’s most strongly-held policy positions appears to be his conviction that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a proxy war in which the United States and NATO are the aggressors. This is a line taken up by some corners of the anti-war left, of course, but one more politically relevant for the way it’s taken broad root across the conspiratorial universe, from Tucker Carlson’s broadcasts to broadsides casting Vladimir Putin as a Charlemagne figure. Kennedy has spent a huge amount of time talking about this idea. The first several episodes of his podcast, The Defender, that aired after his campaign announcement were about the war in Ukraine, which has also been the central topic in his appearances with people like Brand and Adams. Recent episodes of The Defender have featured, alongside discussions of chemtrails, such guests as Douglas Macgregor, a frequent Carlson guest and former Trump appointee who last year blamed America’s problems on Jews, and Scott Ritter, the convicted sex offender and one-time U.N. weapons inspector, discoursing on the inevitability and desirability of Ukranian defeat. (Both frequently appear in Russian state media.)Kennedy also occasionally delves into more straightforward conspiracy theorizing, as with his stated conviction that his uncle, John F. Kennedy Jr., was assassinated by the CIA. (Conspiracy theories, of course, aren’t necessarily false.) He’s spent a lot of time fulminating about 5G technology, for instance falsely claiming early in the pandemic that it was spreading COVID. Recently this tendency and his beliefs about media have come together: In the conversation with Musk, he asserted that General Dynamics advertises on Good Morning America so it can “have editorial control over the Overton window” and that his friend Roger Ailes, the former head of Fox News, told him that while he believes vaccines injure people, he would have to fire a host who aired the topic for offending Fox’s Big Pharma masters. All of this, along with his dark musings on how America is presently defined by “this merger of state and corporate power”—fascism, in other words—closely fits a worldview that has been found in blog comments sections for decades and is currently perhaps most closely associated with Carlson and with Twitter Blue subscribers.This affinity of interests does something to explains Kennedy’s slavish fealty to Musk, the government-subsidized tycoon who exemplifies in his person the merger of state and corporate power. (In their Spaces conversation, Kennedy fawned over the oligarch, thanking him for his “leadership on the on just breaking this the whole of the censorship” and asking what in his background made him so willing to sacrifice so much money for principle. For his part, Musk explained that companies not advertising on Twitter is an assault on free speech that could imperil democracy around the world.) But then again the explanation could be more simple than that: Thursday, Axios reported that Sacks and fellow investor Chamath Palihapitiya will be holding a reception for Kennedy in San Francisco next week, with a $2,000 donation getting you into a cocktail reception and $10,000 getting you an invite to dinner. The appeal of Kennedy to the tech investor class surrounding Musk is clear. A candidate both expressing the exact right-wing grievances they do and carrying the most famous name in Democratic politics would in any event be irresistible to people who insist that their politics are unclassifiably heterodox; Kennedy additionally offers the appeal of flirtation with lib-triggering anti-vax crankery. What their interests have in common with those of the dispossessed and economically anxious voters of rural Pennsylvania whom Kennedy cited in his conversation with Musk as the reason he’s pursuing his run is an open question, though. So is what his ultimate aims are, and how far his new friends will go to support him.