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How the Right Learned to Love RFK Jr.
Once castigated as an ‘aspiring tyrant,’ the conspiracy-theorist Kennedy scion is now praised as a champion of free speech.
OF ALL THE FIGURES on the left who could be adopted as honorary good guys by the right, you’d think that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. would be pretty far down the list. This isn’t just because of his pedigree as the scion of a family uniquely linked to the Democratic party—liberal Democratic royalty of sorts—but because of his longstanding reputation for far-left extremism and strident hostility to conservatives and conservative politics.
Thus, after news reports in 2008 that the Obama administration was considering Kennedy for the post of Environmental Protection Agency chief, Forbes ran a scathing piece by Walter Olson (then of the Manhattan Institute, now of the Cato Institute) with a title that speaks for itself: “Dangerous Kook at the EPA?” Olson listed some of the evidence of RFK Jr.’s unfitness for the job: his peddling of the vaccines-cause-autism conspiracy theory and lesser-known bogus science (e.g., that pollution causes Down syndrome); his embrace of equally conspiratorial claims about George W. Bush stealing the 2004 election; his penchant for extreme rhetoric treating fellow Americans across the political divide as a demonic enemy (e.g. comparing George W. Bush to Hitler and Mussolini); singing the praises of Venezuela’s Communist-adjacent dictator Hugo Chavez; and asserting, just a few months after September 11, 2001, that hog farmers were a greater menace to America than al Qaeda terrorists.
Six years later, another scathing assessment of RFK Jr. was delivered by National Review senior writer Charles C.W. Cooke under the equally self-explanatory title, “Robert Kennedy Jr., Aspiring Tyrant.” The occasion was an interview in which Kennedy expressed regret that there was no law that would allow punishing promoters of climate change skepticism as criminal offenders. Of the conservative/libertarian megadonors Charles and David Koch, he opined that they were “treasonous” and added, “I think they should be enjoying three hots and a cot at the Hague with all the other war criminals that are there.” At the time, Cooke decried Kennedy’s “insidious aspirations” and noted:
The debate that surrounds [climate change] remains protected in practice by the First Amendment and in civil society by the dual forces of taste and liberality. Robert Kennedy, by agitating for the suppression of heterodoxy, is casting himself as an enemy of all three.
But that was then, and this is now. While Olson has remained fully consistent in skewering RFK Jr. as a font of misinformation, craziness, and anti-liberal disposition, Cooke has rather substantially modified his tone. In May, he appeared on Megyn Kelly’s YouTube show right after Kelly completed an hour-long interview with the “aspiring tyrant.” When Kelly asked what Cooke thought of the interview and the man, his response was surprisingly mild:
Well, he’s not my guy—you know, he is, down the line, a fairly mainstream Democrat and then he has some eccentricities, some of which he outlined on the show. Now, a few of them I agree with; for example I think his preference for free speech is admirable, especially given the state of the current Democratic party. But he is not in the Charles C.W. Cooke political mold—I think the president he cited the most in that segment was Franklin Roosevelt, so he’s not my guy. That said, I think it is extraordinary that he’s at 20 percent [support] and I would be extremely worried about that if I were Joe Biden and if I were a partisan Democrat.
You’d think that Cooke’s admiration for Kennedy’s “preference for free speech” would be at least appended with a caveat about his preference for prosecuting purveyors of thoughtcrime (a position Kennedy did not retract in a recent Reason TV interview, where he falsely asserted that “the First Amendment does not protect fraudulent speech”). But no; the rest of Cooke’s comment was entirely about what RFK Jr.’s relatively high level of support among Democrats could mean for Joe Biden’s re-election prospects next year.
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But Cooke’s praise for RFK Jr. was mild compared to the full-throated endorsement National Review published by Matthew Scully, a former editor at the magazine and a Republican speechwriter. Scully deplored the lack of respect for Kennedy and the tendency to portray him as a “fringe figure.” RFK Jr. is treated that way, Scully claimed, because of his willingness to utter forbidden truths:
that pandemic lockdowns were calamitous for working people and for children; that citizens should choose for themselves whether to receive vaccines; that corporate influences on government are pervasive and corrupting; and that censorship contrived by the state is intolerable.
Add to this the belief that Dr. Anthony Fauci is a villain and that our aid to Ukraine is really about using Ukrainians “as pawns in a proxy war,” and Scully is moved to enthuse that “the prospect of Robert Francis Kennedy Jr. going on to Chicago, and winning there, would be a truly great moment, beautiful and powerful, and a moment good for America.”
In fairness, National Review has also published much more critical pieces about RFK Jr., including harsh rejoinders to Scully from Case Western Reserve University law professor Jonathan Adler and radiologist Pradheep Shanker, a critic of what he calls COVID-19 “public-health tyranny” who nonetheless takes a dim view of Kennedy’s outright quackery on health care issues. But in other, more anti-establishment and radical quarters of the right, Kennedy is the Democrat darling du jour. He has a mutual admiration club going with Tucker Carlson. Steve Bannon, Roger Stone, Charlie Kirk, and Michael Flynn love him. So does Ron DeSantis–supporting venture capitalist and Elon Musk pal David Sacks, best known nowadays for his incessant agitation against aid to Ukraine. So does, for that matter, Musk himself, who chatted with Kennedy last month in a Twitter Spaces session justly described as “bizarre.” (Among other things, Kennedy rhapsodized that he had watched Musk “do the same thing” as the patriots who put their lives on the line in the American revolutionary war.)
SO WHAT’S GOING ON HERE? Well, partly, the RFK Jr. love reflects the calculus candidly mentioned by Cooke on the Megyn Kelly show: the hope that a primary fight with Kennedy will damage Biden in the general election. Cooke correctly pointed out that “double-digit challenges” in the primaries spelled defeat for Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H.W. Bush in 1992. (Of course, it’s far from clear that such patterns would still hold in the very different political landscape of the 2020s; it’s also worth noting that none of the primary challengers in those elections—Ronald Reagan, Edward Kennedy, or Pat Buchanan—had strong backing from within the opposing party.)
However, the RFK Jr. love-in on the right goes beyond his potential role as a spoiler. Both Bannon and Stone, for instance, have been ecstatic over the idea of Kennedy as a Trump running mate on the GOP ticket. This would still put him in a spoiler role, since part of the plan, presumably, is that a Kennedy on the ticket will funnel some Democratic votes from Biden to Trump. But it isn’t just that: RFK Jr. really is a good fit with the Trumpist right, whose principal driver is free-form populist rage and rebellion against the “establishment” in all its forms, from mainstream politics and news to mainstream science. In that sense, Kennedy’s embrace of junk science and nutty conspiracy theories—including, most recently, that Bill Gates has been using COVID-19 vaccination to inject tracking chips under people’s skins—is a feature, not a bug: It all flies under the banner of “heterodoxy.” In today’s political environment, Kennedy’s support for, well, Kennedyesque social welfare programs matters far less than being on the right side (as it were) of the culture wars, and even his broadsides against corporate America fit comfortably with the new right’s fulminations against “woke capitalism.”
(One might add that to some extent, Kennedy panders to his new fan base: in the Reason interview, and earlier in the Twitter Spaces chat with Musk, he suggested that he might reverse his longtime staunch opposition to nuclear power if he was persuaded that it could be both safe and cost-effective. At least, I think that was the point of his four-minute word salad on the question.)
In early May, National Review’s Noah Rothman—not an RFK Jr. fan—pointed to the relatively high support for Kennedy among Democratic voters as evidence that the Democrats’ claim to be the party of science and reason is baseless. Of course, no one has ever claimed that all Democratic voters are paragons of rationality; one could certainly argue that liberal Democrats have any number of ideologically specific irrationalities. But I’m not convinced that RFK Jr.’s rating says much about Democrats today, if only because, as Rothman notes in another article, most of his supporters back him for reasons other than his views. Yes, there was a time, in the 2000s, when Kennedy’s brand of crazy—not quite as crazy as today, but already getting there—had a constituency on the left. In 2005, Salon and Rolling Stone ran his piece on the alleged vaccine/autism link; after a debunking, Salon retracted it while Rolling Stone issued a number of corrections. Nonetheless, this did not prevent Rolling Stone from placing him on its 2009 list of “100 Agents of Change,” at No. 34. But that was then. Today, there is little question that Kennedy’s real following is on the right.
ON JULY 15, RFK JR.’S MAYBE-RISING STAR threatened to implode when the New York Post published a rather extraordinary video clip from a press dinner at a New York restaurant in which the presidential hopeful opined that the 2019 coronavirus might have been “ethnically targeted,” selectively striking “Caucasians and black people” while going easy on “Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.” He added that “we don’t know whether it was deliberately targeted or not,” but went on to assert that both China and the United States are “developing ethnic bioweapons”—among other things, by “collecting Russian DNA,” presumably in those sinister Ukrainian biolabs.
While the entire tirade was bonkers, the suggestion that COVID-19 may have been engineered to spare Jews raised eyebrows in particular, recycling as it does one of the most pernicious antisemitic tropes. Blaming Jews for catastrophic diseases that supposedly spared them goes all the way back to the fourteenth century and the “Black Death” plague epidemic; the same mythology was echoed in the 1948–53 antisemitic Soviet propaganda campaign based on claims of a murderous conspiracy by Jewish doctors. One may debate whether or not RFK Jr. has actual antisemitic beliefs (as his grandfather notoriously did). There is little doubt, however, that his journey down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories has led him to an antisemitic place, as such journeys so often do.
Not surprisingly, the comments in the video elicited a strong reaction. Kennedy’s subsequent who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes attempt at denial—he insisted that he had been misquoted and had “never, ever suggested that the COVID-19 virus was targeted to spare Jews”—didn’t help. But, notably, the condemnation came almost exclusively from Democrats. On the other hand, Jim Jordan, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, declined requests to disinvite Kennedy as a witness at a hearing on censorship because of his antisemitic comments. Jordan’s explanation:
Yeah, I totally disagree with what he said, but he’s a Democrat. I disagree with other things he said too. But we’re having him because of censorship.
(The “censorship” is that RFK Jr. was temporarily banned from Instagram over anti-vax misinformation and had a YouTube video removed for the same reason; apparently, those things don’t meet his definition of “fraudulent speech.”)
Meanwhile, on Fox News, Prime Time host Jesse Watters defended RFK Jr.’s remarks in the spirit of, quite literally, just asking questions—and suggested that Kennedy would be welcome on the show to argue his point. (“If he has proof, we want to see it.”) After the House hearing, Watters went to bat for Kennedy even more strongly on The Five, slamming the Democrats for trying to “censor” him:
The fact that he’s questioning the war in Ukraine, big business, big tech, makes him a threat. So they’re calling him an antisemite.
Antisemitic tropes? Don’t be silly. In Watters’s rewrite, Kennedy merely said that “viruses affect different people differently” and “cited a study,” and for some reason people got upset. Obviously, it’s because they hate RFK Jr. for being such an intrepid truth-teller.
Megyn Kelly, meanwhile, did express outrage—at Kennedy’s sister Kerry Kennedy, who tweeted a condemnation of her brother’s remarks.
Back in 2014, when Charles C.W. Cooke penned his column about RFK Jr. as an “aspiring tyrant,” he wrote that Kennedy’s fantasies about jailing his opponents were “a gold-leafed invitation to be quietly excluded from polite society” and added, “Goodbye, Robert.” In 2023, Cooke’s comment on the video with RFK Jr.’s remarks about COVID-19 and the Jews was limited to far milder Twitter snark about Kennedy’s unrigorous thinking (along with harsher comments on a National Review podcast, “The Editors,” where he called Kennedy a “kook” and noted the harm caused by Kennedy’s vaccine-and-autism disinformation).Meanwhile, the invitation Kennedy gets is from House Republicans for a national platform to complain about being censored—and we won’t be saying goodbye to him for a while if the right-wing media machine can help it.