Why RFK Jr. Is Not An Ally

I don’t know when I initially heard of RFK Jr., but I remember when his name first came up in the Trump years: in early 2017, as Trump was recruiting the all-star cast who would staff his new administration and RFK was invited to chair a vaccine safety panel.

I found him again in 2021, as I reported on anti-vaxxers in upstate New York. The group I looked at had raised money for a few organizations, among them Children’s Health Defense, the anti-vax advocacy organization that RFK now leads. But by this time RFK was well known, as his profile grew substantially during the pandemic, building the notoriety he’s now trading on in his run for president.

People seem, in some corners, surprised about the attention his campaign has been able to attract—from celebrities, one-time liberal Democrats, and an unsettling number of right-wing tech oligarchs, among others—which puts his theoretical support in the Democratic primary at 20% in some polls. I’m not. From the cynical campaign launch in Boston (a city he apparently has no connection with besides his last name) I’ve felt that RFK quite neatly fits this moment, that in his celebrity, dumbed-down conspiratorial view of the world, beliefs around vaccines, basic conservatism, and fundamentally shallow arrogance he reflects a deep strain in contemporary America.

That conservatism is key: it’s striking how quickly his candidacy, which putatively began as a liberal challenge to Biden, has morphed into one component of a broader right-wing project—sort of an inverted version of his uncle Ted Kennedy’s challenge to Jimmy Carter in 1980.

RFK Jr. is now making the rounds on more or less the right-wing circuit, speaking to pro-business groups in Vermont, holding unhinged conversations with Joe Rogan, narrowly backing out (due to a “scheduling change”) of far-right group Moms For Liberty’s national summit in Philadelphia, making the ritual pilgrimage to the Mexican border, taking a hard pro-Israel position, and refusing to rule out voting for a Republican.

Like others in this ideologically fuzzy and so-called contrarian space, Kennedy’s vaguely “left” positions—on, say, “the environment” (and there he’s pretty checkered, to put it mildly)—give him just barely enough cover to insist on liberal bona fides while fundamentally putting forth a right-wing vision.

RFK’s campaign manager may be Dennis Kucinich (who’s had his own fall from grace in recent years) but as far as unlikely Democratic candidates go, he reminds me more of Tulsi Gabbard, another candidate who embodies an unarticulated third-positionist politics, more or less catering to MAGA-friendly voters convinced they’re too enlightened for unadulterated Trumpism.

While RFK obviously has little chance of getting anywhere in the primary (though after Trump, perhaps we shouldn’t be too confident, and some future public role for him is definitely possible), and while I think it’s true that his personal arrogance and famous name mostly account for his being in this race, we shouldn’t mistake his weirdness and limited electoral prospects for harmlessness. RFK Jr. may be running a vanity campaign, but he’s doing it as a right-winger, and like Trump or DeSantis, from his own specific niche, he is propelling an extremely noxious politics in this country.

Will Solomon writes a newsletter, Nor’easter, on climate and environment in the Northeast US. He can be found on Twitter and elsewhere at @wsolol.