Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is causing eyebrows to arch all over the political world. The 69-year-old son of slain Sen. Robert F. Kennedy is a former environmental lawyer turned vaccine conspiracist. On April 19, he announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president. His aim? To "end the corrupt merger of state and corporate power."
Would you imagine such a platform attracting followers? Well, he's been racking up some startling poll numbers. Fox News put him at 19%, and Emerson College found 21% support. Those are some impressive percentages for a challenger to a sitting president.
Let's start with the name. About a dozen Kennedys have dotted the political landscape over the decades, and no other political family has matched their glamor or celebrity. But this is a different kind of Kennedy.
Let's review. Just after Donald Trump was elected, a parade of notables trooped to Trump Tower to be interviewed by the president-elect: Kanye West, Rick Santorum, Sonny Perdue, Rick Perry, Omarosa Manigault, Mike Flynn. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was there, too. Odd, you might say, for a major Democratic figure? But not when you consider that he went off the rails decades ago amid his manias about dark forces and evil schemes. It all fits smoothly into Trump's own cracked obsessions. He was an early proponent and superspreader of the thoroughly debunked claim that childhood vaccines cause autism.
Perhaps you've heard of the crazed theory that Microsoft's Bill Gates was implanting microchips into patients through vaccines? Thank RFK Jr. for giving it oxygen. He posted a YouTube video that accused Gates of developing this "injectable chip" to enable Big Tech to track people's movements. RFK Jr. has also circulated the bogus notion that 5G alters human DNA, causes cancer and is part of a vast program of surveillance. He does not believe Lee Harvey Oswald killed his uncle; he fingers the CIA. Not surprisingly, he also believes that Sirhan Sirhan, convicted of killing his father, is innocent and has urged his release. Kennedy's view of who murdered his father? Also the CIA.
Unsurprisingly, when COVID hit, RFK Jr. was ready. On December 6, 2021, he said that the COVID vaccine is "the deadliest vaccine ever made." He published a book accusing Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates of being in cahoots to profit off vaccines and told a rally crowd in 2022 that things were worse today than during the Holocaust: "Even in Hitler's Germany ... you could cross the Alps to Switzerland. You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did," whereas "the mechanisms are being put in place that will make it so none of us can run and none of us can hide."
RFK Jr.'s nonprofit has been banned from Instagram and Facebook for spreading disinformation about COVID. He has wallowed in martyrdom, complaining that Big Tech is silencing him for "disagreeing."
One more item to complete this grim picture: RFK Jr. is anti-Ukraine, spouting Russian propaganda about provocations from "fascists" in Volodymyr Zelensky's regime and American "neo-cons." This is not out of character. A couple of decades ago, he was agog for Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who holds a record for the speed with which he plunged a reasonably prosperous country into chaos and destitution (before posthumously stealing the 2020 election for Joe Biden, of course).
It is difficult to imagine that his poll numbers will hold up once Democrats draw a bead on what he believes. But there is another audience that is proving quite receptive — Republicans.
Benjamin Braddock, writing in The American Mind, a Claremont Institute outlet, praised him because "RFK Jr. is thus far the only announced presidential candidate who has declared his intention to prosecute officials who betrayed the public trust in the course of the pandemic."
Of course. Jailing Fauci.
Over at National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty notes mildly that some of RFK Jr.'s message "resonates" with him: "The government lies to us. The media lies to us."
Just for the record, it isn't "crony capitalism" RFK Jr. despises; it's straight-up capitalism. He wanted to jail the Koch brothers before sending them to the Hague as war criminals. He described the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, ExxonMobil and a raft of other entities as "snake pits for sociopaths" before recommending treason charges against Southern Company and Exxon. Any fan of Hugo Chavez is not against "crony capitalism"; he hates the real thing.
RFK Jr., like Trump, has swum for decades in the cesspool of conspiracies, lies, baseless accusations and ginned-up outrage. We hardly pause to note it, because Trump has committed so many other outrages, but he cost tens of thousands of Americans their lives thanks to minimizing the seriousness of COVID. RFK Jr., too, belongs in the select company of major figures who have used their power for harm. Perhaps he isn't quite right in the head. Who knows? But the fact that he appeals to significant numbers of Americans, and particularly to those who have always been on the other side of the aisle, suggests that he is far from alone in that.
Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the "Beg to Differ" podcast.
Reprinted with permission from Creators.