June 30, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Robert F Kennedy, antivaxer extraordinaire, can’t help himself

Reputational rehab wasn't going to be easy, writes Lindsay Beyerstein.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Robert F Kennedy, Jr. cannot help himself. In his quixotic bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, he initially sought to distance himself from the 15-year crusade against vaccines that has defined him as a public figure. But this week he reverted to form, making outrageous claims during a panel discussion that he convened with fellow antivaxers and advertised on his campaign channels. 

“I do not believe that infectious disease is an enormous threat to human health,” Kennedy said on the livestream, a bold statement in the wake of more than a million excess deaths in the US in covid’s first two years. Kennedy also pledged to target medical journals and defund epidemiology if elected, according to Rolling Stone.  

And that was just the beginning. 

Despite his aspirations to court normie Democrats, Kennedy can’t resist the adulation of his real base – online cranks. 

He falsely claimed that vaccine research created HIV, the Spanish flu and Lyme disease. He has previously insinuated that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, and that the only reason all reputable scientists think it does is because his nemesis, White House covid czar, Anthony Fauci nixed funding for research into alternative theories.

When Kennedy threw his hat into the ring, many observers were surprised that his campaign website was silent on the vaccine issue, as the candidate sought to rebrand himself as a normal Democrat who criticizes corporate power while reminding boomers of his dead relatives. 

The reputational rehab was never going to be easy. 

Kennedy made his name as an antivaxer by doggedly promoting the debunked link between vaccines and autism. The pandemic dramatically raised Kennedy’s profile as an opponent of public health measures and vaccine mandates. He published a bestselling book that spins an elaborate and baseless conspiracy theory about how Fauci knowingly denied Americans access to effective covid treatments because the vaccine couldn’t be authorized if treatments were available. In fact, Kennedy’s pet therapies were tested and found worthless and had there been an effective drug treatment for covid, it would have made no effect on the vaccine’s approval process. 

Vanity Fair dubbed him “the antivax icon of America’s nightmares.” A well-earned moniker, given that Kennedy founded Children’s Health Defense (CHD), the most influential antivax group in the country. CHD stoked panic about the measles vaccine in Samoa and helped cause an outbreak that killed about 50 babies and toddlers. 

During the pandemic, Kennedy became notorious for likening vaccine mandates to the Holocaust. Kennedy is also a prolific spreader of conspiracy theories, including the rumor that 5G networks are being used to “harvest our data and control our behavior.” What’s more, former Donald Trump advisor Steven Bannon keeps bragging about how he convinced Kennedy to run to spread the antivax gospel. 

Despite his aspirations to court normie Democrats, Kennedy can’t resist the adulation of his real base – online cranks. 

The pandemic made Kennedy a superstar on the right and he prefers the fawning attention of conspiracy-minded podcaster Joe Rogan to the slightly tougher questions of the beltway media. Kennedy’s antivax antics on the campaign trail ramped up sharply after his appearance on Rogan’s show. The candidate also got drawn into a bizarre harassment campaign of vaccine scientist Peter Hotez, who declined to debate Kennedy on Rogan’s show, on the grounds any debate with Kennedy would devolve into the “Jerry Springer Show.” Billionaires like Elon Musk rushed in to defend Kennedy and smear Hotez. Hotez was deluged with abuse online and antivax YouTubers even showed up at his home. 

This week Kennedy got the band back together, convening a panel on public health featuring some of the antivax movement’s most notorious figures, which he promoted through official campaign channels. Kennedy’s guests included fellow members of the Disinformation Dozen, a rogues gallery that’s collectively responsible for the majority of online antivax content. One of his guests, Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, testified before the Ohio Statehouse that covid vaccines make people magnetic and create “5G interfaces” to link our bodies to cellular networks.

 “You can put a key on their forehead, it sticks,” Tenpenny told Ohio legislators in 2021, “You can put spoons and forks all over and they can stick because now we think there is a metal piece to that.”

Perhaps Kennedy is returning to his antivax roots because the rest of his program is at odds with the Democratic base. He rejects common sense gun reform and instead blames school shootings on antidepressants; he dismisses US defense aid to Ukraine as a NATO proxy war against Russia; he refuses to criticize Donald Trump and says he’s proud the former president likes him. 

Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.

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