Joe Biden’s latest menace is named Kennedy. With favourability ratings higher than Biden or his high-profile rival, Donald Trump, and polling as high as 20 per cent in some surveys, Robert F Kennedy Jr has become a “headache” for the president, according to the New York Times.
This is surprising in part as Kennedy – RFK Jr, in the three-lettered convention of his famous family – is not maximally respectable in polite US society. A proponent of unproven links between vaccines and autism, RFK Jr was publicly excoriated by his fellow Kennedys (brother Joseph, sister Kathleen and niece Maeve) for “sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines”.
[See also: Is another American revolution inevitable?]
This was in 2019, before the global pandemic – and before Covid occasioned a new wave of vaccine scepticism. Kennedy seized the moment with a polemic against the face of the US Covid response, The Real Anthony Fauci (2021), and a plea addressed to pro-lockdown Democrats, A Letter to Liberals (2022) – and has been rewarded with the spotlight.
Much of Kennedy’s popularity is thanks to his surname, surveys suggest. Not all who say they support him are in accord with his views on the medical establishment. Nearly half of Democrats do not want the octogenarian incumbent to run again – though no one from the party’s mainstream dares challenge him in a primary. That as fringe a figure as Kennedy can command support shows the strength of demand for an alternative. There is irony, too, in that Biden was often said to have fashioned himself as a Kennedy lookalike during the early stages of his long political career. Biden has the support of the broader Kennedy clan and has little reason to fear his bid for re-election will be seriously obstructed by the family’s black sheep.
Still, the RFK Jr phenomenon seems to represent a belated expression of discontent in some precincts of the American id. For a certain type of Democratic or independent voter – centrists who keep their distance from mainstream currents of liberal opinion – Kennedy’s self-presentation as a liberal defender of science against a corrupt corporate-state nexus has a definite appeal.
Many in this group, whose chief organ today is perhaps the popular Joe Rogan podcast (on which Kennedy made a recent, controversial appearance), had doubts about the rules handed down by public-health agencies during the pandemic but failed to voice them then. During the emergency phase of the pandemic, to raise such questions was to brand oneself a Republican, but now the urgency has faded – and, after all, how can one be called a Republican for supporting a son of that most Democratic of all families, the Kennedys?
Understanding the significance of RFK Jr and his support requires a closer look at the nature of his views, and how he came to hold them.
Kennedy was 14 when his father was assassinated in 1968. “Virtually left to his own devices” in the aftermath of the killing, according to his biographer, Kennedy became “troubled and rebellious”, and was expelled from school before attending Harvard. The attempt to set him up as inheritor of the Kennedy legacy of public service was interrupted in 1983 when RFK Jr was discovered suffering from an apparent overdose in an airplane toilet and charged with heroin possession.
Salvation came through environmental advocacy. Too tarnished for public office but rehabilitated enough to be admitted to the bar in 1985, Kennedy refashioned himself as an environmentalist after encountering Hudson River fishermen during his court-ordered community-service work.
On his Rogan appearance, Kennedy explained the motives of his interest in suing coal plants for contributing to mercury pollution in waterways, rendering fish unsafe to eat. “It struck me then that we were living in a science-fiction nightmare,” Kennedy said. “My children and the children of every other American could now no longer engage in the seminal, primal activity of American youth that I had grown up with, of your parents taking you to the local fishing hole.”
In other words, Kennedy’s interest in protecting American rivers was really a desire to protect the sanctity of American childhood, under threat of industrial desecration. In his advocacy work, Kennedy seemed to be obsessively re-enacting the violent trauma that had fractured his own youth.
When it came to his interest in vaccines, the same instinct seemed to be operating. Mercury was the villain in Kennedy’s environmental work; and just as he seemed to exhaust this vein, he made a timely discovery about the child vaccines the government had promised were safe. They were full of mercury too, and were ruining American childhoods. Someone had to do something.
[See also: Pathologies of a president]
Kennedy founded the World Mercury Project in 2011, later – and tellingly – rechristened Children’s Health Defense, to campaign against the inclusion of mercury in childhood vaccines (which, in the US, had mostly ceased ten years earlier). RFK Jr’s moral cosmology was a simple one: childhood must be protected; mercury and its servants in the corporate-medical-government nexus were the evil that threatened it. Like Melville’s Ahab, Kennedy had become an American monomaniac, and it is easy to see how this campaign was to determine all his later positions on the medical establishment.
That is not to say he is a lunatic. The abuse of corporate power by the US pharmaceutical industry is no fantasy. Biting criticism of Anthony Fauci and the US Covid response has been made, including by some in good standing on the left. But in addition to Kennedy’s litany of crankish pronouncements, it can be difficult to take seriously someone so obviously motivated by the doomed effort to recapture an extinguished childhood.
Unless, of course, one sympathises. Many do – and not only because of America’s fascination with the Kennedy family, through which the killing of RFK came to symbolise the violent interruption of the US’s idyllic adolescence, the end to the fanciful dream that the liberal, handsome Kennedys would redeem a nation stricken by attacks of conscience on race and poverty. It would be easy to see RFK Jr as indicative of the decline of the dynasty: from brave men on a noble quest to make US government shoulder its social responsibility, to spoiled wreckers mounting misinformed attacks on crucial public institutions. But this is both too kind to the forebears and too simple regarding their scion.
Many others in RFK Jr’s generation – the “Boomers” – came to idolise their own childhoods in retrospect (memories of the vanished good humour of the Fordist era), while developing a muddled relationship with authority, visible in politics as in their personal lives. The instinct to reform the country’s institutions and return them to their supposed principles contended with the unshakeable desire to rebel against or escape the system. Manifestations of the counterculture of the Sixties and Seventies reflected one or the other urge – and both stuck. They can be seen duelling in Kennedy’s recent writing, which combines encomia to “FDR/JFK liberalism” with gleeful invective against US officialdom.
Such conflicts are hardly the province of the Baby Boomers alone. RFK Jr is the candidate for Americans from all generations who cannot decide whether to reclaim or rebel against authority – whose attempts at improvement often end in frustration, and whose frustration never quite sheds an impotent credulity, a longing for the return of an innocence lost.
[See also: What Norman Mailer can teach us]
This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia