INDIANAPOLIS – Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a candidate for president supported by one in five Democratic voters in some recent polls, campaigns on the idea that powerful people have been working in secret to deceive you.
He began a recent speech here by recounting the Eisenhower Administration’s 1960 decision to lie when the Soviets downed an American spy plane by calling it weather research. Then came further alleged deceptions – some proven, some refuted, many just conjecture.
Before long, Kennedy was arguing that a 2019 tabletop exercise about a mock pandemic archived on YouTube actually revealed a secret plan, involving U.S. spymasters, to enrich drug companies and suppress free speech. He then rattled off clinical data from a coronavirus vaccine trial that was not designed to measure mortality, falsely suggesting clear evidence that vaccines killed more people than they saved.
He made no mention of the abundant science that has found the vaccine prevented serious illness and saved lives.
“We were lied to by the government and by the media,” he told a well-heeled crowd of hundreds of political skeptics at the Meridian Hills Country Club, many dressed in spring pastels or sockless shoes, some with wine glasses in hand. “And so it was all confusing, because they keep us confused.”
That alarmist message has given him a platform that he believes will remake the Democratic Party and fulfill the ambitions denied his father, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), and stolen from his uncle, former president John F. Kennedy – two men he argues were likely assassinated by elements of the CIA, based on circumstantial evidence, which the government has denied.
“I could not run except in this election, and really covid integrated and systemized a deception in ways that are beyond the experience of our country,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post hours before his country club address. “People want the truth.”
It’s a message that has so far allowed Kennedy, 69, to become President Biden’s most surprising and successful competitor in the six weeks since announcing a long-shot campaign. With only 38 percent of Democratic voters wanting to see the president as their nominee, Kennedy has polled about as high in the national Democratic primary as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is polling in the Republican one, despite a fraction of the media coverage and little paid advertising.
Kennedy’s campaign aims to embrace the spirit of his family’s 1960 and 1968 campaigns, hoping to reunite working class white supporters of former president Donald Trump with the Black and Hispanic coalition of Democrats that once rallied behind the Kennedy name. He argues that current national polling does not yet account for the shifts he can bring to who votes in open Democratic primaries. An independent group, American Values 2024, has already raised $5.7 million to support his campaign, according to John Gilmore, the founder of the group.
“This has been a vertical takeoff.” said former Democratic Ohio representative Dennis Kucinich, his campaign manager, who peaked in the single digits as a presidential contender in 2008. “Mr. Kennedy has arrived at a moment of a seismic shift in American politics, and he is singularly situated to be able to reset the pointer of our national dialogue to the center.”
Just what is fueling the rockets, however, remains a matter of speculation. An unrelated Robert Kennedy Jr. filed to run in 2017 as a Democrat for a special election to replace one of Alabama’s U.S. senators. With little public exposure and a famous name, he led early polls in the race, before losing by 48 points.
A recent CNN poll found 20 percent of Democratic voters support Kennedy as a presidential candidate and an additional 44 percent would consider supporting him. Of that second group, one in five said the Kennedy name and family ties were the main reasons for their consideration.
The Democratic National Committee has been working with Biden’s team on his reelection campaign and has not engaged publicly with either Kennedy or author Marianne Williamson, another Democrat running for president. Democratic officials say they will not schedule primary debates. Both the Biden campaign and the DNC declined to comment for this article.
No one yet knows how the nation or the party will react when they find out more about Kennedy’s unconventional politics. He has not yet laid out an immigration strategy and is unsure about whether transgender surgeries for youth should be banned, though he opposes trans women competing in women’s sports. He supports abortion rights and won’t cut Social Security or Medicaid, but refuses to say whether he would support an assault weapons ban, since “the control of weapons has to be done through consensus.”
He denounces Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but also blames Americans for provoking the war by supporting the 2014 popular uprising in the country. Like Trump, he says he would quickly negotiate a peace if elected. Unlike most Democrats, he has called former Fox News host Tucker Carlson “breathtakingly courageous” for his criticism of drug companies.
Kennedy still believes that Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) won the 2004 election, which reelected George W. Bush, owing largely to a loose analysis of exit polls, voting machines and precinct vote counts – echoing many of the false claims made by Trump and his supporters about the 2020 election. As for the 2020 race, which Biden won, he said, “I don’t know. I think that Biden won.”
He dismisses concerns that his candidacy could help Trump or another Republican win. Kennedy has suggested he will not support Biden, who he calls a friend, if the president wins the nomination, because of his approach to the Ukraine war. Kennedy acknowledges that some in his family, which has multiple members who serve in the Biden administration, disapprove of his candidacy and views.
“Conspiracies do happen,” he said. “It’s not that everybody is involved in promoting what they know to be a lie. It is that there are orthodoxies that become institutionalized that have their own gravity that pull people in.”
The conspiratorial style of politics – the idea that the powerful secretly shape events with malevolent goals – runs like white noise through American history, punctuated by occasional revelations of actual schemes that did demonstrable harm, such as in the Catholic Church, the tobacco industry or the intelligence community, for example.
The steady hum of popular paranoia has only risen in volume in recent decades, as Gallup has recorded record low trust in institutions like Congress, business, newspapers and the criminal justice system. New conspiracies now anchor mainstream ideologies. Trump blames “the deep state” for his troubles. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) points to the “ultrarich.” DeSantis describes a corporate, regulatory, academic and media elite surreptitiously spreading the “woke mind virus.”
Kennedy approaches the arena as a decorated outcast – one of the most famous living descendants of the most famous American political dynasty, who has spent the last several years railing against what he sees as a concerted effort to banish him from the public square.
He was stripped of his Instagram account for what the company called “debunked claims about the coronavirus or vaccines” in 2021; the site reinstated his account on Sunday in light of his status as a presidential candidate. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) asked Amazon to stop recommending his books. The White House press secretary flagged him as member of the “disinformation dozen” for his flimsy conjectures about covid, like the unsubstantiated claim that the death of baseball legend Hank Aaron, 86, attributed to natural causes two weeks after a vaccination, was “suspicious.” (Kennedy still calls for an “impartial investigation.”)
It’s all an inside joke for many of his supporters. When an evacuation alarm interrupted Kennedy’s April 19 campaign launch at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston, he addressed the unseen forces arrayed against him.
“Nice try,” he said to no one in particular, while pointing to the ceiling, earning laughter and applause. The crowd stayed put.
Partial to the skinny ties of the 1960s, he speaks of backroom power as a person born inside. He recalls his life as a young boy when his father asked CIA leadership to find out if they had killed his brother, a story he sources to historians. (Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who worked for President Kennedy, reported that then Attorney General Bobby Kennedy had relayed a version of this story to another adviser.) Kennedy Jr. met with his father’s convicted killer, Sirhan Sirhan, after concluding there was evidence of a second shooter at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
After his father’s death, he became friends with Roger Ailes, the late former head of Fox News, who he claims once told him that he would fire any television anchor who reported about the dangers of vaccines because of pharmaceutical company pressure. Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) was also a friend when the senator ran an investigation that exposed many of the CIA’s deepest secrets in the 1970s.
“His wife was my sister’s godmother,” he said. “I know all of these people.”
Of the 11 children born to his parents, Kennedy was blessed with the looks and the name, but little about his first decades suggested an interest in pursuing a life of public office. A master falconer who struggled through school, he launched a career as a successful environmental rights attorney, for the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association and then Riverkeeper, before turning his attention in the early 2000s to abuses of the public trust he believed existed in the regulation of pharmaceuticals and vaccines. Now living in California with his third wife, actress Cheryl Hines, he has six children.
He authored a 2005 article for Rolling Stone and Salon.com alleging that mercury in vaccines had caused a rise in neurological disorders like autism that was later withdrawn by both publications after multiple corrections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posted a two-page explainer to debunk claims of mercury harm in vaccines, citing nine different studies, including six that were published after his article.
Kennedy has not changed his view, though he now says that mercury was likely just one of many toxins that caused the disorders. “They are all epidemiological studies, which are the easiest studies to fix,” he said in Indianapolis when presented with the CDC document. “I did a whole book on it, where I digested, I think, 450 studies and 1,400 references.”
Most scientists view such talk as nonsense, in part because most mercury was voluntarily removed from or reduced in childhood vaccines about two decades ago, while autism diagnoses have continued to rise since then, said David Gorski, an oncologist at Wayne State University School of Medicine, who edits Science-Based Medicine, a website focused on debunking medical conspiracy theories.
Kennedy argues that an increase in flu vaccinations with mercury preservative could have counteracted this shift. “It’s hard to write anything I say about vaccines,” he admits, nodding to the complexity. “It’s layer upon layer and argument upon argument.”
His opponents have a simpler explanation. “His entire worldview has become a conspiracy theory. He has spent the last 18-plus years spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about vaccines,” Gorski said. “He is just more respectable, because he is a Kennedy.”
Kennedy’s claims about coronavirus vaccines tend to spark the fiercest backlash. The mRNA vaccines were found to be more than 95 percent protective against symptomatic illness of early strains of covid during the clinical trials. Follow up studies found them highly effective against severe illness and death, said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor University.
“Those Americans who perished from covid were overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated,” Hotez said in an email, referring to the period after vaccine distribution.
But Kennedy is unfazed, plowing ahead in a raspy voice – the result of spasmodic dysphonia, an unexplained condition of the vocal muscles he has speculated may be a side effect of the flu vaccine. He never took the coronavirus vaccine, convinced early on that a bigger fix was at play.
He said technology companies like Amazon, whose founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post, supported lockdowns and limited dissenting views because they stood to profit from isolation. Kennedy’s nonprofit organization, the Children’s Health Defense, has sued The Post and other news outlets alleging that they violated antitrust laws by working with technology companies on an initiative to fight misinformation. A spokeswoman for The Post declined to comment on the suit.
“It was like a minor hangover,” he said of his own experience catching the virus.
In his announcement speech, he joked that he had “a rambunctious youth and it lasted until my early sixties.” Arrested for heroin possession at 28, he stayed sober for 25 years, until 2014, when he started counting again after taking pain medication for a medical procedure, he said. To this day, even as he travels for the campaign, he regularly attends 12-step meetings to maintain his sobriety. “Like nine meetings a week,” he said.
“If somebody believes that my heroin addiction four decades ago should exclude me from the White House, they’re entitled to that, or all the other stuff that I had,” he said, when asked how voters should interpret his unusual presidential profile. “I don’t begrudge anybody.”
Kennedy’s invitation to speak at a golf club in Indianapolis came from the First Principles Forum, a group founded to seek a “return to civil discourse,” according to the program. Previous speakers have included conservative podcasters Matt Walsh, who refers to himself as a “theocratic fascist” on Twitter; Candace Owens, the founder of a group aimed at helping Blacks “escape from the Democratic plantation”; and Charlie Kirk, the founder of the right-wing group Turning Point USA.
A common theme among the speakers is a conviction that major news organizations no longer share an accurate picture of what is happening.
“Never take a headline or what you see on the news at face value,” said Fanchon Stinger, the evening news anchor of a local Fox affiliate who introduced Kennedy to the stage. “Once we have a media or a mainstream organization that’s taking those basic freedoms away, we can no longer make educated decisions for our families and for our loved ones.”
As he spoke, Kennedy offered a unified narrative of American deception, connecting covid and the Bay of Pigs, the collapse of mom-and-pop stores and federal investment in mind-control research. The common theme was a quest for profit at the expense of the middle class, driven by the corruption of intelligence and regulatory agencies.
The pandemic, he argued, originated at a U.S.-funded lab in China – a point of disagreement within the U.S. government – in a program he suggested was possible because of the 2001 Patriot Act, which he then claimed passed only after two holdout Democratic senators, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Tom Daschle of South Dakota, were threatened with death.
“A week into that debate both of them received anthrax envelopes in the mail, and Congress was shut down, and the Patriot Act was passed,” Kennedy said, a sentence with a factual error undergirding an implied-but-unsupported claim of cause and effect.
The crowd started to laugh knowingly when Kennedy added that the government scientist alleged by the FBI to have sent those letters “committed suicide – supposedly.”
In fact, the Leahy anthrax letter was only discovered in a batch of unopened mail on Nov. 16, 2001, weeks after the Patriot Act’s passage, which was preceded by six weeks of debate in the Senate. (An aide to Leahy said Kennedy’s timeline doesn’t make sense. Daschle did not respond to a request for comment.) The Patriot Act, with the support of his uncle, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), added a second exception for “bona fide research” in the bioweapons chapter of the U.S. criminal code.
Kennedy speaks frequently on anti-establishment podcasts and in conservative media, where he has been received warmly. He has welcomed Elon Musk’s public invitation to do a Twitter Spaces event on Monday, and circulated a link to a sympathetic online Fox News documentary about his life. Fox host Sean Hannity introduced Kennedy onto his show in May by describing his polling as “nightmare new numbers for Joe Biden.” The chryon when Kennedy appeared on Fox Host’s Laura Ingraham’s show announced he could “throw a wrench in Biden’s campaign.”
Kennedy has argued, based on circumstantial evidence, that the CIA continues to influence domestic political news coverage, even naming liberal-leaning outlets that have previously published his writing as likely victims.
“There’s kind of an Overton window that always exists in the media where there’s certain things you can’t repeat,” he said, a reference to a theory by political scientist Joseph Overton that the bounds of acceptable discourse can shift over time. “But that Overton window got very constricted during the pandemic. And the consequences for venturing out of it became, you know, lethal to careers.”
Attendees at his event who took his words at face value may have left with the impression that the anthrax letters led their intended recipients to support the Patriot Act. But just hours earlier, in the interview with The Post, Kennedy had said he did not know if there was a direct relationship between the anthrax letters and their votes.
“What I am saying is that the whole story was not the story we were given at the time,” Kennedy explained. “I don’t even know how they cast their votes.”
In this way, the central theme of Kennedy’s presidential campaign can overwhelm the details. Dots can appear to connect even when the connections are not directly drawn.
Kennedy ended his speech by recounting the 1960s obedience experiments by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram, which were funded by the National Science Foundation, but which Kennedy said, without offering evidence, were actually part of the CIA’s mind-control research program. (He has previously attributed this claim to University of Wisconsin historian Alfred McCoy, who has made a circumstantial case of CIA interest.)
In the experiments, college students were asked by a man in a lab coat to shock people in an adjoining room at increasing levels of electricity, even though no shocks were actually administered. An actor, on the other side of the wall, would scream in pain to suggest a result.
The experiment found that about two-thirds of test subjects were willing to put a stranger’s life in danger at the instruction of an authority figure. About one-third refused to do as they were told.
“It’s occurred to me many times during the pandemic that we’re in the middle of a huge Milgram experiment,” he said. “The people in this room – that’s the 33 percent. For the people who didn’t walk out, our job is to continue to fight for their freedom until they wake up out of their sleepwalk.”