Michelle Goldberg: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the coalition of the distrustful

Robert Kennedy Jr., a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, speaks in Goffstown, N.H., on June 20, 2023. Kennedy, who has long touted an illusory connection between vaccines and autism, and has repeatedly said that pandemic restrictions arose from a CIA plan to "clamp down totalitarian control," has a sincere and passionate following. (Mark Peterson/The New York Times)

Before COVID-19, Gabe Whitney, a 41-year-old from West Bath, Maine, didn’t think much about vaccines. He wasn’t very political — he didn’t vote in 2020, he said, because he thought Donald Trump was a “psycho” and Joe Biden was “corrupt.” It wasn’t until the pandemic that Whitney started regularly watching the news, but as he did, he felt that things weren’t adding up. He doubted what he called “the narrative” and struggled with the hostility his questions about vaccines and other mitigations elicited from those close to him. He described being “blamed and labeled as someone who’s part of the problem because you’re questioning. Like not taking a stance on it, but just questioning. That was the worst.”

Whitney started gravitating toward people who see skepticism of mainstream public health directives as a sign of courage rather than selfishness and delusion. He began following anti-vax figures such as Del Bigtree, Robert Malone and, of course, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whom Whitney already admired for his environmental work. Kennedy has long touted an illusory connection between vaccines and autism, and has repeatedly said that pandemic restrictions arose from a CIA plan to “clamp down totalitarian control.” If Kennedy was so wrong, Whitney thought, it didn’t make sense that his critics wouldn’t debate him. “When someone is taking such an unpopular position, and then nobody wants to debate them, that says something to me,” he said.

I met Whitney this month at a rally for Kennedy, now running for the Democratic presidential nomination, at Saint Anselm College, just outside Manchester, New Hampshire. I had gone because I was curious about who was turning out to see the candidate. Among many Democrats, there’s an assumption that Kennedy’s surprising strength in some polls — an Emerson College survey from April showed him getting 21% in a Democratic primary — is mostly attributable to the magic of his name and anxiety about Biden’s age. This is probably at least partly true. As media coverage has made Democrats more aware of Kennedy’s conspiratorial views, his support has fallen; a recent Saint Anselm poll had him at only 9%, barely ahead of Marianne Williamson.

At the same time, Kennedy has a sincere and passionate following. When I arrived at the Saint Anselm venue, I was surprised by the enormous line snaking out the door. It quickly became clear that many people weren’t going to make it into the 580-seat auditorium. (I requested an interview with Kennedy but never heard back from the person I was told could schedule it.)

In New Hampshire, I didn’t meet any loyal Democrats who were there just to scope out the alternatives. The 2020 Biden voters I encountered were dead set against voting for him again; some, disenchanted by vaccine mandates and American support for Ukraine, even said they preferred Trump. Like Whitney, several people I spoke to didn’t vote at all in 2020 because they didn’t like their choices. Some attendees said they leaned right, and others identified with the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.

What brought them all together was a peculiar combination of cynicism and credulity. The people I encountered believe that they are living under a deeply sinister regime that lies to them about almost everything that matters. And they believe that with the Kennedy campaign, we might be on the cusp of redemption.

In 2021, Charles Eisenstein, an influential New Age writer, described the assassination of John F. Kennedy as the primal wound that brought America to its current lamentable state. “It is like a radioactive pellet lodged inside the body politic,” he wrote, “generating an endlessly metastasizing cancer that no one has been able to trace to its source.”

Eisenstein takes it for granted that JFK’s murder was orchestrated by the national security state, a view also held by RFK Jr., John F. Kennedy’s nephew. Because the official story “beggars belief,” Eisenstein argued, it engendered in the populace a festering distrust of all official narratives. At the same time, the cover-up led the government to regard the people it has been continually deceiving with contempt, as “unruly schoolchildren who must be managed, surveilled, tracked, locked up and locked down for their own good.”

A Kennedy restoration, Eisenstein believes, would heal the corrosive injury that separates the people from their putative leaders, putting America back on the confident and optimistic trajectory from which it was diverted in 1963. In May, he joined Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign as a senior adviser working on messaging and strategy.

“There was a timeline in which America was, however flawed, it was moving towards greater and greater virtue,” Eisenstein said in a podcast he and Kennedy recorded together. JFK’s assassination jolted America onto a different, darker timeline, but perhaps not permanently. “I feel like maybe that timeline hasn’t died,” Eisenstein said of the earlier era. “Maybe we can pick up that thread. And it’s so significant that a Kennedy just so happens to be in a position to do that. It’s one of the synchronicities that speak to, or speak from, a larger organizing intelligence in the world.”

To those of us who see Kennedy as an anti-vax conspiracy theorist, his campaign looks like either a farce or a dirty trick, one boosted by MAGA figures such as Roger Stone and Steve Bannon to weaken Biden before the 2024 election. But to many in his substantial following, it has a messianic cast, promising deliverance from the division and confusion that began with JFK’s assassination and reached a terrifying apotheosis during the COVID pandemic. “We are in the last battle,” Kennedy said in a 2021 speech at a California church famous for defying pandemic restrictions. “This is the apocalypse. We are fighting for the salvation of all humanity.”

In Kennedy’s campaign, this chiliastic vision is translated into a story about the renewal of a lost American golden age, before the murders of his uncle and then his father, Robert F. Kennedy. In New Hampshire, his appearance was more than just a campaign stop — it commemorated the 60th anniversary of JFK’s famous “Peace Speech” at American University, where the young president called on his countrymen “not to see conflict as inevitable, accommodation as impossible and communication as nothing more than an exchange of threats.”

Standing before a row of American flags in that packed Saint Anselm auditorium, wearing a suit and a 1960s-style skinny tie, Kennedy reworked his uncle’s speech as a call to empathize with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s perspective on Ukraine. He cast American support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government as a continuation of our country’s forever wars, which he posited as the cause of American decline. As he often does, he mixed highly tendentious arguments — attributing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in part to “repeated deliberate provocations” by America — with resonant truths. “Waging endless wars abroad, we have neglected the foundation of our own well-being,” he said. “We have a decaying economic infrastructure, we have a demoralized people and despairing people. We have toxins in our air and our soil and our water. We have deteriorating mental and physical health.”

A new Kennedy presidency, he claimed, could revive us.

“We can restore America to the awesome vitality of the original Kennedy era,” he said. It was a softer, more eloquent version of Make America Great Again, and the audience loved it.

When the speech was over, the crowd was invited to join one of three breakout sessions. I chose “Peace Consciousness in Foreign Policy,” a dialogue led by Eisenstein. “You could say ‘manifest’ or you can say ‘prophesize,’ but we need to see that this is possible,” a woman at the talk said about the prospect of a Kennedy presidency. “We all need to hold that view and magnetize it.” The people around her hooted and applauded.

It is, in fact, possible that Kennedy will win the primary in New Hampshire, because, as a result of a dispute over the Democratic National Committee’s changes to the primary calendar, Biden might not be on the ballot. That doesn’t mean Kennedy poses an electoral threat to Biden; he almost certainly does not. Still, the movement around him represents a significant post-COVID social phenomenon: a coalition of the distrustful that cuts across divisions of right and left.

It’s also both a show of strength and a potential recruiting vehicle for what Derek Beres, Matthew Remski and Julian Walker call “conspirituality,” the intermarriage of conspiracy theorism and wellness culture that flowered during the pandemic.

In their new book, “Conspirituality: How New Age Conspiracy Theories Became a Health Threat,” they show how crunchy yoga influencers were pulled into the paranoid orbit of QAnon. Conspiritualists warned that “the pandemic was a ruse through which governments, Big Pharma and amoral tech companies could execute ancient plans for world domination,” they wrote. “The sacred circle of family and nature — from which health and fulfillment flow — was under attack.”

In their book, the writers describe Kennedy’s adviser Eisenstein as “a kind of COVID mystic for conspirituality intellectuals.” Eisenstein’s viral 9,000-word essay “The Coronation,” published in March 2020, was a key document among COVID skeptics and dissidents, championed by formerly leftist actor Russell Brand, quoted by Ivanka Trump and tweeted by Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, who recently endorsed Kennedy.

“There’s a huge political realignment going on in this country, where a lot of the old categories — liberal, conservative — just don’t make sense anymore,” Eisenstein told me after the New Hampshire event. The Kennedy campaign, he said, “is unifying people who have really lost trust in the system, lost trust in politicians, lost trust — no offense intended — in the media.”

A few days after the speech at Saint Anselm, I met Aubrey Marcus, who co-founded a multimillion-dollar nutritional supplement company, Onnit, with podcaster Joe Rogan, at the cafe in the Soho Grand Hotel. Marcus, a self-help guru, author, podcaster and ayahuasca promoter based in Austin, Texas, who recently led football star Aaron Rodgers on a darkness retreat in Oregon, is an ardent Kennedy backer, though he has never voted in his life. “This is as strong a belief in a cause as I’ve ever had,” he said. Many people he knows, he told me, share his enthusiasm: There’s “more excitement than I’ve ever seen about any politician, ever.”

That excitement is only intensified by a sense that the establishment is trying to silence Kennedy, who during the pandemic was booted from major social media platforms for promoting untruths about vaccines. Marcus denounced “the broad application of censorship for very complicated issues” and attempts to “remove people from the conversation and saying they don’t deserve a voice.”

The celebration of Kennedy as a free-speech icon creates a dilemma for those who think that by discouraging lifesaving vaccinations, he’s going to get people killed. This past month, after Peter Hotez, a well-known vaccine scientist, criticized Rogan for letting Kennedy spread vaccine misinformation on his podcast, Rogan offered to donate $100,000 to the charity of Hotez’s choice if he’d debate Kennedy on his show. A billionaire hedge fund manager, Bill Ackman, offered an additional $150,000, and one COVID contrarian after another chimed in to add to the pot. “He’s afraid of a public debate, because he knows he’s wrong,” Elon Musk tweeted. As the pile-on mounted, anti-vaccine activists showed up at Hotez’s house, harassing him for his refusal to square off against Kennedy.

Hotez, whose book “Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism” was inspired by his autistic daughter, has actually spoken to Kennedy several times in an effort to convince him that he’s wrong about vaccines. It was, Hotez told me, frustrating and fruitless. “You’d debunk one thing, and then he’d come up with something else,” he said. Hotez has been a guest on Rogan’s podcast and is more than willing to return but said, “Having Bobby there will just turn it into ‘The Jerry Springer Show.’”

I sympathize with Hotez’s position, which is the same one taken by experts in many fields when challenged to debate cranks. Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, refuses to debate creationists because he doesn’t want to treat them as legitimate interlocutors. Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust historian and diplomat, has written that trying to debate Holocaust deniers is like “trying to nail a blob of jelly to the wall. It’s impossible because no matter what you say to them, they’re going to make something up.” To debate a conspiracy theorist, one must be fluent not just in facts but in a near-limitless arsenal of nonfacts.

It’s obvious enough why Kennedy’s sympathizers view it as a moral victory when experts refuse to engage with him. To successfully quarantine certain ideas, you need some sort of social consensus about what is and isn’t beyond the pale. In America, that consensus has broken down. Liberals, justifiably panicked by epistemological chaos, have sometimes tried to reassert consensus by treating more and more subjects — such as the lab-leak theory of COVID’s origin — as unworthy of public argument. But the proliferation of taboos can give stigmatized ideas the sheen of secret knowledge. When the boundaries of acceptable discourse are policed too stringently — and with too much unearned certainty — that can be a recipe for red pills.

A Kennedy presidency, some of the candidate’s supporters hope, will knock those boundaries down. One of those supporters is my old boss David Talbot, co-founder of the online magazine Salon. “Bobby talks about the censorship culture coming out of the left,” Talbot told me when we talked recently. “I think that’s a dangerous trend. On the left, liberals used to be against censorship. We’re now shutting down free speech.”

This is, no doubt, a lament you’ve heard before, and maybe one you agree with. A common theme among old-school liberals disenchanted with contemporary progressivism is that it’s sanctimonious and intolerant. But talking to Kennedy fans, I heard something more than just complaints about cancel culture. I heard an almost spiritual belief that Kennedy, by being brave enough to speak some unspeakable truth, could heal the hatred and suspicions that make Americans want to shut one another down.

For Talbot, a longtime friend of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s and the author of “Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years,” that truth is that the American government killed both JFK and RFK, along with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Talbot compared the former president’s assassination to the body in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” “It’s the tragic event underneath the floorboards, a corpse that’s stinking up our house of democracy,” he said. Being honest about it, he believes, “would be the beginning of a truth and reconciliation process that I think this country desperately needs. Any public figure who’s willing to say what should be said, to wipe the slate clean and get at this kind of truth about who really runs this country, about who benefits, is to be applauded, not to be smeared.”

This notion of wiping the slate clean — or Eisenstein’s idea about returning to an aborted timeline — is a powerful one. Who wouldn’t want to reach into the past and undo the errors and accidents that have brought us to this miserable moment? As politics, it’s a harmful fantasy; movements that promise to restore a halcyon era of national unity always are. As a quasi-religious impulse (or as the drive of a candidate seeking to return to a time before his uncle and father were murdered), it’s perhaps more understandable. “A lot of people fall into despair when they take in the hopelessness of our situation,” Eisenstein said on Marcus’ podcast last week. “And it is, in fact, hopeless if you don’t incorporate what we’re calling miracles.”

Michelle Goldberg | The New York Times (CREDIT: Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.