There are times when I feel as though I’m in some sort of endless loop, in which certain things keep happening and certain people keep popping up again and again. I’m going through just such a time now with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., or RFK Jr., as he’s most commonly called. Although he has repeatedly claimed to be “fiercely pro-vaccine,” in reality his activities over the last 16 years have definitively shown him to be fiercely antivaccine. The reason is that RFK Jr. has been popping up in the news lately and has a best selling conspiracy-mongering book about Anthony Fauci out that he’s promoting, as are his fellow antivaxxers, like Del Bigtree:
Unfortunately, this book is currently #1 on the Amazon.com charts, as this screenshot from this morning shows:
Sadly for the state of public health in the US and Europe, RFK Jr. is very difficult to ignore these days. Although he’s long been prominent in the antivaccine movement dating back at least 17 years, he had (mostly) disappeared from the public view, with a few exceptions. Perhaps the most hilarious one of these was when he teamed up with Robert De Niro (who is antivax as hell) to do a cringeworthy Jock Doubleday-like “challenge” to vaccine advocates. More recently, less than a year before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the US, RFK Jr. was in the news when his own family called him out publicly for his antivaccine grift and conspiracy mongering. Now he has a best selling conspiracy book and multiple news outlets are writing about him, for example the Associate Press’ Michelle Smith in How a Kennedy built an antivaccine juggernaut amid COVID-19. (Full disclosure: Someone with whom you might be familiar was quoted in this news story.) Meanwhile, he’s been appearing elsewhere, such as on what was characterized as a “very weird interview” with Tarpley Hitt at Gawker. Because I’ve been following RFK Jr.’s antivaccine trajectory closely since 2005, I thought it would be worth a look back to see how he’s “evolved” and “changed.” Spoiler alert: The answer is: Not much. He’s still using the same techniques he’s been using for 16 years, only turned up to 11.
RFK Jr. then and now
Before I delve into the newer stuff about RFK Jr., I can’t help but reminisce, all to briefly relate an answer to the question that Amber Ruffin asks in a regular segment: How did we get here? Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I will mention that the very first blog post that I wrote that ever went viral was about RFK Jr.’s antivax conspiracy mongering, way back in 2005, a year that now seems like ancient history to me. That year, RFK Jr. published his conspiracyfest article Deadly Immunity simultaneously in Salon.com and Rolling Stone (to the eternal shame of both publications, a shame I will never stop reminding them of as long as I blog and have a social media presence). His article popularized the Simpsonwood conspiracy theory, which posited that in 2000 the CDC met in an Atlanta suburb to “cover up” the evidence that the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal was the cause of the “autism epidemic.” It was nonsense, of course, based on a misrepresentation of how in epidemiological studies seemingly “positive” associations disappear when confounders are properly taken into account. It was also, as I have pointed out, the first variant of the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement that I had ever encountered.
From there, it was off to the races, with RFK Jr. ultimately forming his antivaccine organization World Mercury Project, which was ultimately renamed Children’s Health Defense after it had become very clear nearly two decades after thimerosal was removed from vaccines that autism rates were not falling (quite the contrary, in fact), thus showing no association between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism (not that RFK Jr. ever admitted that he was wrong). Along the way, his claims to be “fiercely pro-vaccine” notwithstanding, RFK Jr. demonstrated himself to be “fiercely antivaccine,” whether he was likening vaccination to the Holocaust, trying to persuade Samoan officials that the MMR vaccine was dangerous (in the middle of a deadly measles outbreak!), claiming that today’s generation of children is the “sickest generation” (due to vaccines, of course!), or toadying up to President-Elect Donald Trump during the transition period to be chair of a “vaccine safety commission.” Indeed, last year his own family called him out for his antivaccine activism, while, predictably, RFK Jr. has, as so many antivaxxers have done, gone all-in on COVID-19 pseudoscience and conspiracy theories and become antimask, “anti-lockdown,” and pro-quack treatments.
RFK Jr. was most definitely never “fiercely pro-vaccine.” Rather, he has been (and continues to be) antivaccine to the core, with the added crankery in the age of COVID-19 of now being an antimask, anti-“lockdown” COVID-19 minimizer/denier. Amusingly, though, RFK Jr. really, really, really hates being called antivaccine—and still does.
And now, to 2021 as it nears its close, from the AP:
While many nonprofits and businesses have struggled during the pandemic, Kennedy’s anti-vaccine group has thrived. An investigation by The Associated Press finds that Children’s Health Defense has raked in funding and followers as Kennedy used his star power as a member of one of America’s most famous families to open doors, raise money and lend his group credibility. Filings with charity regulators show revenue more than doubled in 2020, to $6.8 million.
Since the pandemic started, Children’s Health Defense has expanded the reach of its newsletter, which uses slanted information, cherry-picked facts and conspiracy theories to spread distrust of the COVID-19 vaccines. The group has also launched an internet TV channel and started a movie studio. CHD has global ambitions. In addition to opening new U.S. branches, it now boasts outposts in Canada, Europe and, most recently, Australia. It’s translating articles into French, German, Italian and Spanish, and it’s on a hiring spree.
As I like to say, it’s about the ideology and conspiracy theories, but it’s also almost always also about the grift, and few COVID-19 conspiracy and antivax grifters have been as successful during the pandemic as RFK Jr. (Possible exceptions include Joe Mercola and Mike Adams.) Since the pandemic, RFK Jr.’s website Children’s Health Defense has gone from 150,000 visits/month to a peak of 4.7 million visits/month, an incredible growth rate.
Let’s look at RFK Jr. then and now (or, more properly, now and then). First, RFK Jr. now:
Dr. Richard Allen Williams, a cardiologist, professor of medicine at UCLA and founder of the Minority Health Institute, said Kennedy is leading “a propaganda movement,” and “absolutely a racist operation” that is particularly dangerous to the Black community.
“He’s really the ringleader of the misinformation campaign,” said Williams, who has written several books about race and medicine. “So many people, even those in scientific circles, don’t realize what Kennedy is doing.”
And RFK Jr. “then” shows that this is nothing new at all. RFK Jr. has long been targeting Black communities and other communities of color to spread his antivaccine message. For example, during the “resistance” to California law SB 277 in 2015, RFK Jr. cozied up to the Nation of Islam, appearing with Minister Tony Muhammad as a number of events and demonstrations and sometimes even having the Fruit of Islam (the Nation of Islam’s security wing) providing personal security for him during these events.
Not long after that, RFK Jr. showed up in Harlem. While it’s true that Harlem had gentrified considerably by then and there was a distinct—shall we say?—paucity of melanin in his audience, he was very clearly trying to appeal to Blacks and Hispanics, particularly given the role he provided a prominent Black antivaxxer who had been writing antivaccine books since the 1990s. Amusingly, RFK Jr. was kicked out of the space when the event, as antivaccine events almost always do, went way, way over the time for which the venue had been reserved. Naturally, he turned it into a persecution conspiracy theory.
Perhaps the most horrific example of RFK Jr.’s outreach to people of color came right before the pandemic hit, when he and other antivaccine groups actively spread misinformation in Samoa during the midst of a deadly measles outbreak that had killed over 60 children at the time. He even wrote a letter to the Prime Minister of Samoa that was full of antivax misinformation and tried to blame the deaths on the measles vaccine, rather than the disease. (Sound familiar? Let’s just say that blaming the vaccines instead of the disease for deaths is not a new thing for RFK Jr. and other antivaxxers.) Unfortunately, because of the cachet that the Kennedy name still holds, RFK Jr. often sees doors open for him that would normally slam shut in the face of anyone not from the Kennedy clan. As the AP article points out, he’s still doing it, using the Kennedy name to fundraise to support Children’s Health Defense and his antivaccine propaganda.
Today, RFK Jr. is still targeting minorities with his antivaccine misinformation, having released a movie this year designed explicitly to link antivaccine claims for vaccine harm to racism in medical history, in particular the Tuskegee syphilis experiment:
Children’s Health Defense’s new movie studio released a film earlier this year, called “Medical Racism.” Doctors and public health advocates said it was aimed at spreading misinformation and fear of vaccines within the Black community, which has been disproportionately hit by coronavirus.
The movie brings up racist abuses in medicine, such as the Tuskegee experiment, when hundreds of Black men in Alabama with syphilis were left untreated, to question whether the vaccine can be trusted or is necessary. Examples of racist medical practices have contributed to distrust and hesitation about vaccines among some members of the Black community.
Williams, of the Minority Health Institute, pointed out that in the Tuskegee study, people were denied medication to treat a disease. In the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, medication is available – but anti-vaccine activists are trying to persuade people not to take it. He said the film is “totally slanted.”
“It is not only harmful, but it is deadly,” he said.
The article also mentions how RFK Jr. also crafts his messages to appeal to women, in particular mothers. This, too, has long been part of his appeal. Way back in 2007, I wrote about one message that RFK Jr. was promoting, namely that the critics of antivaxxers who pointed out the pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and bad science behind the claims that mercury in vaccines caused autism were misogynists who hate mothers.
Here’s a taste of RFK Jr. referring to combatting antivax pseudoscience as an “attack on mothers“:
The poisonous public attacks on Katie Wright this week–for revealing that her autistic son Christian (grandson of NBC Chair Bob Wright), has recovered significant function after chelation treatments to remove mercury — surprised many observers unfamiliar with the acrimonious debate over the mercury-based vaccine preservative Thimerosal. But the patronizing attacks on the mothers of autistic children who have organized to oppose this brain-killing poison is one of the most persistent tactics employed by those defending Thimerosal against the barrage of scientific evidence linking it to the epidemic of pediatric neurological disorders, including autism. Mothers of autistics are routinely dismissed as irrational, hysterical, or as a newspaper editor told me last week, “desperate to find the reason for their children’s illnesses,” and therefore, overwrought and disconnected.
But my experience with these women is inconsistent with those patronizing assessments. Over the past two years I’ve met or communicated with several hundred of these women. Instead of a desperate mob of irrational hysterics, I’ve found the anti-Thimerosal activists for the most part to be calm, grounded and extraordinarily patient. As a group, they are highly educated. Many of them are doctors, nurses, schoolteachers, pharmacists, psychologists, Ph.D.s and other professionals. Many of them approached the link skeptically and only through dispassionate and diligent investigation became convinced that Thimerosal-laced vaccines destroyed their children’s brains. As a group they have sat through hundreds of meetings and scientific conferences, and studied research papers and medical tests. They have networked with each other at meetings and on the Web. Along the way they have stoically endured the abuse routinely heaped upon them by the vaccine industry and public health authorities and casual dismissal by reporters and editors too lazy to do their jobs.
As I pointed out at the time, as much as I might sympathize with how difficult it is for parents to deal with severely autistic children, as much as I might admire their fortitude, such sympathy has never translated into tolerance when they try to weaponize that sympathy to advocate pseudoscience. Nor should it. Calmness and a dispassionate demeanor do not mean that a person didn’t come to completely incorrect conclusions about the origins of her child’s autism. He’s now doing exactly the same thing here, but adding to that a more general appeal that portrays antivaccine believers in general in a similar light, as a persecuted group who are the only ones who see the “real truth.”
RFK Jr. vs. journalists
Then, of course, there’s RFK Jr.’s rather odd history when he gives interviews to legitimate journalists. For example, he recently gave a very strange interview to Gawker writer Tarpley Hitt. I must admit, Hitt was right. The interview was very weird indeed. I also must admit that I approved of the editorial decision to insert editor’s notes debunking RFK Jr.’s false claims in his interview, although they screwed up in not debunking RFK Jr.’s claim that “none of the 72 mandated vaccine doses have ever been subject to pre-clinical, placebo-controlled trials,” which is a straight up lie (vaccine advocates regularly trot out example after example of just such studies when antivaxxers make this claim). I suspect that RFK Jr. know’s it’s false, making him a lying liar.
I’ll give you a little flavor of the interview:
So I read the entirety of the PDF that I was sent, but I got the sense that it was not the entire book — partly it’s that the file is titled “Introduction and Chapter One.” But that anecdote, for example, does not appear in the text that I have, which is about 120 pages long.
The book is 500 pages. Okay, so you didn’t read the book.
I read what was sent to me, but I have not been given the entire text.
All right. I’m happy. If you want to reschedule this, I’m happy to send you the book. I can messenger it over to you. Where are you?
I’m in Connecticut at the moment.
I can messenger it to you.
Well, let’s have a conversation based on this first section. So with this introductory chapter — where Fauci is sort of a background figure, not as central as I imagine he might be in later parts — his financial situation and potential conflicts of interest figure somewhat prominently. I’d love to spend a little time breaking that down. You mentioned that he has this annual salary of around $420,000 a year. In reporting the book, did you uncover other revenue streams that he took home over the past year?
Yeah. His salary is $434,000. He also has other avenues.. Within his agency — by their own rules, which are not regulations, they’re just adopted guidance, with no public oversight — each individual in the agency is allowed to keep $150,000 a year in royalties for every product they work on.
See what I mean? RFK Jr. seemed rather peeved that Hitt didn’t buy a copy of his book to read, rather than just reading the excerpt provided by his office. Normally, if you want a reporter to read your book, you send her a free copy, which, in the age of ebooks and PDF files, costs close to nothing. As for the part about Fauci’s salary, for someone who has run an NIH institute for 40 years, Fauci’s salary is actually not a lot compared to what he could make in the private sector, and federal law and regulations are quite explicit about outside income and the declaration of financial conflicts. Moreover, the information is almost all public. I was especially amused by his attacks on Fauci over salary later in the interview, when RFK Jr. bemoaned how he was being “censored” and how much less money he makes now than he did in the past!
See what I mean, as RFK goes off on a tangent, leading to more questions:
And we don’t make money. I mean, people ask me if I am making money. This has been a money-losing enterprise for me. I’ve lost probably 80 percent of my income.
Really? Like how much?
Well, I was doing 60 paid speeches a year, for 30 years, roughly on average. Now, I get none. And those were high-paid speeches.
How much does a speech cost?
Oh, generally a minimum for me was about $25,000. And they all disappeared, and there’s many business deals and my salary sources have also disappeared. I lost 80 percent of my income. Nobody’s making money on this and particularly not me.
I mean, your compensation on the 990 is $255,000. Seems like a lot.
Well, you know, when I was running Riverkeeper, I was making $400,000. Waterkeeper also — I was making $400,000. And our salaries are commensurate — if you look at our rating under Charity Navigator, we have, I think, a hundred-pointrating. Ours are exactly in line or below the industry standard. Typically, anyone who runs an organization like this would receive a salary of that size. I know relatives who run RFK Memorial Fund, who run Special Olympics, who run United Way. I have first cousins at all of those places, and I can tell you I know my salary is commensurate with all of theirs. We do a search of what organizations of our size — you can look up what organizations of our size typically pay — and my salary definitely is not a high salary in that regard. It’s not out of line. It’s pretty typical.
So what you’re doing, in other words, you’re doing yet another exposé by the mainstream press of us rather than an exposé of the pharmaceutical industry. What’s your name again?
RFK Jr.’s arrogance is certainly still there. Given how wealthy RFK Jr. is, though, his whining about how much less money he makes now is rather pointless. He could easily take zero salary and be just fine for the rest of his life. Still, I’m amused at how he bragged about making $25,000 a speech back in the day, even as I find it hard to believe that he can’t make at least $10,000 a speech for big antivax confabs if he wanted to.
Then there’s his victimhood fetish. Poor, poor, pitiful RFK Jr.! He’s sacrificing so much for the children, and some journalist whose name he didn’t know and can’t remember is “persecuting” him with an “exposé” of his organization.
In any event, do you see what Hitt meant when she described this interview as “weird”? It reminds me of 2013, when two other journalists, Keith Kloor and Laura Helmuth, got a taste of the strangeness that is RFK Jr. giving an interview. No, seriously, here’s Kloor’s account of his conversation with RFK Jr., and here’s Helmuth’s account. If you read them both, you’ll find a lot of similarities. In particular, RFK Jr. still liked Nazi and Holocaust analogies for vaccines and vaccine mandates. He still does, as you will see.
The “vaccine Holocaust”?
I’ve long written about how RFK Jr. really likes his Holocaust analogies with respect to vaccines, which is why this part of Helmuth’s 2013 article amused me:
Slate doesn’t give equal time to creationists, and given the overwhelming evidence, we would never publish a story claiming that vaccines cause autism. But it’s fascinating, in a horrified head-shaking sort of way, to hear how anti-vaxxers think. I requested a transcript or video of Kennedy’s speech to the 2013 AutismOne/Generation Rescue Conference, but neither the conference hosts nor Kennedy’s office provided them. I can tell you what he said to me instead.
I wrote about that talk at the time, because the editor of the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism (AoA), Dan Olmsted, had written a glowing review of it entitled RFK Jr., Nazi Death Camps and the Battle For Our Future. The link to the article is no longer there, but I did quote from it extensively, asking antivaccinationists if they could please knock it off with the autism-Holocaust analogies, already. Amusingly, sometime soon after, Olmsted’s article disappeared from AoA, and the site’s file apparently was apparently modified so that the almighty Wayback Machine at Archive.org could no longer keep the article archived after it had been deleted.
Fortunately, I kept some receipts, although I’ve long wished that I had saved the entire text and some screenshots:
Each of us will have our highlights from last weekend’s extraordinary Autism One gathering in Chicago, but for me it was Bobby Kennedy Jr. saying, “To my mind this is like the Nazi death camps.”
“This” is the imprisonment of so many of our children in the grip of autism. Talk about cutting through the neurodiverse claptrap! When Bobby Kennedy says something, it gives “cover,” in a sense, for others to use the same kind of language and frame the debate in the same kind of way. (Language that reminds me of David Kirby’s phrase, “the shuttered hell” of autism, in Evidence of Harm.)
Those who can advocate for themselves should do so. Move right along, please. Those who cannot have advocates like their parents and RFK Jr. who are sick of mincing words.
Nice! To RFK Jr., autism was like being imprisoned in a Nazi death camp! There was also this familiar-sounding trope:
The enablers may not belong in Nuremburg, but they do belong in jail, Bobby said. “I would do a lot to see Paul Offit and all these good people behind bars,” he said, after listing Offit’s litany of lies and profit. Just to make sure people got the point, he returned to it in his speech. “Is it hyperbole to say they should be in jail? They should be in jail and the key should be thrown away.”
As I have pointed out before, the invocation of the Nuremberg Trials and the Nuremberg Code, as you have so frequently seen since the pandemic hit, is nothing new. RFK Jr. and Dan Olmsted were doing it in 2013 and before, and antivaxxers continue the ugly tradition, which has unfortunately been as turbocharged by the pandemic as the antivaccine movement has.
There is a difference, though, between RFK Jr. then and now, at least with respect to Holocaust and Nazi analogies. Then, RFK Jr. clearly still had at least a little bit of a sense of shame over his use of such massively inappropriate and overblown analogies, to the point that (I strongly suspect) it was he who told Olmsted to take down that article. At the very least, he viewed such language as detrimental to his cause when seen by those not in the antivaccine cult. Indeed, as we have seen, he later refused to provide a transcript of his speech at the 2013 Autism One conference to Laura Helmuth, almost certainly because he had indeed compared autism’s effects on children and their parents to being imprisoned in a Nazi camp, as Olmsted had related in a place where he shouldn’t have. To this very day, I have been unable to find a full transcript of his speech, other than the description that I had originally quoted when I wrote my article about Olmsted’s excited praise of it. In fact, after “(oops) he did it again” in 2015, RFK Jr. actually apologized having used another Holocaust analogy about vaccines, saying:
“I want to apologize to all whom I offended by my use of the word ‘holocaust’ to describe the autism epidemic,” said Kennedy, the son of former U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
“I employed the term during an impromptu speech as I struggled to find an expression to convey the catastrophic tragedy of autism, which has now destroyed the lives of over 20 million children and shattered their families.
“I am acutely aware of the profound power attached to that word, and I will find other terms to describe the autism crisis in the future.”
Here’s what RFK Jr. had said:
But some parents fear information about the hazards of vaccines has been suppressed, largely because of what they call the pharmaceutical industry’s influence over health officials. Many parents believe their children have been damaged by vaccines. When Kennedy asked the crowd of a few hundred viewers how many parents had a child injured by vaccines, numerous hands went up.
“They get the shot, that night they have a fever of a hundred and three, they go to sleep, and three months later their brain is gone,” Kennedy said. “This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country.”
Nice. I can’t help but note the self-own here. RFK Jr. claimed that he had struggled to find “an expression to convey the catastrophic tragedy of autism, which has now destroyed the lives of over 20 million children and shattered their families” and, in his struggle, had invoked the Holocaust as an appropriate comparison to autism, which, of course, he believes to be caused by vaccines. That tells you all you need to know right there about RFK Jr.’s true views about autism (that it’s a tragedy akin to the Holocaust) and vaccines (that mandating them is a tragedy akin to the Holocaust too)(. The only reason he apologized is because of all the criticism he got for having used that analogy, not because he didn’t believe what he said in his speech.
Fast forward to RFK Jr. now. In Hitt’s interview, right after the part in which he had hectored her about being an “apologist for the pharmaceutical industry,” Hitt, unfazed, asked RFK Jr:
So you have a section in the book called “Final Solution: Vaccines or Bust.”
You have a section — a sub header — in the book called “Final Solution: Vaccines or Bust.”
That’s a pretty pointed choice of words. Did you mean to invoke the Holocaust?
It says what it says.
Can you elaborate?
It says what it says.
Right, but that’s a very potent phrase, “final solution,” in that it was used to mean eradicating the Jews.
I don’t think the vaccines have anything to do with eradicating the Jews.
Here’s the difference between RFK Jr. then and RFK Jr. now. RFK Jr. then did have a penchant for the flagrant misuse of Holocaust and Nazi analogies about vaccines, but he almost always only used those analogies on the down-low, when he was among his adoring antivax fans in what I like to refer to as antivax “safe spaces.” Then, RFK Jr. was still actually embarrassed enough to shut down an article by an overenthusiastic fan like Dan Olmsted that quoted his use of such analogies, seeming to know that such analogies were a form of Holocaust denial—or, at the very least, offensive to so many people not in his antivax cult. Then, RFK Jr. would even apologize if he slipped up and inadvertently said the quiet part out loud in a public venue where those not in the antivaccine cult could overhear his true beliefs. In contrast to then, now RFK Jr. not only uses analogies about the Holocaust to describe vaccines and vaccine mandates, but he no longer hides or makes even a pretense of apologizing for it. He just disingenuously tries to deny that using the term “final solution” has anything to do with a Holocaust analogy, even as he now openly consorts with fascists who share his hatred of “lockdowns,” masks, and vaccines.
I like to say that in the age of COVID-19, there is nothing truly new under the sun with respect to the antivaccine movement. Comparing RFK Jr. then to RFK Jr. now demonstrates that this statement is true and that he remains now, as then, fiercely antivaccine. There is one modifier, though. The pandemic has led antivaxxers like RFK Jr. to turn their antivax conspiracy mongering up to 11. Even that is probably no real change in him. It’s just that times have changed to the point where he now feels comfortable revealing his true self and his real beliefs about vaccines.