The Alternative Facts of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

In November, 2007, the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, appeared on ABC News for one of those soft-focus get-to-know-the-candidate segments. Obama admitted that, after he was at Harvard Law School for a while and felt “comfortable” among his hyper-ambitious classmates, he allowed himself to think that maybe he’d run for President someday. “Did you think to yourself, Barack, what kind of hubris is this?” the broadcaster Charlie Gibson said.

“I think if you don’t have enough self-awareness to see the element of megalomania involved in thinking you can be President, then you probably shouldn’t be President,” Obama said. “There’s a slight madness to thinking that you should be the leader of the free world.”

I was thinking about that moment last week, after finishing a long interview with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., for The New Yorker Radio Hour. Kennedy is running for President as a Democrat. He is polling between eight and twenty-one per cent.

If there is a madness, slight or otherwise, in Kennedy’s bid, it is not confined to his hubris. He is roiling with conspiracy theories: S.S.R.I.s like Prozac might be the reason for school shootings, vaccines cause autism. There are many. To prepare for the conversation, I listened to some of Kennedy’s podcast sessions with the likes of Bari Weiss, Jordan Peterson, Russell Brand, and Joe Rogan. I watched his marathon announcement speech and tuned in to all the hosannas he was getting from a peculiar amen corner that includes Steve Bannon, Jack Dorsey, and Tucker Carlson. In his 2021 book “The Real Anthony Fauci,” Kennedy accuses Fauci, who was then the nation’s top infectious-disease doctor, of helping to carry out “2020’s historic coup d’état against Western democracy.” (The book has blurbs from Carlson, Naomi Wolf, Alan Dershowitz, and Oliver Stone.)

Kennedy’s habits of mind are MAGA-adjacent, but his manner differs from that of his Republican doppelgänger. Donald Trump is a bully—rude, swaggering, out to flatten his questioner under an avalanche of lies and volume. Kennedy is not rude. Rather, he is serenely convinced of his virtue and his interlocutor’s pitiful susceptibility to conventional wisdom. The experience of interviewing him and listening to his previous interviews, I found, was like settling in for a long train ride with a seemingly amiable stranger in the next seat. You ask a straightforward question and, an hour later, as you race by Thirtieth Street Station, in Philadelphia, he is still going on about the fraud of COVID vaccines and how he was unfairly “deplatformed” for spouting conspiracy theories. By the time you’ve pulled into Wilmington, he might be talking about how drugs known as poppers helped cause the AIDS epidemic, or how “toxic chemicals” might contribute to “sexual dysphoria” in children. As you head south, he is talking about being “censored” by Instagram, the F.B.I., and the Biden White House. New technologies like 5G towers and digital currencies are totalitarian instruments that could “control our behavior.” Wi-Fi causes “leaky brain.” After a while, you begin to wonder why you bought a ticket. But it’s too late. You’re pinned into the window seat.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Kennedy has never run for public office, but, at sixty-nine years old, he says that he has “been involved in almost every Presidential election during the last sixty years.” He has had a career as a conservationist and, more recently, as a litigator, author, and public speaker. Recently, he appeared in videos stripped to the waist, doing pushups and straining at a bench press. The conspicuous display, it can be reasonably supposed, was intended to draw comparisons with the sitting President, whose greatest liability is his age. Kennedy is ripped, that is true, but, like Trump, he had no experience as an elected official before seeking the White House. I asked how his experience qualified him to hold what is arguably the most consequential job on the planet.

KENNEDY: I’ve been around government and studying government since I was a little boy. I went to the 1960 convention. I’ve been to most of the conventions since. I was involved in the [1980] election with my uncle Edward Kennedy. I began writing about foreign policy when I was nineteen years old. My first article was for The Atlantic. I have a very, very strong vision and opinion about what our foreign policy should be. I’ve met with heads of state. I’ve been to a large portion of the countries. I’ve been to every country in Latin America. I’ve been to many of the countries in Africa and Asia.

Experience of attending conventions and being around politics is not the same as being involved in the making of policy, either as an executive or as a legislator or as a governor. Are you saying that that kind of experience is not necessary to be President of the United States? The one President I can think of who hasn’t had any experience at that level is Donald Trump.

Well, there’s nothing in the United States Constitution that says that you have to go to Congress first and then Senate second—or be a governor—before you’re elected to the Presidency of the United States.

Or even mayor of a small town. But you haven’t done any of it. Do you think that is irrelevant experience?

I think my life experience is absolutely relevant.

Among the obvious parallels between Kennedy and Trump is their disdain for “élites,” their suspicion of, in Trump’s words, the “deep state,” and their belief that traditional media and “cancel culture” threaten to silence them. With Kennedy, this is particularly curious. The Kennedys are the embodiment of dynastic power. Tens of thousands of books have been written about the family. It is impossible to imagine both the tragedy and the privilege Kennedy experienced as a child and adolescent. His uncle was murdered when he was nine. His father was murdered when he was fourteen. As a young man, he was kicked out of prep schools, got arrested for marijuana possession, was addicted to heroin, and still managed to graduate from Harvard. He now works as a lawyer, and his income last year was $7.8 million.

While Kennedy fashions himself as a warrior against the billionaire class, income inequality, and the corruption of institutions ranging from the intelligence agencies to the universities, he is a pure romantic about his own family. Camelot is his brand. As the polls appear to indicate, the Kennedy name still carries weight among Democratic voters.

You’re running as a Democrat for President, and I wonder, Who in the Democratic Party do you feel is kindred to you? Obviously not Joe Biden, but—A.O.C.? Or Joe Manchin? Or are you something new entirely? How would you define your ideology?

I’m something old. I’m a Kennedy Democrat. I believe in labor unions. I believe in a strong, robust middle class. I believe in racial justice, in policies that are going to actually help the lowest people on the totem pole.

I don’t think Joe Biden would disagree with any of that.

Well, then, why did he do the lockdowns? Lockdowns robbed four trillion [dollars] from the middle class and the poor in this country and transferred it to the super rich. We created five hundred new billionaires—a billionaire a day, every day. [Fact-checking Kennedy’s assertions is like chasing rabbits. This is a good example. The four-trillion dollar figure was likely an estimate for the price of the federal bailout. Many of the five hundred billionaires he seems to refer to rose up in other countries, especially China.]

Do you think he did lockdowns, or politicians did lockdowns, in order to enrich billionaires? That was the goal?

I think that, if they cared about the middle class in this country, they wouldn’t have done it. They wouldn’t have shut down 3.3 million businesses without due process, without just compensation.

Did they make mistakes, or were they carrying out some kind of perfidious plot?

No, I think that they made mistakes, which disqualifies them from continuing to do that job.

I’m finding it curious, and maybe even disturbing, that some of your early admirers include Trumpists like Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, and Roger Stone. Do you welcome that, or do you think maybe—just maybe—someone like that is delighted that a strong Democratic opponent will wound Joe Biden and in the long run help Donald Trump?

I’m trying to unite the country, David. I’m not going to do what you do, which is to pick out people and say that they’re evil, they should be cancelled, or whatever. I’m a Democrat. I know what my values are. I’ve always spoken to Republicans my entire life. During all the years that I was a leader of the environmental movement, I was the only environmentalist who regularly went on Fox News. And, when Tucker Carlson recently did a special on endocrine disruptors, and he was condemned by the left, I thought that was crazy. I think what we ought to be doing is inviting people into our tent, without changing our values. I don’t change my values. I have the same values that my father had, that my uncle had, and that I have harbored and fought for since I was a kid. But that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to speak to people who don’t share those values. I think the kind of tribalism that you’re advocating is poisonous to our country. I think it’s toxic. It’s created a polarization, a division, in this country that is more dangerous than at any time since the American Civil War.

Isn’t there a difference between disagreement and—

What you’re trying to get me to do now is to lash out against other Americans. And what I’m saying is: I don’t agree with what those people represent in many parts of their lives. I don’t agree with it, and I don’t like it. But I’m still going to talk to them. I’m not going to cancel them. I’m going to invite them into my tent. If I can get them to support a vision of the idealistic America that I believe in—the same America that my father and my uncle believed in: an America without censorship; an America that fights for our Constitution; an America that is a moral authority around the world, that projects economic power around the globe rather than military violence—if I can get people to support that, I don’t care if they’re Republican or independent, or what they are. These are democratic values.

At what point do you say, with respect, that this is not about “tribalism” or “cancellation” or the terms that you’re using, but just an insistence on a certain level of decency and principle? Somebody like Alex Jones comes forward and he has nice things to say to you. At what point do you say, “You know what, Alex Jones, with all due respect, I don’t want your support”?

I’m not a cancel-culture guy.

That’s not cancel culture. That’s a principled insistence that he’s a bridge too far.

If you’re just saying you’re going to dismiss certain people because this human being is so irredeemable that I am going to exclude him or her from any future activity on the planet—I just don’t think that’s consistent with my spiritual beliefs. It’s not consistent with my political philosophy. I believe that we should invite our enemies into the tent with us to the extent that they want to break bread with us, that they may want to endorse some of the values that we hold dear.

Kennedy seemed to be talking not only about Steve Bannon or Alex Jones but about himself. “I believe in redemption,” he said. “I got an opportunity for redemption in my own life, and there’s plenty of people who had good excuses to write me off forever.”

Tell me about your own sense of redemption. I think you’re probably referring to problems with addiction.

I was a heroin addict for fourteen years. I’m lucky to be alive. People have plenty of reason to write me off forever because of the way I conducted my life during that fourteen-year period. And, when I was at Riverkeeper, I made a point of hiring people who were felons, who were convicted, who had served their time in prison. And that divided the organization. I believe in redemption. I don’t think we can dismiss human beings, no matter what they did earlier on in their lives. Everybody gets another chance. And what Jesus said is, Not only do you give them seven chances, but you give them seven times seven chances.

You suffered something that I think is just beyond imagination. When you were a small child, your uncle, the President of the United States, was murdered in full view of the world. Five years later, your own father, who was competing for the Democratic nomination for President, was murdered in full view of the world. I can’t quite imagine what effect that would have on a human being, a child who’s just growing up, and to live that life in the full view of the world. Later, you came to see both of those assassinations as conspiracies with the C.I.A. behind them. I want to know why you believe that when most do not, and how that has shaped your thinking in the rest of your life.

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