When Karl Marx said that history repeated itself first as a tragedy and then as a farce, he could have been thinking of the Kennedy family. Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June 1968 in the prime of his career. Fifty-five years later, his son Robert Kennedy Junior is a leading American conspiracy theorist who is challenging Joe Biden for president. RFK Sr might have won the White House. The highest thing his son could probably expect is that he would become an icon of the delusional minds of his time.
America, as Richard Hofstadter wrote a few years before RFK’s death, suffers from periodic waves of paranoia. The historian did not explain why the US was prone to these transient manias — from the anti-Masonic conspiracy theories of the 1820s to the Red Scare of the 1950s. Part of that must be that the US is a nation forged by beliefs, which causes debate about the meaning of the founding contract and people’s loyalty to it. In a country that tells itself it is moving towards a more perfect union, if something goes wrong it must be because of hijacking. Subterfuge is a much more glamorous culprit than “getting shit”.
Today’s America is in the midst of one of Hofstadter’s waves. The most visible elements are on the right side. Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign is based on the assumption that Biden stole the presidency from him in 2020. If he wins next year, there will be retribution. That’s the gist of that theory that only one of Trump’s rivals for the Republican nomination — Chris Christie, former governor of New Jersey — has the guts to directly contradict him.
The worldview of RFK Jr. on the other hand, can be found across the spectrum. You hear it from counterculture liberals in Portland, Oregon, as well as Veterans Day motorcycle rallies. The bottom line is that science is rigged against ordinary Americans: Major drug companies, in conjunction with the CIA, created the Covid-19 pandemic to boost their profits and suppress people’s freedoms; the virus was a bioweapon created by a US-funded laboratory; the vaccines killed more people than they saved; Gun violence in America is driven by prescription drugs, starting with Prozac.
It’s easy to dismiss any of these claims, but that would be to miss their appeal. Our misery must be the result of design, not chance.
If something goes wrong, a group of people must be blamed. The theory in less extravagant form is also available in the Republican field. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis vows to fight the “biomedical security state” and to “choose freedom over faucism” (after Anthony Fauci, the most recognized medical face of the pandemic).
Ironically, Trump’s campaign is being damaged by his supporters’ belief in this conspiracy theory. He should brag about how his “operation warp speed” produced the vaccine in record time. But he is lifted by his own petard. After fueling a paranoid base, he is now its prisoner. The word vaccine rarely crosses his lips. Still, he’s proud enough of that record not to fuel the conspiracy theory. Which leaves an opening for the likes of RFK Jr.
It can’t be easy being the son of a national icon like Bobby Kennedy, whose death, and whose brother John F. Kennedy’s assassination, are themselves the constant subject of speculative plots. But RFK Jr’s brand awareness has its advantages. It’s hard to imagine a conspiracy theorist named John Smith polling 20 percent of Democratic voters within weeks of his candidacy.
It’s also hard to believe that Kennedy will beat Biden for the nomination. The president adjusted the Democratic primary calendar to put South Carolina first, ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire. As in 2020, South Carolina Biden is very likely to deliver a landslide. Yet sitting presidents can sometimes be mortally wounded by such challenges. Jimmy Carter was partially undone in 1980 by the bid of Ted Kennedy, RFK Jr.’s uncle. George HW Bush was harmed by Pat Buchanan’s pitchfork rebellion in 1992. RFK Jr could help hand over the presidency to Trump.
That would be a strange twist to his family’s legacy. It is no small irony that RFK Jr.’s father and uncles would have rebuked his worldview. But in a strange way, he personifies today’s more lonely society where people have replaced the lost world of their parents with a made-up world of online group chats. The idea that a hidden cabal must be to blame for their atomized lives found a perfect storm in the pandemic.
For some, the name Kennedy is confirmation.