Inside the Mind of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s speech is warbling, crackling, scratchy—sort of like Marge Simpson’s. His voice, he told me, is “fucked up.” The official medical diagnosis is spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological disorder that causes involuntary spasms in the larynx. He didn’t always sound this way; his speaking style changed when he was in his 40s. Kennedy has said he suspects an influenza vaccine might have been the catalyst. This idea is not supported by science.

He was telling me about his life with one arm outstretched on the velvet sofa of his suite at the Bowery Hotel in Lower Manhattan. It was the end of May, and a breeze blew in through the open doors leading to a private terrace. Two of his aides sat nearby, typing and eavesdropping. A security guard stood in the hallway.

Kennedy was finishing a plate of room-service risotto, and his navy tie was carefully tucked into his white button-down shirt. He’s taller, tanner, and buffer than the average 69-year-old. He is, after all, a Kennedy. His blue eyes oscillate between piercing and adrift, depending on the topic of discussion.

He told me that he’s surrounded by “integrative medical people”—naturopaths, osteopaths, healers of all sorts. “A lot of them think that they can cure me,” he said. Last year, Kennedy traveled to Japan for surgery to try to fix his voice. “I’ve got these doctors that have given me a formula,” he said. “They’re not even doctors, actually, these guys.”

I asked him what, exactly, he was taking.

“The stuff that they gave me? I don’t know what it is. It’s supposed to reorient your electric energy.” He believes it’s working.

When he was 19, Kennedy jumped off a dock into shallow water, which he says left him nearly paralyzed. For decades, he could hardly turn his head. Seven years ago, at a convention of chiropractors, a healer performed a 30-minute “manipulation of energy”—making chanting noises while holding his hands six inches over Kennedy’s body. The next morning, his neck felt better. “I don’t know if they had anything to do with each other, but, you know, it was weird,” he said.

Though he’s been a member of the premier American political dynasty his whole life and a noted environmentalist for decades, most people are just now discovering the breadth and depth of Kennedy’s belief system. He has promoted a theory that Wi-Fi radiation causes cancer and “leaky brain,” saying it “opens your blood-brain barrier.” He has suggested that antidepressants might have contributed to the rise in mass shootings. He told me he believes that Ukraine is engaged in a “proxy” war and that Russia’s invasion, although “illegal,” would not have taken place if the United States “didn’t want it to.”

Kennedy reached a new level of notoriety in 2021, after the publication of his conspiratorial treatise The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health. It has sold more than 1 million copies, according to his publisher, “despite censorship, boycotts from bookstores and libraries, and hit pieces against the author.” The book cemented his status as one of America’s foremost anti-vaxxers. It also helped lay the foundation for his Democratic presidential primary campaign against Joe Biden.

[Read: The 2024 U.S. presidential race: A cheat sheet]

On the campaign trail, he paints a conspiratorial picture of collusion among state, corporate, media, and pharmaceutical powers. If elected, he has said he would gut the Food and Drug Administration and order the Justice Department to investigate medical journals for “lying to the public.” His most ominous message is also his simplest: He feels his country is being taken away from him. It’s a familiar theme, similar to former President Donald Trump’s. But whereas Trump relies heavily on white identity politics, Kennedy is spinning up a more diverse web of supporters: anti-vaxxers, anti-government individuals, Silicon Valley magnates, “freethinking” celebrities, libertarians, Trump-weary Republicans, and Democrats who believe Biden is too old and feeble for a second term.

So far, Kennedy is polling in the double digits against Biden, sometimes as high as 20 percent. What had initially been written off as a stunt has evolved into a complex threat to both Biden and the establishment wing of the Democratic Party. Put another way: Kennedy’s support is real.

He is tapping into something burrowed deep in the national psyche. Large numbers of Americans don’t merely scoff at experts and institutions; they loathe them. Falling down conspiratorial internet rabbit holes has become an entirely normal pastime. Study after study confirms a very real “epidemic of loneliness.” Scores of people are bored and depressed and searching for narratives to help explain their anxiety and isolation. Scroll through social media and count how many times you see the phrase Burn it down.

Even though Kennedy remains a long-shot candidate, his presence in the 2024 race cannot be ignored. “My goal is to do the right thing, and whatever God wants is going to happen,” Kennedy told me. He now earnestly believes that in 12 months, he will be the Democratic nominee for president.

“Every individual, like every nation, has a darker side and a lighter side,” Kennedy told me. “And the easiest thing for a political leader to do is to appeal to all those darker angels.”

He was talking about George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor and subject of Kennedy’s senior thesis at Harvard.

“Most populism begins with a core of idealism, and then it’s hijacked,” he said. “Because the easiest way to keep a populist movement together is by appealing—you employ all the alchemies of demagoguery—and appealing to our greed, our anger, our hatred, our fear, our xenophobia, tribal impulses.”

Does Kennedy consider himself a populist? “He considers himself a Democrat,” his communications director, Stefanie Spear, told me in an email. The most charitable spin on Kennedy’s candidacy is that he aims to be the iconoclastic unifier of a polarized country. He looks in the mirror and sees a man fighting for the rights of the poor and the powerless, as his father did when he ran for president more than half a century ago.

Kennedy markets himself as a maverick, someone outside the system. But he’s very much using his lineage—son of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, nephew of President John F. Kennedy and Senator Ted Kennedy—as part of his sales pitch. Now living in Los Angeles with his third wife, the actor Cheryl Hines, he nonetheless launched his campaign in Boston, the center of the Kennedy universe. The phrase I’M A KENNEDY DEMOCRAT is splashed across the center of his campaign website. Visitors can click through a carousel of wistful black-and-white family photos. There he is as a young boy with a gap-toothed smile, offering a salute. There he is visiting his Uncle John in the Oval Office.

[Alan Brinkley: The legacy of John F. Kennedy]

Picture of Robert F. Kennedy and his wife Ethel with their seven children, Feb. 10, 1963. (Mrs. Kennedy was expecting their eighth child in June.) The boys, from left, are Robert Jr., 8, David, 7; Michael, 4; and Joe, 10. The girls, from left, are Kathleen, 11; Kerry, 3; and Mary Courtney, 6. (AP Photo)
Robert F. Kennedy and his wife, Ethel, with their seven children, in February 1963. (Ethel was expecting their eighth child in June.) The boys, from left, are Robert Jr., 8; David, 7; Michael, 4; and Joe, 10. The girls, from left, are Kathleen, 11; Kerry, 3; and Mary Courtney, 6. (AP)

In reality, his relationship with his family is more complicated. Several of his siblings have criticized his anti-vaccine activism around COVID. Last year, at an anti-vaccine rally in Washington, D.C., Kennedy suggested that Jews in Nazi Germany had more freedom than Americans today. In response, his sister Kerry Kennedy tweeted, “Bobby’s lies and fear-mongering yesterday were both sickening and destructive. I strongly condemn him for his hateful rhetoric.” (He later issued an apology.) In 2019, a trio of notable Kennedys wrote an op-ed in Politico pegged to a recent measles outbreak in the United States. RFK Jr., they said, “has helped to spread dangerous misinformation over social media and is complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines.” Several Kennedys serve in the Biden administration, and others—including RFK Jr.’s younger sister Rory and his first cousin Patrick—are actively supporting Biden’s reelection effort.

Multiple eras of Kennedy’s life have been marked by violence and despair. He was just 14 years old when his father was assassinated. His second wife, Mary Richardson Kennedy, struggled with mental illness and died by suicide while the couple was estranged and in the process of divorcing. He told me he believes that “almost every American has been exposed, mostly within their own families, to mental illness, depression, drug addiction, alcoholism.” In 1983, Kennedy himself was arrested for heroin possession and entered rehab. He recently told The Washington Post that he still regularly attends 12-step meetings.

Kennedy maintains a mental list of everyone he’s known who has died. He told me that each morning he spends an hour having a quiet conversation with those people, usually while out hiking alone. He asks the deceased to help him be a good person, a good father, a good writer, a good attorney. He prays for his six children. He’s been doing this for 40 years. The list now holds more than 200 names.

I asked him if he felt that his dad or uncle had sent him any messages encouraging him to run for president.

“I don’t really have two-way conversations of that type,” he said. “And I would mistrust anything that I got from those waters, because I know there’s people throughout history who have heard voices.”

He laughed.

“It’s hard to be the arbiter of your own sanity. It’s dangerous.”

The morning before we met, I watched a recent interview Kennedy had given to ABC News in which he said, “I don’t trust authority.” In our conversation, I asked him how he planned to campaign on this message while simultaneously persuading voters to grant him the most consequential authority in the world.

“My intention is to make authority trustworthy,” he said, sounding like a shrewd politician. “People don’t trust authority, because the trusted authorities have been lying to them. The media lies to the public.”

I was recording our conversation on two separate devices. I asked him if the dual recordings, plus the fact that he could see me taking notes, was enough to convince him that whatever I wrote would be accurate.

“Your quotes of mine may be accurate,” he said. “Do I think that they may be twisted? I think that’s highly likely. ”

I wondered why, if that was the case, he had agreed to talk with me at all.

“I’ll talk to anybody,” he said.

That includes some of the most prominent figures in right-wing politics. He told me that he’d met with Trump before he was inaugurated, and that he had once flown on Trump’s private plane. (Later he said he believes Trump could lead America “down the road to darkness.”) He told me how, as a young man, he had spent several weeks in a tent in Kenya with Roger Ailes—they were filming a nature documentary—and how they had remained friends even though Kennedy disapproved of Ailes’s tactics at Fox News. He also brought up Tucker Carlson. I asked if he’d spoken with the former Fox News host since his firing earlier this spring.

“I’ve texted with him,” Kennedy said.

“What’s he up to?” I asked.

“He’s—you know what he’s up to. He’s starting a Twitter … thing. Yeah, I’m going to go on it. They’ve already contacted me.”

Kennedy told me he’s heard the whispers about the nature of his campaign. Some people believe his candidacy is just a stalking-horse bid to help elect Trump, or at least siphon support away from Biden.

One week before Kennedy entered the race, the longtime Trump ally and self-proclaimed “dirty trickster” Roger Stone wrote a curious Substack post titled “What About Bobby?” in which he suggested the idea of a Trump-Kennedy unity ticket. In a text message to me, Stone said his essay was nothing but a “whimsical” piece of writing, noting that the idea had “legal and political” obstacles. A photo of the two men—plus former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, a notable conspiracy theorist—had been circulating on the internet; Stone called it opposition research from Biden’s team. “Contrary to Twitter created mythology, I don’t know Robert Kennedy,” he texted. “I have no role in his campaign, and certainly played no role in his decision to run.”

I asked Kennedy about a recent report that had gotten some attention: Had Steve Bannon encouraged him to enter the race?

[From the July/August 2022 issue: American Rasputin]

“No,” he said. “I mean, let me put it this way: I never heard any encouragement from him. And I never spoke to him.” He then offered a clarification: He had been a guest on Bannon’s podcast during the pandemic once or twice, and the two had met a few years before that.

When I asked Bannon if he had urged Kennedy to challenge Biden, he said, “I don’t want to talk about personal conversations.” He told me he believes Kennedy could be a major political figure. “I was pleasantly surprised when he announced,” he said.

“He’s drawing from many of those Trump voters—the two-time Obama, onetime Trump—that are still disaffected, want change, and maybe haven’t found a permanent home in the Trump movement,” Bannon said. “Populist left, populist right—and where that Venn diagram overlaps—he’s talking to those people.” Bannon told me the audience for his podcast, War Room, “loves” Kennedy. “I think Tucker’s seeing it, Rogan’s seeing it, other people—the Tucker-Rogan-Elon-Bannon-combo-platter right, obviously some of us are farther right than others—I think are seeing it. It’s a new nomenclature in politics,” he said.

“And obviously the Democrats are scared to death of it, so they don’t even want to touch it. They want to pretend it doesn’t exist.”

Picture of RFK Jr. at his home in Los Angeles, California
Photograph by Chris Buck for The Atlantic

Perhaps more than anyone in politics, Kennedy is the embodiment of the crunchy-to-conspiracist pipeline—the pathway from living a life honoring the natural world to questioning, well, everything you thought you knew. For much of his life, he was a respected attorney and environmentalist. In the 1980s, Kennedy began working with the nonprofit Riverkeeper to preserve New York’s Hudson River, and he later co-founded the Waterkeeper Alliance, which is affiliated with conservation efforts around the world. Like many other environmentalists, he grew distrustful of government, convinced that regulatory agencies had fallen under the thrall of the corporations they were supposed to be supervising.

I asked Kennedy if there was a link between his earlier work and his present-day advocacy against vaccines. “The most direct and concrete nexus is mercury,” he said.

In the 2000s, Kennedy said, he read a report about the presence of mercury in fish. “It struck me then that we were living in a science-fiction nightmare where my children and the children of most Americans could now no longer engage in this seminal primal activity of American youth, which is to go fishing with their father and mother at their local fishing hole and come home and safely eat the fish,” he said.

As an environmentalist, Kennedy traveled around the country giving lectures, and about two decades ago, mercury poisoning became a focal point of these talks. He soon noticed a pattern: Mothers would approach him after his speeches, telling him about their children’s developmental issues, which they were convinced could be traced back to vaccines that contained thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative. “They all had kind of the same story,” Kennedy said. “Which was striking to me, because my inclination would be to dismiss them.”

[Read: Inside the mind of an anti-vaxxer]

He said that one of these women, a Minnesotan named Sarah Bridges, showed up on his front porch with a pile of studies 18 inches deep, telling him, “I’m not leaving here until you read those.” Kennedy read the abstracts, and his beliefs about vaccines began to shift. He went on to become the founder of Children’s Health Defense, a prominent anti-vaccine nonprofit.

When I contacted Bridges, she noted that she is a college friend of Kennedy’s sister-in-law and clarified that she had approached Kennedy while visiting his family’s compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Nevertheless, she confirmed that she gave Kennedy a stack of documents related to thimerosal, and that this likely was the beginning of his anti-vaccine journey.

Bridges’s family story is tragic: One of her children ended up in the hospital after receiving the pertussis vaccine. He now lives with a seizure disorder, developmental delays, and autism—conditions Bridges believes were ultimately caused by his reaction to the vaccine, even though studies have shown that vaccines do not cause autism. Bridges says she received compensation from the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, colloquially known as “vaccine court,” for her son’s brain damage.

Bridges doesn’t consider herself an anti-vaxxer. She told me that she still talks with Kennedy once in a while, but that she was surprised to learn he was running for president. She’s a lifelong Democrat, and declined to say whether she would support him in the election. She did tell me that she has received two doses of the COVID vaccine. She views the extremity of her son’s reaction as the exception, not the rule. “I think the American public is smart enough that we can have a nuanced conversation: that vaccines can both be a public good and there can be—and there, I think, is—a subset of people who don’t respond to them,” she said.

Kennedy’s campaign manager, the former Ohio congressman and two-time presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, strongly objects to anyone labeling his candidate “anti-vaxx.” When I used the term to describe Kennedy, Kucinich told me that such a characterization was a “left-handed smear” and “a clipped assessment that has been used for political purposes by the adherents of the pharmaceutical industry who want to engage in a sort of absurd reductionism.” Kennedy, he said, stands for vaccine safety.

I asked Kucinich to specify which vaccines Kennedy supports. He seemed flummoxed.

“No!” he said. “This is … no. We’re not—look, no.”

At one point, Kennedy looked me dead in the eye and asked if I knew where the term conspiracy theory came from. I did not. He informed me that the phrase was coined by the CIA after his uncle’s assassination in 1963 as part of a larger effort to discredit anyone who claimed that the shooter, Lee Harvey Oswald, hadn’t acted alone. This origin story is not true. A recent Associated Press fact-check dates the term’s usage as far back as 1863, and notes that it also appeared in reports after the shooting of President James Garfield in 1881.

JFK’s assassination and Kennedy’s father’s, just five years apart, are two of the defining moments of modern American life. But they are difficult subjects to discuss with surviving family members without feeling exploitative. Kennedy doesn’t shy away from talking about either murder, and embraces conspiracy theories about both.

“I think the evidence that the CIA murdered my uncle is overwhelming, I would say, beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said. “As an attorney, I would be very comfortable arguing that case to a jury. I think that the evidence that the CIA murdered my father is circumstantial but very, very, very persuasive. Or very compelling. Let me put it that way—very compelling. And of course the CIA participation in the cover-up of both those murders is also beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s very well documented.” (In a written statement, a CIA spokesperson said: “The notion that CIA was involved in the deaths of either John F. Kennedy or Robert F. Kennedy is absolutely false.”)

Two years ago, hundreds of QAnon supporters gathered in Dealey Plaza, the site of JFK’s assassination. They were convinced that JFK Jr., who died in a plane crash in 1999, would dramatically reappear and that Donald Trump would be reinstated as president. I asked Kennedy what he made of all this.

“Are you equating them with people who believe that my uncle was killed by the CIA?” he asked. There was pain in his voice. It was the first time in our conversation that he appeared to get upset.

[From the June 2020 issue: The prophecies of Q]

Picture of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at the funeral for his father in New York
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as pallbearer during his father’s funeral (Photo by Fairchild Archive / Penske Media / Getty)

Unlike many conspiracists, Kennedy will actually listen to and respond to your questions. He’s personable, and does not come off as a jerk. But he gets essential facts wrong, and remains prone to statements that can leave you dumbfounded. Recently, the Fox News host Neil Cavuto had to correct him on air after he claimed that “we”—as in the United States—had “killed 350,000 Ukrainian kids.”

I brought up the QAnon adherents who’d flocked to Dallas because I wanted to know how he felt about the fact that so many disparate conspiracies in America were blending together. I asked him what he would say to Alex Jones, the conspiracist who spent years lying about the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“There’s only so many discussions that you can have, and only so many areas where you can actually, you know, examine the evidence,” Kennedy said. “I’d say, ‘Show me the evidence of what you’re saying, and let’s look at it, and let’s look at whether it is conceivably real.’” He told me he didn’t know exactly what Jones had said about the tragedy. When I explained that Jones had claimed the whole thing was a hoax—and that he had lost a landmark defamation suit—Kennedy said he thought that was an appropriate outcome. “If somebody says something’s wrong, sue them.”

“I mean,” he said, “I know people whose children were killed at Sandy Hook.”

Who will vote for Kennedy?

He was recently endorsed by the Clueless star Alicia Silverstone. Earlier this month, Jack Dorsey, the hippie billionaire and a Twitter co-founder, shared a Fox News clip of Kennedy saying he could beat Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis in 2024. “He can and will,” Dorsey tweeted. Another tech mogul, David Sacks, recently co-hosted a fundraiser for Kennedy, as well as a Twitter Spaces event with him alongside his “PayPal mafia” ally Elon Musk. Sacks, whose Twitter header photo features a banner that reads FREE SPEECH, has an eclectic history of political donations: Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, and DeSantis, to name a few.

Kennedy continues to win praise from right-wing activists, influencers, and media outlets. While some of this support feels earnest, like a fawning multithousand-word ode from National Review, others feel like a wink. The New York Post covered his campaign-kickoff event under the headline “‘Never Seen So Many Hot MILFs’: Inside RFK Jr’s White House Bid Launch.”

So far, Kennedy hasn’t staged many rallies. He favors long, winding media appearances. (He’s said that he believes 2024 “will be decided by podcasts.”) He recently talked COVID and 5G conspiracy theories with Joe Rogan, and his conversation with Jordan Peterson was removed from YouTube because of what the company deemed COVID misinformation. The day we met, Kennedy told me that he had just recorded a podcast with the journalist Matt Taibbi.

I asked Taibbi, who wrote for me when I was an editor at Rolling Stone and who now publishes independently on Substack, if he could see himself voting for Kennedy next year.

“Yeah, it’s possible,” Taibbi said. “I didn’t vote for anybody last time, because it was …” He trailed off, stifling laughter. “I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. So if he manages to get the nomination, I would certainly consider it.”

Years ago, in a long Rolling Stone article, Kennedy falsely asserted that the 2004 election had been stolen. The article has since been deleted from the magazine’s online archive.

“I’ve never been a fan of electoral-theft stories,” Taibbi said. “But I don’t have to agree with RFK about everything,” he added. “He’s certainly farther along on his beliefs about the vaccine than I am. But I think he is tapping into something that I definitely feel is legitimate, which is this frustration with the kind of establishment reporting, and this feeling of a lack of choice, and the frustration over issues like Ukraine—you know, that kind of stuff. I totally get his candidacy from that standpoint.”

Kennedy’s campaign operation is lean. He told Sacks and Musk that he has only about 50 people on the payroll. He’s beginning to spend more time in the early-voting state of New Hampshire. I asked Kucinich about Kennedy’s plans for summer: large-scale rallies? A visit to the Iowa State Fair? He could offer no concrete details, and told me to stay tuned.

[Read: The case for a primary challenge to Joe Biden]

Despite the buzz and early attention, Kennedy does not have a clear path to the nomination. No incumbent president in modern history has been defeated in a primary. (Kennedy’s uncle Ted came close during his primary challenge to Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election.) Following decades of precedent, the Democratic National Committee won’t hold primary debates against a sitting president.

“We’re not spending much time right now thinking about the DNC,” he said. “We’re organizing our own campaign.”

Spokespeople for the DNC, the Biden campaign, and the White House did not offer comment for this article.

“Democrats know RFK Jr. isn’t actually a Democrat,” Jim Messina, who led Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign and is in close touch with the Biden 2024 team, said in a statement. “He is not a legitimate candidate in the Democratic primary and shouldn’t be treated like one. His offensive ideas align him with Trump and the other GOP candidates running for president, and are repellent to what Democrats and swing voters are looking for.”

I asked Kennedy what he thought would be more harmful to the country: four more years of Biden or another term for Trump.

“I can’t answer that,” he said.

He paused for a long beat. He shook his head, then pivoted the conversation to Russia.

“I think that either one of them is, you know, I mean, I can conceive of Biden getting us into a nuclear war right now.”

Kennedy’s 2024 campaign, like Trump’s, has an epic We are engaged in a final showdown tenor to it. But maybe this sentiment runs deeper than his current candidacy. These are the opening lines of Kennedy’s 2018 memoir, American Values:

From my youngest days I always had the feeling that we were all involved in some great crusade, that the world was a battleground for good and evil, and that our lives would be consumed in that conflict. It would be my good fortune if I could play an important or heroic role.

[Read: The martyr at CPAC]

Since meeting Kennedy, I’ve thought about what he said about populism—how it emerges, how it’s exploited and weaponized. He seems to believe that he is doing the right thing by running for president, that history has finally found him, as it found his uncle and father. That he is the man—the Kennedy—to lead America through an era of unrelenting chaos. But I don’t know how to believe his message when it’s enveloped in exaggeration, conspiracy, and falsehoods.

The United States has grown only more conspiratorial in the half century since the publication of Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” There are those who refuse to get the COVID vaccine because of the slim potential of adverse side effects, and then there are those who earnestly fear that these innoculations are a way for the federal government to implant microchips in the bodies of citizens. The line between fact and fantasy has blurred, and fewer and fewer Americans are tethered to something larger or more meaningful than themselves.

Kennedy was raised in the Catholic Church and regularly attended Mass for most of his life. These days, he told me, his belief system is drawn from a wide array of sources.

“The first line of the Tao is something to the effect that ‘If it can be said, then it’s not truth’—that the path that is prescribed to you is never the true path, that basically we all have to find our own path to God, and to enlightenment, or nirvana, or whatever you call it,” he said.

He’s now walking his family’s path, determined to prevail in the battle of good against evil. He’s said he’s running under the premise of telling people the truth.

But as with so many of the stories he tells, it’s hard to square Kennedy’s truth with reality.