When Karl Marx said that history repeated itself first as tragedy then farce, he could have been thinking of the Kennedy family. Senator Robert Kennedy was murdered in June 1968 in the ascendancy of his career. Fifty-five years later, his son Robert Kennedy Junior is a leading American conspiracy theorist challenging Joe Biden for the presidency. RFK Sr might have gone on to win the White House. The most his son could probably expect is to become an icon of the delusions 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 passing manias — from the anti-Masonic conspiracy theories of the 1820s to the red scare of the 1950s. Part of it must be that the US is a nation forged by creed, which creates debate about the meaning of the founding contract and people’s loyalty to it. In a country that tells itself it is evolving to a more perfect union, when things go wrong it must be because of hijack. Subterfuge is a much more glamorous culprit than “shit happens”.
Today’s America is in the middle of one of Hofstadter’s waves. Its most visible elements are on the right. Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign is based on the premise that Biden stole the presidency from him in 2020. If he wins next year, there will be retribution. Such is the grip 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 contradict him directly.
By contrast, RFK Jr’s worldview is found across the spectrum. You hear it from counterculture liberals in Portland, Oregon, as much as from biker gatherings on Veterans Day. The essence is that science is rigged against ordinary Americans: big pharmaceutical companies, in league 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 lab; the vaccines killed more people than they saved; America’s gun violence has been driven by prescription drugs, starting with Prozac.
It is easy to knock down each of these claims but that would be to miss their appeal. Our woes must be the result of intention, not accident.
When things go wrong some group of people has to be to blame. The theory in less extravagant form is also there in the Republican field. Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, promises to fight the “biomedical security state” and “choose freedom over Fauci-ism” (after Anthony Fauci, the most recognised medical face of the pandemic).
Ironically, Trump’s campaign is damaged by his base’s belief in this conspiracy theory. He ought to be boasting about how his “operation warp speed” produced the vaccine in record time. But he is hoist by his own petard. Having stoked a paranoid base, he is now its prisoner. The word vaccine rarely crosses his lips. Yet he is proud enough of that record not to fan the conspiracy theory. Which leaves an opening for the likes of RFK Jr.
It cannot be easy to be the son of a national icon like Bobby Kennedy, whose death, and whose brother John F Kennedy’s assassination, are themselves the continuing subject of speculative plots. But RFK Jr’s name recognition has its benefits. It is hard to imagine a conspiracy theorist called John Smith polling 20 per cent among Democratic voters within weeks of declaring his candidacy.
It is also hard to believe that Kennedy will defeat Biden for the nomination. The president has rejigged the Democratic primary calendar to put South Carolina first, ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire. As in 2020, South Carolina is very likely to deliver Biden a landslide. Yet sitting presidents can sometimes be fatally wounded by such challenges. Jimmy Carter was partly undone in 1980 by the bid by Ted Kennedy, RFK Jr’s uncle. George HW Bush was harmed by Pat Buchanan’s pitchfork rebellion in 1992. RFK Jr could help deliver the presidency to Trump.
That would be an odd twist to his family’s legacy. It is no small irony that RFK Jr’s father and uncles would have rebuked his worldview. Yet in a strange way, he personifies today’s more lonely society in which people have replaced their parents’ lost world with a confected one of online group chats. The idea that a hidden cabal must be to blame for their atomised lives found a perfect storm in the pandemic.
To some, the Kennedy name is validation.