Of course Steve Bannon and Alex Jones love RFK Jr. — he's a great weapon for their war on reality

Fascists know their path to victory goes through turning more Americans into QAnon-style conspiracy nuts

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 3, 2023 5:38AM (EDT)

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Alex Jones and Steve Bannon (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Alex Jones and Steve Bannon (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Let's make one thing clear up front: There's no chance that anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. will win the Democratic presidential nomination.

Yes, the son of the assassinated 60s era leader is polling at an alarming 19% in the Democratic primary polls, causing Bill Maher, who is wrong about most things these days, to gush about how "surprised" he is by Kennedy's supposed success. In truth, those polls are more an artifact of Kennedy's famous name, coupled with ignorance about what a crank he is, than a robust show of support. Kennedy, whose infamous anti-vaccination articles have been retracted, will almost certainly fade swiftly once it gets closer to primary season. Still, just because Kennedy is not a threat to Biden's primary chances doesn't mean his campaign doesn't have real potential to cause serious damage, both to public health and democracy. The former because, of course, Kennedy's main reason for running is to convince more people to avoid vaccinations. The latter is evident by the alarming swell of support Kennedy is getting from the loudest, most famous fascists in the nation. 

As Alex Seitz-Wald of NBC News reported last week, some of the biggest names in MAGA world are cheering for Kennedy, who likes to call himself "RFK Jr." to remind people of his fallen father. Alex Jones of Infowars, former Trump advisor Michael Flynn and Turning Point USA head Charlie Kirk have heaped praised on Kennedy. Both former Trump aides Steve Bannon and Roger Stone have suggested Kennedy as Trump's running mate, calling the two a "dream ticket."

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A lot of this is dogwhistling to the QAnon crowd, as many of them believe that John F. Kennedy Jr. did not die in a plane crash in 1999, but is in hiding and will emerge to be Trump's running mate in 2024. This RFK-as-second-banana idea will tickle their delusional fantasies.

But what these fascist grifters are doing is even uglier than that. They believe they can weaponize Kennedy's narcissistic run for two purposes: First, to reach into communities of "apolitical" or even liberal-leaning people, and radicalize them through conspiracy theories. Second, to aid their long-term goal of destroying the value of empirical truth, a necessary step in destroying democracy. 

A lot of this is dogwhistling to the QAnon crowd.

When it comes to the first goal, it's important to understand how much success that right-wing conspiracists, especially QAnon, have already had in radicalizing people who previously had no relationship to conservative politics. In a strategy nicknamed "pastel QAnon," conspiracy recruiters have become skilled at reskinning themselves as "wellness influencers" or "anti-trafficking activists," appealing to large swaths of people who may have previously found Trump a repulsive figure. They target people on health and parenting websites with messages that seem apolitical, and once they hook them, they gradually start pulling them into the world of QAnon and vaccine denialism by framing it as "holistic" medicine and "concern" for children. A lot of female QAnoners, some who were even Democrats in their pre-conspiracy lives, are radicalized this way. 

It's easy to see how a figure like Kennedy would aid this strategy. Because of his family and his misleading self-identification as a progressive, he appeals to people outside of the right-wing disinformation bubble. Kennedy's goal may be "only" to convince people to embrace anti-vaccination conspiracy theories — though that is bad enough! — but as Bannon and other conspiracists understand, it rarely stops there. As Rachel Moran of the University of Washington's Center for an Informed Public told Mother Jones, 'It's incredible how networked these conspiracy theories are. Once you're involved in one of the buckets of misinformation, your likelihood to believe in others is far, far amplified." People may start with anti-vaxx myths, but once they develop a taste for conspiracy theories, they often swiftly graduate to harder stuff, such as QAnon. 

Recruiting more Instagram addicts into QAnon is a big goal, of course, especially since the far-right needs to replenish its ranks after losing so many insurrectionists to prison sentences in the wake of January 6. But figures like Bannon and Jones see value in Kennedy even beyond that. They understand that as long as rationality, evidence, and facts retain widespread social value, it's a threat to their goal of a total fascist takeover. But if they can devalue truth itself in the public eye, then it's much easier for them to push their agenda. 

We saw this in the 2022 midterms. Huge numbers of Republican candidates explicitly ran on the Big Lie, rejecting reality in favor of Trump's conspiracy theories about a "stolen" election. Because of this, Democrats were able to position themselves as sensible defenders of basic facts, and won elections they otherwise wouldn't have. 

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A figure like Kennedy, who is as much a conspiracy nut as Bannon or Jones, can be used to undermine the reputation Democrats have as reality-based people. He's not just running as a Democrat, but his family is the most famous one in Democratic politics. Right-wingers can point to him as proof that "both sides" are liars and cranks, thereby demoralizing voters who just want a chance to back a party that is bound by empirical reality. 

Figures like Bannon and Jones see value in Kennedy because they understand that as long as rationality, evidence, and facts retain widespread social value, it's a threat to their goal of a total fascist takeover.

Kennedy's run is already being exploited in just this way. Noah Rothman at National Review, who should know better as a Trump-skeptical Republican, wrote a "gotcha"-style column Monday trying to argue that a marginal figure like Kennedy is proof that Democrats are just as anti-science as Republicans. The whining tone leaps off the page early on:

Although the condescending affectation predates the Trump era, it became common in the closing years of the last decade to hear Democratic lawmakers explicitly position themselves as the last lonely defenders of free inquiry, dispassion, and rationalism — the "party of science," as Washington governor Jay Inslee once put it. Only Democrats, they insisted, could be trusted to defer to experts in a crisis, restore empiricism to its proper place, and safeguard the environment and public health against the troglodytic masses. RFK Jr. shatters this presumption.

It would be too generous to call this argument a "stretch." The anti-science views of the GOP are supported by the leadership of their party and regularly implemented into policy when Republicans have power. Republican leadership has rejected climate science for decades. They are currently banning abortion across red states by using false claims that abortion "harms" women as justification. Republican-controlled states are also in a frenzy of banning gender-affirming care, in another direct rejection of the overwhelming scientific consensus. The last GOP president and current frontrunner for their 2024 nomination suggested people inject bleach into their lungs to cure COVID-19, for heaven's sake. Kennedy may have a famous name, but statistics clearly show that vaccine rejection is mostly a Republican phenomenon

There's simply nothing like this on the Democratic side. Democratic leaders, across the board, consistently show not just respect for science but for basic reality. There's no Democratic equivalent to the Big Lie, for instance. Kennedy is a crank, but importantly, he's never held elected office. That's because being an anti-science crank hurts you with the Democratic Party. Trump's frontrunner status, however, is a reminder that anti-science views can help lift Republicans into the highest echelons of their party. When one institution punishes people for disinformation and another elevates them, it's simply lying to equate the two in any meaningful way. 

Whatever Rothman's intentions, he's being a useful idiot for MAGA monsters like Bannon and Jones. There's only one thing that could happen if you successfully convince people there's no difference between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to the issue of basic adherence to factual reality: Discouraging good people from voting at all. And, as many a cliched reminder will tell us, when good men do nothing, evil has a better shot at prevailing. This is exactly what right-wing conspiracists are hoping for: A public that's too cynical to stand up to them. Robert Kennedy Jr. is a useful tool for that goal, which is why they're so eager to promote him. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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