The anti-science RFK Jr. pushes is part of the larger anti-truth of fascism pushed by Bannon. It must be called out for exactly what it is.
Listen To This Story
A recent sequence of events perfectly encapsulates the bizarre, dangerous collisions between anti-science and politics that have become all too frequent in the Trumpocene, and from which Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s controversial presidential run has emerged.
The political scion and notorious anti-vaxxer recently appeared on the conspiracy-friendly Joe Rogan Experience (JRE) podcast to hype his long-shot Democratic presidential candidacy, said to have been encouraged by international anti-democracy activist Steve Bannon.
Vaccine scientist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Dr. Peter Hotez — who has a new book coming out in September titled The Deadly Rise of Anti-Science — tweeted a Vice article by Anna Merlan critical of the Rogan episode and of Spotify for continuing to platform vaccine disinformation.
This prompted Rogan to start an online bullying campaign against the vaccine scientist — offering $100,000 to the charity of Hotez’s choice to debate Kennedy on his podcast, and thereby raise the platform of their debunked conspiracy theories — and refused to take no as an answer. Rogan’s stunt was amplified by Twitter owner Elon Musk (who had previously used the platform to call for Dr. Anthony Fauci’s prosecution) and resulted in the stalking of Hotez at his home by Twitter user “iFightForKids” — aka Alex Rosen — within 24 hours. All of this chaos came on the heels of Steve Bannon calling Hotez a “criminal” on Truth Social the previous week.
Bannon has effectively used the pandemic and vaccine disinformation as a political wedge issue to further divide a nation already dangerously polarized in the Trumpocene. The contrarian doctors who appeared on Rogan’s podcast during COVID-19’s deadly omicron wave — Drs. Peter McCullough and Robert Malone of the deceptively-named anti-vax group The Unity Project — have, tellingly, also appeared on the Bannon’s War Room: Pandemic podcast.
While the frustration with Spotify for continuing to allow Rogan to platform COVID-19 disinformation is valid, there should also be significant outrage at the platforms, like Apple Podcasts, that have allowed Bannon to run his show throughout the pandemic — and after January 6, which brought home the risk this man and his movement pose to American society and the violence he can trigger.
Like his anti-democracy efforts, Bannon’s work sowing pandemic discord is not limited to the US. In the UK, leaks into the internal messaging system used by the again-deceptively-named anti-public health group the Health Advisory & Recovery Team (HART) implicated Bannon, McCullough, and former Cambridge Analytica lead psychologist Patrick Fagan in a network that coordinated COVID-19 minimizing, anti-mask, and anti-vax messaging with right-wing government and media, as detailed by UK-based journalist Karam Bales.
Rogan’s podcast, with an estimated 11 million listeners, has, after a disingenuous apology following backlash from the medical community in 2022, continued to host vaccine disinformation spreaders like RFK Jr., and has been central to the US-based effort. In addition to appearing on JRE and War Room, these doctors, aligned with political ideology over science, have participated in Sen. Ron Johnson’s (R-WI) debunked COVID-19 panels. There’s a mirroring of anti-vax organizing in the US and UK, two countries where Bannon — who famously vowed to “flood the zone with shit” — has been most active.
The man who claims to own the Super PAC for the Kennedy campaign is tech millionaire turned anti-vax “misinformation superspreader” Steve Kirsch, who has also appeared on Bannon’s podcast and who received Musk funding for his failed COVID-19 Early Treatment Fund (CETF). As I detail in Misinformation Kills: How Politics and Dark Money Hijacked Covid, due for publication later this year, the search for pharmaceutical cures for the virus created an opportunity for bogus cures like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, based on shoddy science pushed globally by politicians seeking to downplay the risk of the virus and prioritize the economy over public health.
Kirsch’s CETF’s main contribution, fluvoxamine, failed in trials and the pedantic tech millionaire’s refusal to admit its failure led to his entire board walking out on him, which in turn sent him on a rampage against what did work against COVID-19 — the vaccines. Kirsch counts McCullough and Malone among the experts on his second pandemic venture, the Vaccine Safety Research Foundation, which on their own programming has hosted RFK Jr. and Johnson as well as far-right extremists tied to the Insurrection.
Kirsch added to the fund (now over $2 million) to try to entice Hotez into the Rogan-moderated RFK Jr. “debate.” Kirsch’s track record is dubious, as during the omicron wave he had offered $1 million to anyone who would debate the vaccine science with him, a false promise promoted for Kirsch by McCullough on his Rogan appearance. In reality, Kirsch has never paid anyone who has taken him up on this offer — for example, Dr. Avi Bitterman — and has instead launched online hate campaigns against doctors, such as myself, who call out his disinformation.
Kirsch’s Vaccine Safety Research Fund, Malone and McCullough’s The Unity Project, and RFK Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense all were listed sponsors of the January 2022 Rogan-fronted Defeat the Mandates rally in Washington, DC, where RFK Jr. infamously compared the plight of those refusing vaccination to that of Anne Frank. Leveling up on the grotesque misuse of World War II history, fellow sponsor and speaker Del Bigtree called for “Nuremberg 2.0” for pro-vax physicians and journalists — frightening threats amplified and lobbed at proponents of vaccines, frequently online.
Hotez — who is Jewish — found posters of swastikas made out of vaccines sent to his home. In reality, it is Bannon who has an extensive history of working with neo-Nazis and white supremacists. During his pandemic radicalization, RFK Jr. has rubbed shoulders with Nazi sympathizers like disgraced three-star general turned QAnon principal Mike Flynn — who recently launched an attack on Sarasota Memorial Hospital, with his followers accusing doctors of killing COVID-19 patients, as Kiera Butler wrote for Mother Jones.
I don't know who needs to hear this, but this clown RFK Jr. ain't nobody's Democrat, what a joke.
Buddies with Mike Flynn and Roger Stone, no thanks. pic.twitter.com/kjSORuqito
— BrooklynDad_Defiant!☮️ (@mmpadellan) April 6, 2023
Kennedy’s campaign, and the man himself, are deeply entrenched in the chaos for chaos’s sake that is central to Bannonism. It is dangerous not just for public health — as shown by the needlessly high US COVID-19 death toll — but also for public health experts who speak out against the infodemic that has been superimposed on the pandemic by political bad actors. Following the stalking and filming of Hotez at his home, an ammunition manufacturer tweeted a photo of a bag of bullets with the phrase “‘Dr.’ Hotez is a War Criminal.”
Involvement in this radical far-right network has been highly profitable for RFK Jr., as the Center for Countering Digital Hate lists him on both its Disinformation Dozen and Pandemic Profiteers lists. On at least one occasion he has gotten caught attempting to siphon off some of that money to the GOP in the form of an illegal $50,000 donation from his 501c3 Children’s Health Defense to the Republican Attorneys General Association, exposed by Judd Legum of Popular Information last year.
Despite his pedigree and prevailing popular assumptions, Kennedy Jr. is very clearly no Democrat. Bannon is willing to sacrifice people for his own power and his once-upon-a-time left-wing candidate is, at the very least, content to play along as it benefits him. His chaos candidacy appears to be little else than a right-wing attempt to undermine Biden’s reelection prospects as the means of engineering a far-right presidential win in 2024. And it continues to prop up the anti-vax movement that has found solid footing within the MAGA base, where RFK Jr. has been active.
Any movement, regardless of supposed party affiliation, willing to sacrifice doctors for its cause is a danger to the health of the country and its democracy. RFK Jr. is very likely not a true believer on Bannon’s anti-democracy warpath but rather an entitled, shameless opportunist tipsy on the power and profit he amassed during the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s also very likely too deeply involved to get out at this point. In any case, the anti-science he pushes is part of the larger anti-truth of fascism pushed by Bannon. It must be called out for exactly what it is.
The vaccine issue has struck a chord with a populist base that feels overlooked by a deeply broken American health care system and the elites who run it. In the same way Bannon sent Trump to speak to this base in 2016, he’s sent doctors — and a Kennedy! — down from the elite towers of medicine willing to speak directly to them on their platforms. Unfortunately they have lied to this base and it has had devastating consequences for the believers, as evidenced by the US COVID-19 death rate’s correlation with political affiliation since 2022.
The answer is not anger from the Right at doctors, like Hotez, who speak up against deadly disinformation; nor is it ignoring this anger from the Left. The answer is a painful reckoning with what has actually happened and who is behind it. Only then can we heal and unite.
Allison Neitzel, MD, is a physician-researcher and founder of the independent research group MisinformationKills, which has investigated the dark money and politics behind public health disinformation with a focus on the pandemic. Her book on the topic, Misinformation Kills: How Politics and Dark Money Hijacked Covid, is due for publication later this year.