Column: The tech elite’s embrace of RFK Jr. is a grim omen for Silicon Valley’s future

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. supporters in big tech admire his bomb-throwing ideological heterodoxy — something they imagine themselves to possess too.
(Hans Pennink / Associated Press)
Share via

Silicon Valley’s archetypal hero is the founder of humble beginnings — he who, through grit, sweat and genius, unleashes a world-changing idea from his garage. It’s hard to imagine someone more antithetical to that formula than a scion of the most powerful political dynasty in the nation. Yet Robert F. Kennedy Jr., notorious anti-vaccine crusader and presidential candidate, is the toast of the town among the elite tech set.

He’s been championed by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, promoted on a live audio event hosted by Elon Musk, and embraced by the venture capitalist podcasters David Sacks and Chamath Palihapitiya, who not only endorsed Kennedy for the Democratic nomination, but also threw him a fundraiser. LimeWire creator Mark Gorton set up a super PAC with $500,000 that has been buying up newspaper ads for the candidate.

So why would Silicon Valley, which ostensibly prides itself on disruption and looking to the future, embrace a figure who not only oozes old money and hails from the most established of political establishments but also holds starkly anti-tech and anti-science views?


Robert F. Kennedy is getting a lot of press because of his name, but it’s his anti-vaccine claims that need to be scrutinized.

June 19, 2023

Why, just a decade and a half after embracing the Obama-Biden ticket — in 2008, the chief executive of Google stumped for Obama, Musk sent in donations and a Facebook co-founder left the company to work for his campaign — are the loudest voices in Silicon Valley throwing their weight behind a man who just claimed that Wi-Fi causes cancer and whom the New York Times described as “a headache for Biden”?

The answers reveal quite a bit both about the state of our politics and the state of our tech titans.

The first reason is pretty obvious: COVID and vaccine denialism is in vogue with a prominent subset of Silicon Valley’s power players.

Kennedy has spent the last two decades as one of the leading voices for the anti-vaccine movement, alleging a (spurious) link between vaccines and autism. So, when COVID rolled around, and that particular brand of skepticism found much wider purchase, RFK Jr. was ready for prime time. He was kicked off Instagram for spreading misinformation but embraced by figures such as Tucker Carlson, as the right’s dalliance with anti-vax politics bloomed.

That was also around the time when Musk became a prominent COVID skeptic too; in the early days of the pandemic, Musk tweeted that “the coronavirus panic is dumb,” predicted that we’d be headed to “zero new cases” by the end of April 2020, and even initially refused to close a Tesla plant as those cases stubbornly mounted. Since then, even after being proved wrong, Musk has stuck to a similar strain of reactionary COVID politics that, if not necessarily descended directly from the right’s vociferous anti-mask rallying, is of a stripe with it.

It’s tempting to write off Elon Musk’s bad business decisions, such as trying to charge Twitter users for blue checks. But his naked cash grab is part of a sea change we should all take seriously.

April 27, 2023

Dorsey, the Silicon Valley figurehead who has most fully endorsed Kennedy, too, has been cozying up to anti-vaccine views of late, although he’s long embraced other questionable health fads and self-styled gurus. In his first interview since Musk took control of Twitter, he explained that he only became aware of Kennedy earlier this year. Dorsey told the hosts of the “Breaking Points” show on YouTube that he became dedicated to Kennedy’s candidacy after “I kind of went through all his podcasts — almost every episode.”


Less mainstream tech figures, such as LimeWire’s Gorton and InfoSeek founder Adam Kirsch, have fully embraced the anti-vax movement — and RFK Jr. too. Now, dubious scientific beliefs have not exactly been rare in the region — the founding president of Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, was a leading eugenicist, after all — but for the last few decades, Silicon Valley’s most public figures have worked to cultivate an air of science-based beneficence.

Those days appear to be past, and Silicon Valley’s most visible celebrities — most notably Musk and his cohort — are openly turning to dark, conspiratorial and reactionary ideas, rather than trying to sell the public on an optimistic brand of “don’t be evil” future making. That drift aligns rather naturally with Kennedy’s current MO.

The second reason we’re seeing a surge of tech exec interest in Kennedy is even duller: political gamesmanship.

Sacks, one of Musk’s biggest boosters and a full-throated supporter of GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, probably has political reasons for backing Kennedy’s primary effort — he’s a lifelong Republican, and a leading donor to the effort to recall Gavin Newsom. Not much of a COVID skeptic himself, and not a natural ally of Kennedy’s anti-corporate views, Sacks is evidently helping to prop up Kennedy because he knows it’s embarrassing to President Biden to see a challenger polling in the double digits, forcing him to expend resources addressing the threat.

(In a tweet, Sacks denied having “cynical” reasons for supporting Kennedy and laid out reasons for his support, including his avowed embrace of free speech and ending wars.)

David Sacks is part of a small group of rich tech investors seeking to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Sept. 5, 2021

As Axios pointed out, the support of Sacks, Chamath and other tech elites “could help narrow the money gap and keep Kennedy in the race longer than a typical long shot.” It’s a power play, in other words — if, perhaps, an ill-considered one, as DeSantis continues to struggle in the polls.


Kennedy is an advocate of bitcoin — he made his first presidential campaign event at a cryptocurrency conference — so there’s at least something that the tech set can point to as an area of interest that’s plausibly future-forward. (Critics of Kennedy have pointed out the absurdity of a lifelong environmental advocate embracing bitcoin, a tremendous energy drain and contributor to climate change. He has also come out against windmill farms and other vital green infrastructure.)

With crypto in the gutter, however, and the biggest exchanges facing Securities and Exchange Commission complaints and fraud charges, it’s hardly an ascendant voting bloc, and unlikely to eclipse his odd anti-tech musings on other fronts. Last week, on Joe Rogan’s podcast, Kennedy said that exposure to Wi-Fi opens the blood-brain barrier and causes cancer.

Kennedy’s supporters in Big Tech also no doubt admire his bomb-throwing heterodoxy, something they imagine themselves to possess too. RFK Jr. is fighting the corporations, Big Pharma, his own complacent political party, the establishment — even if he is the establishment. Which is actually a pretty good encapsulation of modern Silicon Valley mind-set, and probably the arch reason that Kennedy’s campaign is resonating there so thoroughly.

The Silicon Valley Bank bailout has tech elites feeling attacked. Author Malcolm Harris reminds us of a time when the weapons they feared were bombs, not mean tweets.

March 24, 2023

It’s been a long time since Palo Alto could feasibly be called an underdog in any capacity at all, and not the utmost locus of American power and wealth. Not unlike Kennedy himself, Silicon Valley is thoroughly saturated in both, and operates from a position of unimaginable privilege — and so it must manufacture obstacles and detractors to maintain the illusion that it is a scrappy force for disruption constantly being held at bay by other powers that be.

This was already an illusion in the Obama era, when Facebook, Google and Tesla glommed onto the candidates’ inspiring message of transcendence — Big Tech was already big, if not as big, and plenty powerful. Kennedy’s rise is occasion to recognize that the ideological alliance between the valley and liberal politics was always overstated, and always more transactional than aspirational.

The tech set of the late ’00s donated to Obama’s campaign and proffered their social media tools and praise, and Obama rewarded them with subsidies from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and two presidential terms’ worth of kid-glove treatment when it came to regulation and antitrust policy. And he was sure to trumpet the innovation on display there, feeding the myth in the process. Musk donated to Obama, sure, but during the same campaign cycle, he donated to the Republican National Committee too. (Musk snagged a $465-million government loan for Tesla at a crucial juncture and years of cooperation with the administration in return.)

Silicon Valley is like any other powerful industry this way — its lobbyists, public-facing figures and attention-seeking executives try to guess which way the wind is blowing and place their bets accordingly. In 2008, when it behooved the industry to echo the calls for change, hope and progress, that’s where it marshaled its resources. Now, after many of the giants, enjoying the fruits of the Obama years, have ossified into monopolies, scandals and crashes have marred the region’s reputation and new innovations such as crypto haven’t panned out, the industry, as powerful and rich as ever, finds itself on uncertain cultural terrain.


In Kennedy, the valley’s power players see a familiar face, and see much of themselves — the scrappy fighter to their rebel startup founder, taking on the establishment from the comfortable confines of the same establishment. Albeit with ever darker, ever more reactionary politics.