Robert F. Kennedy Jr. there is a crank His views are a mixture of right-wing fantasies mixed with remnants of the progressive he once was: Bitcoin accelerationanti-vaccine conspiracy theories, claims that Prozac causes mass shootings, opposition to US support for Ukraine, but also a favorable mention for single payer health care. But because of his last name, no one would pay attention to him – and despite that last name, he has zero chance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination.
However, now that the campaign of Ron DeSantis (slogan: “woke woke up immigrants woke up”) seems to be on the slide, Kennedy is suddenly receiving support from some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley. Jack Dorsey, who founded Twitter, has approved him, while some other prominent technicians held fundraisers in his name. Elon Musk, who is in the process of destroying what Dorsey built, hosted him for a Twitter spaces event.
So what does all this tell us about the role of tech billionaires in modern American political life? The other day I wrote about how some tech bros have become recession and inflation truthers, insisting that the improving economic news is fake. (I neglected to mention Dorsey’s 2021 statement that hyperinflation “happened”. How’s that going?) What the Silicon Valley Kennedy explosion shows is that this is actually part of a broader phenomenon.
Which seems to appeal to some tech types to RFK Jr. it’s his opposite – his disrespect for conventional wisdom and expertise. So before I get into the tech-bro specific aspects of this weird political moment, let me say a few things about being contrarian.
One sad but true fact of life is that most of the time conventional wisdom and expert opinion is right; however, there can be great personal and social rewards for finding the places where they go wrong. The trick to achieving these rewards is to balance on the razor’s edge between excessive skepticism of unorthodoxy and excessive credulity.
It’s all too easy to slip the edge of that knife both ways. When I was a young, ambitious academic, I used to scoff at a handful of older economists whose reaction to any new idea was “It’s trivial, it’s wrong and I said it in 1962.” Nowadays I sometimes worry that I have become that guy.
On the other hand, reflexive contraism is, like the economist Adam Ozimek puts it, “brain rotting drug.” Those who succumb to this drug “lose the ability to judge others whom they consider contrary, become unable to distinguish good evidence from bad, a total disaffection of faith that causes them to cling to low-quality counter-modes.”
Techies seem to be especially susceptible to brain rotting antagonism. As I wrote in my newsletter, their financial success too often convinces them that they are uniquely brilliant, able to immediately master any subject, without any need to consult people who have actually worked hard to understand the issues. And in many cases they have gotten rich by defying conventional wisdom that predisposes them to believe that such defiance is generally justified.
Add to that the fact that great wealth makes it all too easy to surround yourself with people who tell you what you want to hear, validating your belief in your own brilliance — a kind of intellectual version of the emperor’s new clothes.
And to the extent that opposing tech bros talk to anyone else, it’s to each other. The tech entrepreneur and writer Anil Dash tells us that “it’s impossible to overstate the degree to which many big tech CEOs and venture capitalists are radicalized by living in their own cultural and social bubble.” He calls this phenomenon of venture capitalism “VC QAnon,” a concept that I find helps explain many of the strange positions taken by tech billionaires lately.
Let me add a personal guess. It may seem strange to see men of vast wealth and influence buying into conspiracy theories about elites running the world. It isn’t they the elites? But I suspect that famous, wealthy men may be especially frustrated by their inability to control events, or even prevent people from ridiculing them on the internet. So rather than accepting that the world is a complicated place that no one can control, they are sensitive to the idea that there are secret schemes to get them.
There is historical precedent here. Looking at Elon Musk’s lineage, I know I’m not alone in thinking about Henry Ford, who remains in many ways the ultimate example of a famous, influential entrepreneur, and who also became a rabid, conspiracy theorist. antisemite. He even paid for a reprint of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery that it was probably promoted by the Russian secret police. (Time is a flat circle.)
In any case, what we are seeing now is something remarkable. Arguably, the craziest faction in American politics these days isn’t red-hatted blue-collar workers in diners, it’s tech billionaires living in huge mansions and flying around in private jets. On one level it’s pretty funny. Unfortunately, however, these people have enough money to do some serious damage.