X Close

Why RFK Jr is the Silicon Valley candidate Tech mavericks want to disrupt the establishment order

'Shanahan is only one of several wealthy Silicon Valley insiders to support Kennedy.' (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

'Shanahan is only one of several wealthy Silicon Valley insiders to support Kennedy.' (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)


April 15, 2024   6 mins

When Robert F. Kennedy Jr revealed that his running mate for the presidency was Nicole Shanahan, ex-wife of Google co-founder Sergei Brin, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the usual suspects. Although Shanahan is successful in her own right (she founded her own patent analytics company in 2013, five years before she married Brin) the fact that someone with such close ties to the Silicon Valley elite was joining the Kennedy apostate in his Quixotic campaign was regarded by many as a betrayal of the progressive ethos of Silicon Valley. The fact that it was announced in Oakland, less than 10 miles away from San Francisco, only added insult to injury: it was like a direct assault on the citadel.

But Shanahan is only one of several wealthy Silicon Valley insiders to support Kennedy. Last June, when Kennedy was still a member of the Democratic Party, Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey (net worth: $4.9 billion) gave his endorsement, praising him for having “no fear in exploring topics that are a little bit controversial”. Meanwhile the venture capitalists David Sacks and Chamath Palihapitiya have also contributed to RFK’s campaign, while Elon Musk hosted Kennedy for a two-and-a-half-hour long conversation on Twitter last year.

This is a far cry from the heady days of the Obama presidency, when there was a revolving door between tech firms and the administration. I still remember the Google all-hands meeting that was leaked online in the aftermath of Trump election, where the company’s CFO cried as Brin explained to his employees that some people were just “low information voters”. And although the relationship between tech firms and the Democrats has grown more strained since those days, most political donations continue to go in one direction, while those who are Kennedy curious are denounced as reactionaries, and constantly reminded of his anti-vaccine stance and conspiratorial statements .

But although Silicon Valley may have been largely absorbed into a monolithic political orthodoxy, this has distracted us from the quintessential strangeness of the region — that for decades it was a place where you could really let your freak flag fly. Far from an aberration, in many ways RFK constitutes the ideal Silicon Candidate, personifying a turbulence and weirdness that goes back to the very dawn of the valley.

The USA’s technology industry was not originally centred on the west coast. UNIVAC, the first commercial computer was developed in the east, while IBM, dominant in the industry for many decades, was (and is) headquartered in New York state. The man who put the “silicon” in Silicon Valley was William Shockley, one of the inventors of the transistor. Shockley founded his own company in Mountain View in the mid-Fifties, attracting some of the best and brightest to move there; when they discovered he was a terrible manager, some went on to start their own companies. But besides being a brilliant scientist, Shockley was  also a rampant racist and enthusiastic eugenicist decades after such ideas were regarded as being beyond the pale. While the battle for civil rights was raging, he argued for the sterilisation of black women, and in his 70s donated his sperm to a depository of semen collected from Nobel Prize winners. When interviewed by Playboy he complained that his children represented a “very significant regression” due to the lower intellectual capabilities of their mother.

Compared to the positions held by the father of Silicon Valley, then, RFK’s much criticised anti-vaccine stance is exceedingly mild as far as controversial ideas go. Meanwhile, as much as he is attacked by the media and members of his former party, it was not so long ago that some progressives didn’t mind a bit of anti-vax rhetoric. The Huffington Post was home to many articles by vaccine sceptics (including RFK himself) until they were memory-holed during the pandemic. Similarly, one of the great idols of Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs, was sufficiently doubtful about medical science that when he  was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he opted to treat it with acupuncture, a lot of fruit juice and “spiritual consultations”. And a critical attitude towards multinational pharmaceutical companies would have been completely uncontroversial on the Left until a few short years ago. We should not be surprised therefore if some in Silicon Valley aren’t too bothered about RFK’s attitude towards vaccines.

But there are plenty of other reasons why Kennedy might appeal to some of the more unorthodox thinkers in Silicon Valley. Although Jack Dorsey ended his tenure at Twitter by banning Trump from the platform, it should nevertheless be remembered that he is a strange guy with a big beard and a collection of psychedelic T-shirts who celebrated his 42nd birthday by going to Myanmar to meditate for 17 hours a day. Dorsey has been searching for alternatives to the dreary offerings of establishment Democrats for years, having previously donated money to the apostates Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard. He is also a cryptocurrency enthusiast, and was likely impressed by the keynote speech RFK delivered at a Bitcoin conference in Miami last year, in which he described it as “the perfect base currency.”

David Sacks, meanwhile, is part of the so-called “PayPal mafia” that includes Silicon Valley dissidents Elon Musk and Peter Thiel. Sacks has never been shy about holding dissenting opinions to the tech mainstream. At the tender age of 23 he co-authored with Thiel a book entitled The Diversity Myth, where he argued that many academic and cultural institutions were using “diversity” as cover for repression and a general stifling of intellectual culture. Like RFK, he is a strong advocate for free speech, and sceptical of the war on Ukraine. Although both positions are now supposed to be Right-wing, it was of course completely standard on the Left to be anti-war and pro-freedom of expression until very recently. And as for Chamath Palihapitiya  (who co-hosts a podcast with Sacks) he has previously donated a lot of money to the Democratic Party, but has also thrown a few dollars Ted Cruz’s way and supported Michael Bloomberg for president, while also hosting a fundraiser for Vivek Ramaswamy. Clearly this is a man no longer wedded to the status quo, but open to alternatives.

Of course, RFK isn’t going to win, so it might seem strange that a bunch of canny venture capitalists would throw away so much money on a lost cause. But wealthy people throw money away all the time, and for much less entertaining reasons. Nikki Haley burned enormous amounts of donor cash as she waged her futile campaign against Donald Trump, while in the US it is considered entirely upstanding for a rich person to donate huge sums of money to already extremely wealthy institutions such as Harvard or Yale. And what is a couple of million dollars compared to the strange phenomenon witnessed in the UK, whereby people dedicate their entire lives to supporting a political party that hasn’t won a majority at an election in over a century? Who knows what lurks in the human heart — maybe David Steel and Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy all believed that they would pull off a revolution. Perhaps Nicole Shanahan believes that with the Kennedy name and her cash, they may be able to beat the system.

“He represents a value that was once regarded as the highest virtue in Silicon Valley: disruption.”

But equally perhaps it’s not about winning at all. RFK is sometimes described as a “chaos agent” and much of the bitterness aimed at him is fuelled by the fear that he will take away enough of Biden’s vote to let Trump back in. But rather than anything quite so anarchic, he represents a value that was once regarded as the highest virtue in Silicon Valley: disruption. In our newly tech-pessimist era, the internet is now awash in articles denouncing this as a delusional buzzword at best and dangerous at worst. But there was a time not so long ago when venture capitalists and their media stenographers were constantly looking for the visionary with the radical idea that would upend old ways of doing things. AirBnB, Uber, WeWork were all once feted as disruptors to the markets they entered (some admittedly more successful than others).

From one angle this is exactly what RFK looks like: he has liberated  himself from the dreary groupthink of his party, even the confines of his family. He says what he thinks and has created a platform with appeal to some on the Right, some on the Left and some who refuse to identify with either side. But beyond that, he is different from a conventional disruptor because there is no gamble involved: whatever capital is expended on him will definitely go up in smoke. In which case, the strategy must be to expand the realm of what it is possible to say, and to give a bloody nose to a party run by a detached elite that has embraced a whole new set of shibboleths, and yet which still demands fealty. Or maybe it doesn’t matter too much what RFK stands for, and when billionaires donate to his campaign it is fundamentally an existential act, burning money as a giant F.U. to people they despise. And if you can afford to do it, then is it really such terrible value for money?


Daniel Kalder is an author based in Texas. Previously, he spent ten years living in the former Soviet bloc. His latest book, Dictator Literature, is published by Oneworld. He also writes on Substack: Thus Spake Daniel Kalder.

Daniel_Kalder

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

25 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Martin M
Martin M
3 months ago

Similarly, one of the great idols of Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs, was sufficiently doubtful about medical science that when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he opted to treat it with acupuncture, a lot of fruit juice and “spiritual consultations”….
….which of course resulted in him dying of pancreatic cancer. Yep, you’re right, RFK Jr will fit right in.

T Bone
T Bone
3 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Being that you’re triple-boosted against Misinformation; how concerned are you about the global supply of cloth facemasks if the interconnected Crises of Long Covid, Patriarchy, Systemic Racism and Global Boiling were to strike at the same time?

Martin M
Martin M
3 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

“Triple-boosted against Misinformation”? I am happy to read misinformation (I mean, I’m on here, aren’t I?), but my BS Detector generally identifies it.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
3 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Conventional treatment would most likely have ended in his death as well.

Martin M
Martin M
3 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Possibly, but he seems to have wanted to take the “most likely” out of the equation.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
3 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Sometimes, accepting the inevitable brings its own relief, that medication side effects don’t. If you know that one way or another, it’s the end; the more comfortable route is often the right one.

Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
3 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Pacteatic cancer is very agressive and it almost never ends well. Look it up and convince yourself. If you are going to die anyway, why spend your last days with chemo?

Martin M
Martin M
3 months ago
Reply to  Fran Martinez

Well, it’s his choice of course, but I was extremely happy to see the back of him.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
3 months ago
Reply to  Fran Martinez

Steve Jobs didn’t have the aggressive kind. He lived 8 years after the initial diagnosis and underwent all kinds of treatments, from the aggressive Whipple procedure to a liver transplant. He fought hard against death, but as we all will, lost in the end.

Alan Gore
Alan Gore
3 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Actually no. Jobs was fortunate to have the slow-growing, treatable variant of pancreatic cancer, rather than the one that means certain death in weeks. Unfortunately, he chose the environmentally-correct RFK methods of treatment.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
3 months ago
Reply to  Alan Gore

Yes, Steve Jobs did have the rare slow-growing type of pancreatic cancer. No, he didn’t choose the Bobby Kennedy method of treatment.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
3 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

A crass and ill-informed comment from someone who appears to be congenitally misinformed.

Martin M
Martin M
3 months ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

Well, I have no respect for RFK Jr, and had a hearty dislike for Steve Jobs, so my comments can be viewed in that context.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
3 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Make sure you wear a mask all the time, even when eating and showering. And I hope you have definitely had your 17th Covid Booster shot.
It is very important.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
3 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Like you, a lot of people have the opinion that Steve Jobs defied medical advice to try natural remedies, and that delay resulted in his death, but there’s no evidence to support that. Steve Jobs didn’t say much about it, and his doctors of course could say nothing, but he seems to have followed traditional medical advice but, unfortunately, died anyway. That happens. Cancer is a terrible killer.
What we do know is that Steve Jobs had a rare form of pancreatic cancer that can often be successfully treated with surgery in a procedure called the Whipple. With him the cancer was discovered early, before he had any symptoms. While we don’t know what his doctors told him, other cancer specialists have said that his doctors probably recommended the Whipple but told him that it wasn’t urgent.
The Whipple (also called a pancreaticoduodenectomy) is a complex operation with lots of risk. It also does a number on your digestive tract, somewhat analogous to amputating a limb. Your body is disfigured for life. Some cancer specialists have said that they would have suggested that Steve Jobs take a few months to get used to the idea, and to see if a miracle happened in the meantime. That seems to be the tack his doctors took.
Steve Jobs did wait a few months and tried some nontraditional remedies, but had the Whipple done well within the period normally thought to be safe. For a few years he was cancer free, but then more tumors were found and he died about 8 years after cancer was first discovered.
Would getting the Whipple done earlier have saved Steve Jobs’s life? Or at least prolonged it? It’s possible. Some cancer specialists think he should have had the Whipple done right away. He himself later wished he had not delayed. But that was in hindsight. At the time, there seemed little risk in waiting. And it seems likely that it made no difference.
To me, Steve Jobs’s liver transplant late in his life is more of a concern. When cancer has invaded his liver so much that it needed to be replaced, the immune-suppressing drugs needed after the transplant to prevent rejection weakened his body’s ability to fight off cancer. At least that seems to be what happened in his case. He died anyway with a new liver that might have saved someone else’s life. A wasted liver that he used his wealth to jump the queue to get.
But that too was a medical decision that it’s hard to criticize. The upshot is that Steve Jobs was not like Bobby Kennedy is. He didn’t ignore traditional medicine, he embraced it. He did try nontraditional remedies, but only in the hope of a miracle. When none happened in the window he had been given, he followed the advice of his doctors — the finest that money could buy — and had part of his guts torn out. That bought him a few years, but cancer got him in the end.
It seems unfair, ghoulish even, to criticize the man for that.

Martin M
Martin M
3 months ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

It seems unfair, ghoulish even, to criticize the man for that.
I am not short of things to criticize Steve Jobs for. Although the position is now held by Elon Musk, Jobs was “Business Leader I had the Lowest Regard For” during much of his adult life.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
3 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

I’ve lived and worked in Silicon Valley now for 30 years. I’ve been at various times an M&A lawyer, a litigator, a scientist, an inventor, a patent attorney, an investor, an executive, a salesman, and an entrepreneur. I’ve worked for and with a lot of people, been hired and fired, and hired and fired people myself.
I’m rich in some people’s eyes, but “beer and pizza” rich rather than really rich. My fortune is modest, and my reputation mixed. I’ve been taken advantage of, and I’ve taken advantage of. I’m more greedy than generous. I have more enemies than friends. I share my personal experience because I think seeing my own faults has taught me to look at others with a more discerning eye.
During my time here, I’ve never worked for or with Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, but I know people who have, and I’ve worked for and with people like the two of them. Both are tremendously gifted, not as individual contributors but as people with vision. And more importantly, with charisma. They are people who can convince others to work like crazy to bring their vision to reality. Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Elizabeth Holmes and their ilk have the same talent.
But strong people have strong weaknesses, as management expert Peter Drucker said. Sure, you will never be short of things to criticize them for, but so what? As Peter Drucker also said, if you choose leaders based on their lack of weaknesses, you end up with people who are mediocre at best or incompetent at worst. Better to focus more on strengths.
Some compare Steve Jobs and Elon Musk to the robber barons of the Gilded Age, and the comparison is apt. Though they had their faults, and they were big faults, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller in their age took the United States from a rather poor and backward country to lead the world. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk have in turn changed our modern world. Not just changed, but revolutionized.
Do I hold Steve Jobs and Elon Musk in high regard? No, not really. They do not seem like evil men. I don’t know their personal lives well, but they seem to have done well as family men. And they have stayed away from the nasty exploitation of workers and crude monopolization that gave the robber barons their sobriquet. So I’m not too harsh on Steve Jobs and Elon Musk for their faults.
No question, the two of them have done a lot of harm along with their good. Even so, I do respect them for their drive and their will, not just to personally profit, but to make the world a better place. They have done that in a way that few others have. Thank God for them.

John Kirk
John Kirk
3 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

This is dressed up as an exercise of logic but in fact amounts to little more than a sneer.

Arthur King
Arthur King
3 months ago

Support for libertarian perspectives is big in high tech. It will be mainstream in a decade,

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
3 months ago

The weirdest paradox of this strange election is that the only candidate with conventional policies is Trump.

Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
3 months ago

Unfortunately, we are much more likely to have a single-party system of politics than a truly multiparty (>2) system in the foreseeable future. I wish RFK Jr. well – his pulling in a significant number of votes this fall is required to delay the transformation of the US into a typical South American country like Brazil or Venezuela.

Alan Gore
Alan Gore
3 months ago

I totally don’t understand what appeal RFK might have in Silicon Valley. He was an environmental lawyer who embodied the ideas of there anti-science left (nuclear power, genetic engineering, the whole pantheon of wacky food theories) and more recently incorporated the anti-science right. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out he thinks the Earth is flat.
Yes, there is actually a candidate this year who is worse than Donald Trump.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
3 months ago
Reply to  Alan Gore

Ahh….a believer in “The Science”. Almost an extinct species these days.
Have you actually read or listened to anything RFK says, or is this just your MSM-distilled soundbite of the man?

Robert Pruger
Robert Pruger
3 months ago

Third party candidates have a long history in the U.S. In 1860 the Democrat party split and Lincoln won (arguably the U.S.’s greatest president).
In 1912 Teddy Roosevelt ran on the aptly named Bull Moose party and Woodrow Wilson won (the most racist president of 20th century). So 3rd party candidates can be consequential, even if their chances of winning the White House are slim.
Third party candidates generally run for one or more several overlapping reasons: 1) hurt one particular candidate that he considers particularly onerous, 2) advance an idea or policy that he hopes will take hold (Perot in 1992 opposing NAFTA), 3) promote an over arching philosophy that will take hold over time (essentially that is what both the Libertarian party and the Green party do and are pretty close to diametrically to each other).
RFK Jr. appears to be trying to accomplish all 3: 1) wound Biden who changed the rules and stifled any discussion within the Democrat party; 2) break the hold of the pharmaceutical industry on the CDC and NIH and never again punish people for refusing to take a minimally tested treatment; 3) compel more transparency from national security agencies and hold them to account for violating U.S. citizens’ constitutional rights. All of the above appear to be legitimate reasons to run.
RFK Jr. is more than a disruptor (though he is that). He may very well accomplish all 3 of the above. Expect to hear more from him after November 5th.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
3 months ago
Reply to  Robert Pruger

Interesting view, but I think you give Bobby Kennedy too much credit. He’s certainly an intelligent man and has lots of admirers among environmentalists and the elite. His name opens a lot of doors that remain closed to the rest of us.
But Bobby Kennedy’s ideas are quite shallow and his leadership experience next to nothing. People like Steve Kirsch who have become detached from reality give him strong support, and that to me points out the quality of his ideas, very low.
I don’t think Bobby Kennedy will accomplish any of the three objectives you list. Instead, I think he will fade during the election and then fade away after it, living on only on the fringe.