Since winning the election in November, President Donald Trump’s appointments to federal agencies and commissions have been nothing short of controversial. Many have taken issue with his appointing of Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, of Rick Perry to lead the Energy Department, of Scott Pruitt to administrate the Environmental Protection Agency, of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education… The list goes on. And a pattern to his appointments has emerged. What many of his appointees have in common is their former antagonism to the agencies and commissions they will now be in charge of. President Trump’s most recent appointment continues this pattern and affirms his stance against the left in matters of public health.
It would be no surprise that Trump, an outspoken anti-vaxxer, would pick another anti-vaxxer to head a new commission on vaccine safety. But his selecting of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. may be a little surprising considering Kennedy’s—and his family’s—long membership in the Democratic Party and his history of environmental activism. But during their meeting at Trump Tower, the two were apparently able to move past their conflicting beliefs about the environment.
RFK Jr. is somewhat of an enigma in the same way the rest of his family is. He is the nephew of U.S. President John F. Kennedy but did not follow in his uncle’s and father’s footsteps in running for elected office. He has a bit of a checkered past: in 1984 he pled guilty to heroin possession, was fired from the New York City District Attorney’s office, and disbarred for his substance abuse problems. Fortunately for him, he was readmitted to the bar after completing his 1500 hours of community service in 1985. Soon after, he went on to become chief attorney for the Riverkeeper organization, continuing his service work by suing polluters of New York City’s Hudson River. In 2010, Time Magazine even dubbed him a “Hero of the Planet” for his conservation efforts.
While many laud RFK Jr.’s environmentalism, his appointment to the new commission on vaccine safety still leaves many troubled. His views on the supposed link between vaccination and autism echo the disengagement from reality that many now regard as typical of the upcoming administration. His 2014 book Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak was dismissed as uninformed, delusional, and just plain wrong. He claims not to be anti-vaccine but anti-thimerosal. He says this preservative is responsible for the rise in vaccine-related autism. But, as his critics point out, thimerosal hasn’t been used in vaccines for a decade and autism diagnoses are still on the rise. His 2014 book was not his first polemic against vaccines. In 2005, Salon and Rolling Stone jointly published “Deadly Immunity,” his first foray into the anti-vax spotlight. The article was eventually retracted by both magazines because of its scientific fraudulency.
The President’s appointment of RFK Jr. continues his pattern of granting power to unqualified people who are ideologically opposed to the institutions and groups they will soon be leading. If RFK Jr. ends up using his position to undermine people’s confidence in immunization, he will undercut the herd immunity that vaccination aims to achieve. There has already been a rise in outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough in the United States since Andrew Wakefield published his fraudulent and debunked 1998 study on vaccination and autism.
Some critics see Trump’s selection of RFK Jr. as not only a threat to public health but also to democracy itself. The appointment of people like RFK Jr. to a vaccine safety commission erodes the authority of federal institutions that many taxpayers rely on. It has become apparent that Trump makes his appointments not to advance the causes of his appointments’ respective cabinets and commissions, but to make sure they run as inefficiently as possible. While RFK Jr. may believe he’s serving the common good, many pediatricians are now beginning to fear a rise in diseases that are normally easily preventable. How the commission aims to evaluate the safety of vaccines — when there is already an overwhelming consensus that immunization is indeed safe — remains to be seen.