"I'm a full anti-vaxxer now"

The crowd, as expected, was filled with the MAGA faithful, a core constituency that has railed against any and all government mandates since the pandemic’s inception. There was no shortage of “Let’s Go Brandon” paraphanalia, as well as its less polite cousin, “Fuck Biden.” A woman wearing a knit hat emblazoned with Trump’s “45” told me she’d had it with government overreach. “What other vaccine have you gotten that you still have to wear a mask for?” she said.

There were also many whose anti-vax activism predated the pandemic. I walked toward the Lincoln Memorial with Liz, who’d traveled from San Diego to attend the rally. Liz, who declined to give her last name, had raised her children partially in Japan, where doctors had stopped recommending adolescent women receive the HPV vaccine after it “killed some girls, maimed some others,” she explains. (The claim is unsubstantiated; reported side effects include muscle pain, sleep disorders, and light and sound sensitivity.) She struggles to find trustworthy news sources, she tells me, relying mostly on Children’s Health Defense, LifeSiteNews, a Catholic far-right advocacy and news site, and what she reads on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app favored by the right.

But I met many more who are new to the movement, like Stefan, a teacher from Santa Cruz, California, who carried a “Teachers Against Vaccines” sign. He and his children were “traditionally vaccinated,” he says, but his faith in vaccines changed during the pandemic. He cites Kennedy’s latest book, The Real Anthony Fauci, as key to that conversion. “I’m a full anti-vaxxer now,” he says. Like Liz, he trusts Children’s Health Defense for information — a neighbor he trusts had turned him onto it. Most of the rest of his news comes from conspiracy-adjacent podcasts: The Joe Rogan Experience, No Agenda, and HighWire, whose host, Bigtree, spoke at the rally.