Inside the fringe worldview of RFK Jr.’s VP pick

Nicole Shanahan, a self-described "autism mom," went through a political transformation during the pandemic. Now she's running for vice president.

AUSTIN, Texas — On a balmy night in May, Nicole Shanahan took the stage at an event hall here for her first stump speech, beginning with an uncommon subject for a political rally: “I want to talk about soil.”

Dressed in a sparkly lilac tank (she wears purple as a nod to centrism), Shanahan, 38, a Silicon Valley philanthropist, addressed an audience of a few hundred people who largely didn’t know her name before long-shot independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announced her as his running mate two months ago.

The crowd in Austin last week — a mix of moneyed supporters, longtime anti-vaccine activists, libertarians, hippies, and health and wellness devotees — clapped and hooted as Shanahan said she didn’t want to talk about guns or inflation, but rather about what really ails America: chronic illness, poverty and political division. In a 16-minute speech punctuated by sighs and laughter, Shanahan said the answers to those problems weren’t to be found in ideas from the conventional left or right, but in Kennedy, and the “realm of the alternative.”

“I have seen the power of these alternative ways of thinking in my own life,” Shanahan said.

A group of women poses for a photo
Kennedy and Shanahan both target women with appeals on health and the planet. Marshall Tidrick for NBC News
An attendee takes a photo
Hundreds of supporters packed the event hall for the Austin, Texas, rally.Marshall Tidrick for NBC News

Once a Democratic donor, Shanahan and her politics have changed drastically in the last few years, a journey she attributes to the pandemic and her 5-year-old daughter’s autism diagnosis.Shanahan has embraced new influences, including a doctor guru who believes, wrongly, that vaccines cause widespread injury and sunshine cures almost everything. Her fringe ideas are now central to a presidential platform that rejects experts and institutions, and elevates influencers and entrepreneurs with conspiratorial views and dubious solutions to national problems.

Shanahan is emblematic of a certain “left to right crossover” that Derek Beres, an author and co-host of the podcast Conspirituality, documented during the pandemic: a coalescence of MAGA patriots, New Agers, wellness influencers and conspiracy theorists, united by their opposition to Covid protective measures and vaccines.

“She embodies the pipeline,” Beres said.

Nicole Shanahan gives a speech
“I want to talk about soil,” Shanahan began her first stump speech. Marshall Tidrick for NBC News

Shanahan supports states’ legislating restrictions on abortion and far-right efforts to ban trans youth health care; has demanded the recall of Covid vaccines; and rails against “Big Pharma,” “Big Tech” and “Big Ag.” What can feel like a series of unconnected pitches to the radical center is united by an undercurrent of distrust — of government, institutions and the press — that is core to Kennedy’s campaign. Her political inexperience, far-out talking points and ease to tears have drawn critics. Democratic National Committee strategist Lis Smith called her “woefully unserious”; Donald Trump called her a gold digger, referring to her marriage to Google co-founder Sergey Brin, whom she divorced in 2023.

Watching her speech in Austin from the back corner of the room, the campaign’s communications director, Del Bigtree, lobbed shouts of support throughout. “She’s spectacular,” he said in an interview minutes before the speech.

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Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announces his vice president pick

Dozens of campaign volunteers scattered throughout the room were also hyped. Hours earlier, Kennedy and Shanahan had delivered boxes of signatures to the secretary of state downtown. Kennedy has qualified for the ballot in six states, according to an NBC News count, and the campaign and his affiliated super PAC say he has enough signatures to qualify in 11 more. While he’s more likely to be a spoiler candidate than a real contender, Kennedy has hit 15% support or higher in several recent polls, and ballot access wins suggest he may have a very slight chance to make the stage for a Biden-Trump debate in June. In a gauzy documentary-style sizzle reel that preceded Shanhan’s entrance here, Kennedy narrated over a rising score, describing his running mate as “my fellow lawyer, a brilliant scientist, technologist, a fierce warrior mom.”

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“Warrior mom,” a term popularized by model Jenny McCarthy, was a clear nod to Kennedy’s most enthusiastic base: the network of vaccine opponents, including Shanahan, who champion the false idea that vaccines cause autism in children. It’s an army he’s spent the last two decades cultivating.

“She brings the youth, a voice that’s really important now,” Bigtree, who also leads the country’s second-largest anti-vaccine nonprofit, said from the back of the room. (Kennedy led the largest, before he took leave last year to run for president.)

Del Bigtree talks with rally attendees
Campaign communications director and anti-vaccine activist Del Bigtree said Kennedy chose Shanahan because of her tech background. Marshall Tidrick for NBC News
An attendee poses for a photo in front of the stage
Kennedy’s Austin rally drew supporters of all ages. Marshall Tidrick for NBC News

Bigtree listed Shanahan’s history in tech — she founded and sold a patent analytics software startup — and her current occupation as a funder and investor in medical and scientific research as other pluses. Not mentioned: her personal wealth (reports estimate more than $1 billion), which she has enthusiastically donated to Kennedy’s campaign — $10 million since March, and an additional $4 million to a Kennedy PAC for a Super Bowl commercial. Also unmentioned was the thing that led her to Kennedy, the one qualifier the campaign invokes over and over again: being a mother to a child with autism. The Kennedy campaign denied multiple requests to interview Shanahan, and she’s yet to do any major media appearances or print interviews. Instead, she launched a podcast and has gone on programs outside the mainstream. In these conversations, she leans into that mom identity.

But asked whether Shanahan was helping Kennedy with the voting bloc of “autism warrior moms,” Bigtree balked.

“Why would we need any help with that group?”

Shanahan describes her life as the “American dream.” She grew up poor in Oakland, California. Her mother, an immigrant from Guangzhou, China, worked low-wage jobs and her father, a white American, struggled with manic depression and addiction. She escaped to her grandparents’ home during the summers and eventually to college in Tacoma, Washington. While in law school at Santa Clara University in 2013, she founded ClearAccessIP, a patent management tech company.

In 2014, she met Brin at a yoga festival in Lake Tahoe. After a brief marriage to a Bay Area investor, Shanahan coupled with a recently divorced Brin. They were planning a future family when Shanahan, nearly 30 at the time, got a diagnosis of polycystic ovary syndrome, which ended their early efforts to freeze embryos. “After three failed attempts at embryo-making and three dozen visits to in vitro fertilization clinics around the Bay Area, I learned that I was not nearly as unshakable as I thought I was,” she later said.

When Shanahan got pregnant naturally with her daughter, Echo (she credits acupuncture, “liver cleanses,” more sleep and “letting go”) she took her personal experience as evidence that the medical guidance she’d gotten had been junk, motivated not by science, but by financial gain.

Shanahan, armed with Brin’s money, began pouring millions of dollars into research on extending female reproduction — an outgrowth of the longevity movement that had already enraptured Silicon Valley funders. Where the for-profit IVF industry was stifling knowledge, she would fund it through her new nonprofit, the Bia-Echo Foundation, researching better diagnoses and natural remedies for infertility.

“Her experience became a cause,” a feature in The New Yorker explained.

Sergey Brin puts his hand on Nicole Shanahan's belly during her pregnancy.
Nicole Shanahan married Google co-founder Sergey Brin in 2018 while she was pregnant with their daughter, Echo. They divorced in 2023. Taylor Hill / Getty Images file

In April 2020, she found another. As Shanahan describes it in podcasts and campaign videos, Echo was born “healthy,” but started to “slow fade,” engaging and speaking less. As Covid began to rage across the world, Shanahan had her daughter assessed over Zoom and got a diagnosis of autism. When speech therapy was distressing for Echo and didn’t produce the results Shanahan was hoping for, Shanahan started to question things. Maybe, Shanahan thought, Echo’s autism would be like her fertility — diagnosed by doctors and treated by experts who were ultimately wrong. “Doing your own research” was a common refrain in the early Web 2.0 anti-vaccine community before outsiders repurposed it as a joke aimed at conspiracy theorists. For Shanahan, it became a mission. She found a community of parents to children with autism, elite Silicon Valley moms and dads who didn’t buy the medical consensus that autism is mostly genetic and can be lived with, but not fixed. Shanahan spent more than half her time reading publications and posts about autism, listening to podcasts and calling up researchers who caught her attention.

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Pins hang on display
From Super Bowl commercials to swag, the campaign has leaned into the fame and nostalgia of the Kennedy name. Marshall Tidrick for NBC News

In 2022, Shanahan discovered Dr. Jack Kruse, a neurosurgeon turned paleo-diet advocate and wellness guru, whose ideas around so-called natural healing would become central to her beliefs about autism and beyond. “It was actually Jack Kruse that made me realize that perhaps there was something related to the way that the brain was responding to some kind of outside influence, and how to heal the brain,” Shanahan said in March on famed music producer Rick Rubin’s podcast. “That made me think completely differently about autism.”

Kruse’s ideas — including that sunscreen is unnecessary, that genital sunbathing promotes fertility, and that Covid was a “compliance test” designed to keep people indoors, plotted by world leaders with plans to overturn the global economy — exist far outside the mainstream. Central to them all is the power of the sun to heal nearly all chronic disease, including autism.

Portrait of Jack Kruze smiling
Wellness guru Dr. Jack Kruse said he advised Shanahan on her autism research investments. Courtesy Dr. Jack Kruse

Kruse, who lives in El Salvador, said in a recent phone interview that Shanahan called him in 2022 to ask for his advice regarding Echo’s treatment. He explained to her, “through a punch in the mouth,” that she was in fact responsible for her daughter’s autism for myriad reasons: because of the vaccines she had allowed her to receive, the artificial lights she turned on, the electromagnetic radiation pumping through her home. Shanahan took it well, Kruse said, even when he accused her husband, Brin, of being part of a plot between Big Tech and the government to use blue light as a means of control after Sept. 11. “It’s about surveillance,” Kruse said. Much is unknown about autism, but research shows genetics and other factors like having an older parent and pregnancy complications may make a person more likely to develop the neurodevelopmental disorder. While there is evidence that blue light may affect sleep, there is none to suggest it causes autism, and over a decade of studies have debunked the claim that vaccines do either.

Kruse said Shanahan asked him what she could do and he suggested funding specific projects that could undo the harms that Big Tech and the government had caused.

“People have to use wounds as their wisdom,” Kruse said. “Nicole happens to be one of those people.”

Shanahan opened her checkbook, funneling millions, per Kruse’s suggestion, into a clinical trial at the University of Texas at Austin that plans to treat autistic children with a headband emitting low-level infrared light in an effort to “improve” their behavior. She invested millions more in a company developing a blue light-free computer and efforts aimed at earlier detection, including a startup that says it can detect autism at the moment of birth from a single strand of hair.

Francisco Gonzalez-Lima, the professor behind the headband study, praised Shanahan’s intelligence and dedication to his “very outside the box” brand of autism research. “She wants to do this not only for the children that have the problem, but also for their mothers.”

An attendee makes a video of  Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaking at the rally
Kennedy has qualified for the ballot in six states. The campaign and his affiliated super PAC say he has enough signatures to qualify in 11 more. Marshall Tidrick for NBC News
People wait in line
A mix of moneyed supporters, anti-vaccine activists, libertarians, hippies and health and wellness devotees wait for doors to open at a Kennedy rally in Austin.Marshall Tidrick for NBC News

Shanahan’s mission to understand and solve autism isn’t unique. As autism rates have climbed (experts mostly cite awareness and widening diagnostic criteria), an industry of research, products, therapies and investors — many with personal experiences with autism — have followed. Money and innovation that helps autistic people communicate, learn and live is welcome, but disability advocates warn that some experimental treatments for autism can be harmful and object to the underlying mindset guiding some of this work, that autism needs to be “cured.”

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“Autism is a developmental disability, and disability is a natural part of human diversity,” said Noor Pervez, the community engagement manager for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “It’s something we are born with, and that shouldn’t be changed.”

To limit the “toxins” she believed caused Echo’s autism, Shanahan adapted her home, limiting light sources other than the sun, restricting Wi-Fi and cellular connections, and converting her chlorine pool to saltwater, which Echo swims in as the sun rises. The morning sunlight “is like chicken soup for metabolic health,” Shanahan told Rubin. Neither Shanahan nor the campaign responded to an emailed list of questions, including whether Shanahan vaccinates Echo against childhood diseases.

“My daughter has lifted the veil for me,” Shanahan said. “That is what has brought me to this movement.”

While Shanahan was redefining her life and work to understand and reverse her daughter’s autism, things in her personal life were turning turbulent. In 2022, she and Brin separated after her reported affair with Tesla founder Elon Musk (which Shanahan has denied). In an email to NBC News, Musk called reports of the affair “absolutely false.”

“We have never been alone together, not even once,” Musk said.

Shanahan and Brin divorced in 2023. Brin sold his shares in Tesla and used the money to fund a nonprofit focused on health and climate change. Though the divorce records aren’t public, Shanahan reportedly got hundreds of millions worth of shares of Alphabet stock as a settlement.

That summer at Burning Man — a week in the Nevada desert where the well-to-do cosplay a futuristic utopia — she met her current fiancé, Jacob Strumwasser, who seems to subscribe to anti-vaccine misinformation and share her faith in Kruse (the two interact on X and Strumwasser wears Kruse-recommended anti-blue light glasses). Until recently, Strumwasser was an executive for the Bitcoin start-up Lightning Labs, but he left the company in April and has been traveling with Shanahan. He did not return requests for comment.

It was Strumwasser who suggested Shanahan join the Kennedy ticket.

Jacob Strumwasser, Nicole Shanahan, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.,  and Cheryl Hines wave to the crowd
Since the Kennedy campaign announced Nicole Shanahan as his vice presidential pick in March, she has avoided the mainstream media. David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Shanahan has said she first connected with Kennedy in 2023, at the urging of another autism mom in her Silicon Valley circle. Shanahan never cared for Kennedy, based on disparaging articles she’d read about him and his organization, Children’s Health Defense. But after listening to one of his podcasts, then another one, and then another one, she felt differently. Like so many other mothers before her, she saw in Kennedy a person who would speak up on the health issues that mattered to her — and where the government had failed. Shanahan sent her first donation to Kennedy’s campaign in May 2023.At a dinner in February at Kennedy’s home, Strumwasser weighed in on a conversation about possible VP picks with: “What about Nicole?” Kennedy and his wife, Cheryl Hines, were instantly receptive, Shanahan said this month on former ESPN anchor Sage Steele’s podcast. Shanahan was hesitant, she said, but was ultimately convinced by Kennedy’s daughter-in-law and campaign manager, Amaryllis Fox Kennedy, who told her in a heartfelt letter that her motherhood was sacred and Echo came first.

Shanahan has, like Kennedy, eschewed extreme labels like anti-vaccine in the press, while leaning into the anti-vaccine community and speaking their language in less mainstream spaces. On X, Shanahan has praised controversial doctors known for Covid misinformation. After a taping of Shanahan’s podcast, one of those doctors, Dr. Mary Talley Bowden, told her followers, “we see eye-to-eye on vaccines.” On conservative firebrand Tomi Lahren’s podcast last week, Shanahan railed against Covid vaccines, claiming falsely that they were “not vetted” and caused “excessive deaths.”

She’s largely avoided the mainstream press and is absent on most of Kennedy’s stops on the trail, a strategy that brings Shanahan directly to her people, via podcasts and appearances on fringe platforms.

And her motherhood is central to nearly every appearance, but was on full display last week at an online prayer circle for Kennedy supporters. In a conversation with Fox Kennedy and Wendy Silvers, campaign aide and host of the YouTube series “The Awakened Mother Show,” Shanahan reflected, through tears at times, on her role as a mom and in the campaign and her future as vice president: “I’ve gone through a personal transformation to arrive to this moment,” she said, before bowing her head in prayer.

Nicole Shanahan hugs a campaign rally attendee
Shanahan shook hands and hugged hundreds of supporters for selfies after the Austin rally. Marshall Tidrick for NBC News

Shanahan’s appeal might not be winning new votes, but it may be landing with existing Kennedy supporters. In line before the Austin rally, dozens of attendees had little opinion to offer on Shanahan as a running mate. But after her speech, Michelle Frank, 38, a yoga studio owner and self-described “proud boy mom” who had expressed ambivalence about Shanahan earlier in the evening, rushed back up to a reporter.“Now that I heard her speak and pour her heart out, who can’t resonate with that?” Frank said. “We’re all just looking for the truth, you know?”

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