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6 December 2023

Vivek Ramaswamy’s manic pixie dream campaign

What the rapid rise of the Republican presidential hopeful says about the American right.

By Charlotte McDonald-Gibson

Visit the campaign website of Vivek Ramaswamy – the 38-year-old biotech entrepreneur, political novice, and breakout candidate in the race for the Republican presidential nomination – and “Truth” is everywhere. It’s for sale in big bold letters on white trucker’s hats, beer coolers, mugs and T-shirts. It’s emblazoned above a list of ten campaign commandments. A big “Truth” sign even fell on top of Ramaswamy at a campaign event in Pennsylvania in September.

While there is little doubt that truth has become one of most devalued terms in American politics, it is striking that the White House hopeful who is embracing the term with the most gusto appears to be the one with the most tenuous grasp on it.

Ramaswamy has flirted with 9/11 conspiracy theories and denied his own previous on-the-record comments. His truth is hard to pin down. Its elusiveness tells us as much about the future of US politics as it does about the man himself, who is pioneering a form of campaigning in which unworkable and unbelievable ideas are flung into the public sphere in the hope that enough of them stick.

Ramaswamy, who has never held public office, has leapt in a year from relative political obscurity to making the fourth – and potentially final – primary debate in the Republican race tonight (6 December). While he remains far behind his idol and front runner Donald Trump, who has declined to take part in the debates, and is also trailing two of the other candidates, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, Ramaswamy’s sudden profile sparked speculation in the autumn that he might be nominated as vice-president or to another plum White House job should Trump win a second term.

It is a rapid and unlikely rise. A millennial Asian-American – he was born in 1985, a few years after his parents emigrated from Kerala in south India – Ramaswamy’s demographic profile would place him firmly in the Democratic camp. A tech multimillionaire who went to Harvard and Yale, he represents the elite institutions loathed by certain Republicans.  

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His politics, however, are ultra-conservative. An acolyte of Trump, whom he calls “the best president of the 21st century”, Ramaswamy styles himself as an anti-woke warrior, rails against affirmative action, has advocated the use of force at the southern border with Mexico, and calls the nuclear family “the greatest form of governance known to mankind”.

This is all delivered in a slick, hyper-confident, youthful package, and at times appears to have rattled the other Republican hopefuls. During the first candidate debate on 23 August they saved their fiercest attacks for the political upstart. This included a memorable swipe from Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, who called Ramaswamy “a guy who sounds like ChatGPT”. Yet Ramaswamy comfortably qualified for the debate tonight; Christie just barely had enough support from voters.

Ramaswamy was born in Ohio and raised a Hindu by his parents while attending a Catholic high school. He studied biology at Harvard and law at Yale and claims to have made millions as a hedge fund investor before he even graduated. In 2014 he founded Roivant Sciences, a biotech company known in the industry for the failure of a much-hyped Alzheimer’s drug. Ramaswamy sold the company in 2021, and Forbes estimates his wealth at $630m.

[See also: Is Nikki Haley a real threat to Donald Trump?]

The exact moment of his political awakening is unclear. While at Harvard he performed libertarian rap songs under the name “Da Vek” and voted Libertarian in the 2004 election. He then sat out voting at elections until 2020, when he claims to have had a moment of enlightenment.

“I was apolitical before 2020,” he told Fox and Friends. “I was a CEO, who like so many CEOs was brow-beaten into potentially making statements on behalf of Black Lives Matter after George Floyd died.” This led to his “anti-woke” campaign, which included writing three books in three years criticising the impact of social justice movements and climate change policies on business, and his eventual decision to stand for the Republican nomination.

A recent Politico profile suggested his views may be more contrarian and opportunist in origin, citing rebellious teenage arguments with his progressive father and his habit of debating politics with his Reagan-loving piano teacher to distract from his lack of practice. His personal experience as the rich and successful child of immigrant parents has also instilled a deeply held belief in what he calls “colourblind meritocracy”, leading to criticism that he is promoting a harmful “model minority” stereotype.

What this colourful background has not produced, however, is a consistent and coherent policy platform. When Christie made the ChatGPT jibe, he was probably referencing Ramaswamy’s tech background and highly polished delivery, which can border on the robotic. But there is also the feeling that, like a sophisticated algorithm, Ramaswamy has absorbed lessons from diverse public figures to produce a manic pixie dream candidate: a mirage of the right’s ideal candidate. He attempts to offer something for everyone right of the political centre, allowing voters to pick up on whichever one of his many promises reflects their own anxieties.

“It really did feel like Ramaswamy was a computer program trawling the past two decades of American history to cobble together a ruthless striver’s idea of a political persona, some unholy amalgamation of Obama, Trump, and Musk,” Ryu Spaeth noted in New York magazine. 

While his persona is all youth and verve (he raps Eminem songs at campaign appearances), Ramaswamy’s policies cross the libertarian/conservative/conspiratorial spectrum. These include shrinking the administrative state, ending US support for Ukraine, raising the voting age to 25, more investment in fossil fuels, and deploying US troops in Mexico.

While much of this is familiar conservative and populist territory, he takes his solutions to the extreme. He doesn’t just want to build a wall along the US’s border with Mexico; he claims he’d like to build a wall along its border with Canada too. Then there’s the example of tackling state bureaucracy. It’s a familiar political target, but Ramaswamy’s solution is way out in the realms of fantasy: shut it down completely, disband agencies including the FBI and the Department of Education, and lay off one million federal workers. Like many of his proposals, it has very little grounding in workable government policy, and American media outlets have revelled in taking apart his fantastical promises and debunking statements he makes with no basis in reality (an example, “More people are dying of bad climate change policies than they are of actual climate change”).

Then there is the flip-flopping. Politicians’ views can change and evolve through experience, and they make policy U-turns in response to the public mood. But Ramaswamy’s tactic has often been to outright deny that he made a controversial comment in the first place. This is particularly concerning when it comes to conspiracy theories: Ramaswamy played to the fringe with comments questioning the official accounts of the 9/11 attacks and 6 January Capitol riot then, perhaps to reassure more moderate voters, claimed to have been misquoted. Recordings proved that he was not.

None of this seems to matter to a certain segment of the Republican base, although exactly where Ramaswamy’s strategy will take him – and American politics – in the long term is unclear.

One key area where Ramaswamy sets himself apart from his fellow candidates is his vocal support for Trump. Despite having previously called Trump’s refusal to accept the 2020 election result “downright abhorrent”, Ramaswamy has come around and has said he would pardon the former president if the circumstances demanded it.

This endears him to the Trump faithful, so if any of the several court cases in progress eventually prevent Trump from running, he could count on those votes. It also endears him to Trump, who has praised Ramaswamy – his ostensible competitor – leading to speculation that if Trump wins the nomination, he might make Ramaswamy his running mate.

That is still a long way from being reality, and after his breakout performance in the first debate, Ramaswamy has struggled to maintain the momentum. But the fact that his campaign has made it this far shows that Trump’s post-truth politics goes beyond the man and the moment. When one politician lies with little electoral consequence, it emboldens others to follow, or even take it to a new level, and Ramaswamy certainly on occasion out-Trumps Trump. Ramaswamy’s entire campaign may be a mirage but his influence has been all too real.

[See also: Is Nikki Haley a threat to Donald trump?]

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