THE FAST-TALKING, sometimes-rapping and always provocative Vivek Ramaswamy seems to have a successful political strategy for the 2024 presidential campaign. Thus far. He came from nowhere, got somewhere and has become a real talking point this election season. A biotech millionaire who flies around in a private Cessna 750, hopping from one must-win state to another, Ramaswamy is a political novice and the youngest contender at 38. He has never run for elected office, not even a city council seat. Yet, he has managed to outshine some of the more experienced Republican candidates and sent their strategists scurrying to look for dirt against him.
And, Ramaswamy has gained name recognition in record time—a much bigger challenge than if he were called, say, John Smith. To familiarise people with “Vivek-as-in-Cake,” he has maintained an almost manic pace from the time he announced his candidacy in February to now, doing endless interviews, podcasts, getting initiated at the Iowa State Fair, and jiving with voters. His wife Apoorva and their two young sons often travel with him, showcasing the generational factor. He likes to release videos of himself playing tennis. Shirtless.
Ramaswamy’s performance in the first primary debate was so noticeable, it sent commentators into paroxysms of praise and disdain, depending on their ideological colour. Some saw a “touch of the future”, “a commitment to traditional values”, and “greater knack for engaging audiences than any of his rivals”, while others thought he was “preening and obnoxious”, “astoundingly arrogant”, “insufferable”, and just plain “irritating”. Rival candidate Chris Christie said he sounded like “ChatGPT” for his robotic answers. The insults didn’t matter because Ramaswamy got written up like nobody’s business. For the next few days, he was ubiquitous—moving from one TV appearance to another with magazine reporters shadowing his every move.
Who is this guy? Everyone wanted to know. And bingo, the Tamil Brahmin from Ohio had achieved his first goal—to get noticed. He was on the radar. Donald Trump declared him the debate winner. He had good reason to—Ramaswamy, a true devotee, had called Trump the “best president of the 21st century” during the debate. The conservative media sphere was lit and Ramaswamy’s campaign reportedly raised more than $1 million in the immediate aftermath—a good haul for a newcomer.
The debate performance has put Ramaswamy’s long-shot bid in the realm of reckoning, at least in certain conservative circles. They like what they see. There’s talk of him being Trump’s running mate—a person of colour to balance the ticket who espouses what is called an “anti-anti-racist ideology” that brings joy to the rightwing. To put it bluntly, Ramaswamy is saying the colour of his skin and the scale of his financial success prove America is not racist. If others—Black Americans mainly—are lagging behind, it’s really their own fault. It’s a niche, dangerously simplistic position that some Indian Americans are happy to take.
As Ramaswamy pushed the boundaries of political debate, he gained from the Republicans’ disappointing performance in the 2022 midterms. Party managers debated the need for new faces instead of relying on pro-Trump candidates. The idea that he should run for president was born
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Ramaswamy seemed unflappable as other contenders, including fellow Indian American and his political senior Nikki Haley, repeatedly attacked him for his far-right, disruptive and controversial positions. He grinned back, didn’t miss a beat or crumble. He kept right on, spouting his ten “Truths”: “God is real”, “There are two genders”, “Reverse racism is racism”, and “An open border is no border”, and so on. He claims his “America First 2.0” agenda goes further than Trump’s manifesto. He wants to revive “American national identity” and unleash the economy by whatever means necessary.
He will “drill, frack and burn coal” and decimate what he derisively calls the “climate cult”. He scoffs at scientific evidence for a warming planet and embraces fossil fuels as essential to human prosperity.
He also promises to dramatically deregulate the economy and use the military to end illegal immigration on the US-Mexican border. Extreme?
Wait. He is not done. Ramaswamy’s “revolution” includes shutting down the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Department of Education and moving 75 per cent of the federal employees out of Washington DC to more useful work. His crisp website doesn’t say how his administration would tackle crime or collect taxes sans FBI and IRS. While he is dismantling the “administrative state”, he will also end affirmative action with a stroke of the presidential pen. Clearly, he doesn’t expect to get many Black votes on his way to the White House.
Is this an audacious, attention-seeking ego trip or real politics? Ramaswamy has resonated well enough to climb to third place among Republican contenders in national polls with 9.9 per cent, behind Trump (50 per cent) and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (14.6 per cent). Haley is at 5.3 per cent and also doing better after the debate—many liberals and conservatives declared her the winner. The gap between Trump and the rest is humongous and seems unbridgeable at this time. But Ramaswamy believes he will win with a “landslide” riding on his agenda, age, aptitude and attitude, one might add, all of which his opponents can and will turn into negatives.
Dirty tricks departments of other candidates have been active, trying to find kompromat on Ramaswamy from the time he began making waves on Fox News. An operative working for a political action committee (PAC) supporting DeSantis revealed in May that Ramaswamy had paid an editor to scrub his Wikipedia page and remove potentially damaging information, including the fact that he had received a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship in 2011. Paul Soros was the older brother of George Soros and like him supported liberal and leftist causes. More stuff, especially about being Hindu in a predominantly Christian country, will likely come out against him as the campaign gets into high gear. Other candidates consider him an interloper and a party crasher.
VIVEK RAMASWAMY WAS born in 1985 in Cincinnati, Ohio, to V Ganapathy and Geetha Ramaswamy, both well-educated immigrants who moved to the US in the 1970s. His father worked as an engineer and a patent lawyer for General Electric and his mother as a geriatric psychiatrist at a private institution. As Vivek himself wrote in Nation of Victims—his book on identity politics—he grew up in a “comfortably middle-class family with two incomes” and attended a private school. An accomplished pianist and a tennis player, he was privileged by any metric.
On the campaign trail, however, he tries to colour his past as somewhat of a rags-to-riches story. During the Republican debate he claimed he “didn’t grow up in money”. Perhaps not like a Rockefeller or an Ambani kid but moneyed enough to go to private schools and elite universities. He was earning hundreds of dollars in dividends from the stock portfolio his parents created before he was out of high school. By the time he was at Harvard where he studied biology, his portfolio was fetching thousands of dollars. He identified as a libertarian and became president of the Harvard Political Union, the college debating society. In his free time he rapped under the name Da Vek, doing Eminem songs and his own. Eminem recently barred him from using his lyrics at political events.
While in college, Ramaswamy was a summer intern at Goldman Sachs and the biotech division of a hedge fund. His experience would later result in a 2021 book, Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam. Interestingly, he was already a millionaire when he accepted a Soros fellowship while at Yale law school—his 2011 tax returns show an income of $2,252,209, according to an investigative story by Fox News citing public records. After graduating from Yale, Ramaswamy worked at a hedge fund and started Roivant Sciences, a pharmaceutical company, and made hundreds of millions. His biggest gamble—to bring a cure for Alzheimer’s to market—failed and his company’s value crashed. But he was a billionaire for a brief while and made the cover of Forbes in June 2015.
In between being an anti-woke guru and a strident culture warrior on Fox News and contemplating a career in politics, he started Strive Asset Management with the help of billionaire Peter Thiel, promising investors politics-free investment. On the way he lost some friends for his strident rightwing views but he gained traction as an articulate critic of the social justice movement.
As Ramaswamy pushed the boundaries of political debate, he gained from the Republicans’ disappointing performance in the 2022 midterms. Party managers debated the need for new faces instead of relying on pro-Trump candidates, who mostly bombed at the polls. The idea that he should run for president was born. In interviews he credits his liberal-leaning father and his conservative piano teacher who gave him a biography of Ronald Reagan for sharpening his views. He debated his father during car rides on the news of the day, driven more from a need to be contrarian than from deeply held convictions. “The teenager in me would take the other side of my dad,” he told Politico. Over time being “super contrarian” became a credo.
His views on Trump’s role in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol also evolved, some might say rather conveniently. In Nation of Victims, he had called January 6 a “dark day for democracy” when the “loser of the last election refused to concede the race, claimed the election was stolen, raised hundreds of millions of dollars from loyal supporters….”As a candidate, he blamed “pervasive censorship” and pandemic-related restrictions for motivating rioters, not Trump’s claims.
EYE ON THE PRIZE
EARLY INSTINCTS TURNED more and more provocative as Ramaswamy got deeper into his political avatar. Sometimes his hot takes are not well thought through. His comments that the federal government was perhaps involved in the 9/11 attacks landed him in hot water recently. He tried the age-old escape that he was “misquoted” but the journalist concerned released the audio of the interview on August 22, catching the candidate like a deer in headlights. It wasn’t pretty.
Similarly, Ramaswamy’s election plank to raise the voting age to 25 except for those who serve in the military, work as first responders, or pass a civics test as his parents did when they took US citizenship, has troubled many. “We’re not a direct democracy. We are a *constitutional republic.* We need to revive civic duty among young Americans,” he wrote on Twitter (now X) while announcing the idea. Even his staff was shocked.
How do you advocate disenfranchising young people and expect them to support you? Perhaps, the truth lies elsewhere— Republicans in general are often accused of trying to suppress the youth vote because the young tend to vote for Democrats in greater numbers. The Edison Research National Election Pool exit poll in 2022 showed 63 per cent of those between 18 and 24 years supported Democrats while 35 per cent went for Republicans. Ramaswamy’s restrictions on voting reminded people of literacy tests once used in the South to keep poor Blacks from voting.
But then Ramaswamy’s views on race are radical and often without context to say nothing of his harsh rhetoric which, coming from an upper-caste, privileged son of successful immigrants, invites sharp attacks. His standard argument against giving a break to the underprivileged: “Affirmative action is the single biggest form of institutionalised racism in America today.”
He has called the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement “Big Lavish Mansions” based on revelations of corruption among top BLM officials. He recently compared a prominent Black Congresswoman, Ayanna Pressley, to the “grand wizards of the modern KKK” or the Ku Klux Klan. Pressley had made a comment back in 2019 about token representation within the Democratic Party where black and brown faces did not actually represent voices of those communities. Her comment was about intra-party politics but Ramaswamy revived it as proof of reverse racism.
As the candidate was experiencing a post-debate surge on TV, a white man killed three Black people in Jacksonville, Florida, in a hate crime before shooting himself. The killer left behind enough racist manifestos and swastikas to leave no doubt as to his motives. When Ramaswamy was asked about the murder spree, he blamed it on “the so-called anti-racist movements”, sparking another bout of controversy. Perhaps, that is part of the strategy to stay in the news.
At this point in the 2024 race, the millennial candidate is certainly getting attention but whether he will sustain the momentum and remain a contender for another whole year and more is the question. That is an eternity in politics.