By Kenneth Tiven
The first Republican presidential debate took place last week and one of the candidates could have come straight out of a Bollywood production. Ex-president Donald Trump did not take part, but one man who did and is creating waves is Vivek Ramaswamy. It seems improbable, but remember in 2015 when a playboy real estate man in New York City announced he wanted to be president? He succeeded despite having no political experience, never working outside his father’s company and generating thousands of civil lawsuits for bad business practices. America has long admired magicians and scoundrels, even better when they are the same. Three years after leaving office, Trump is under indictment in four criminal cases relating to his behaviour and involvement in a coup against his government.
In the opening Republican presidential debate Wednesday night, Ramaswamy took every opportunity to demonstrate he deserved to be in the same room with more experienced politicians. He drew significant applause from the arena’s large MAGA leaning audience for his embrace of ideals and attitudes that mirror the former president. Trump skipped the event to embarrass the Fox News network and to make clear to his supporters that he considers all seven other Republicans inferior candidates for the White House.
Ramaswamy’s energetic pitch and willingness to verbally spar with other candidates was obvious. That most are old enough to be his parents was not an obstacle for the 38-year-old. Several of the other six candidates found ways to point out his youth and political inexperience, the most critical coming from former vice president Mike Pence.
Vivek Ramaswamy is, in that sense, less controversial than most of the candidates. He was born in America in 1985 to parents with professional skills who had emigrated from Kerala. He exudes confidence, having succeeded at two Ivy League universities, then making millions buying and selling companies. His Libertarian anti-woke conservative policies are delivered with confidence, yet he accords respect for the people who disagree. This behaviour distinguishes him from most American politicians who disdain adverse reactions to their “facts”. Unlike Donald Trump, whose self-importance oozes from his every social network note or speech, Ramaswamy is articulate and multi-faceted. Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, his life has always been about demonstrating confidence and skills against the bias of too many Americans who regard Asian newcomers with suspicion.
Respect for Indians in many levels of business, academic, and medical circles in America is substantial. This helps Ramaswamy, yet a demonstrated historical reality is that white Christian voters prefer to vote for similar candidates on the assumption of shared values. Ex-president Trump defied this with his appeal to recreate an America dominated by old attitudes and standards that ignore class or colour issues. One political observer suggested a landslide for Democrats if Ramaswamy is the 2024 GOP candidate, citing the foreign-sounding name, lack of political experience, and being a Hindu as significant obstacles. What’s different today, he added, is the profound, deep-seated ignorance of the general population, especially among the Republican voters. Another journalist said of the MAGA movement: “It hasn’t dawned on them he is an ‘other’, but one who thinks as they do.”
Ramaswamy practices Hinduism, but with significant knowledge of other religions gained attending a Catholic high school in Ohio before heading to an Ivy League university education. His parents arrived in the USA with advanced educations; his father is an engineer, and his mother is in medicine. It surprised no one that young Vivek would excel academically, the classic overachiever: an accomplished pianist, a nationally ranked tennis player, and the valedictorian of his Jesuit high school. Absorbing the culture of teenage Americans, he learned to perform passable rap music. His science and math skills gave him a way of looking at the world that most young people don’t have. Many of the most successful entrepreneurs in the past few decades have been people who could see opportunity where others saw obstacles, heard white noise, and did not go forward. Is Ramaswamy gifted in this respect like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Ted Turner, and others? One political expert contradicts this observation, saying: “I see a guy who is smart enough to figure out how to exploit the system effectively without regard for actually accomplishing something or ethics. That he is somewhat immoral is an attraction to the Right.”
His business focus has been pharmaceutical firms that can create new products based on failed drug research, a form of buy cheap and sell high when it works. Occasionally, he has called himself a scientist, but mostly he’s a smart lawyer with a biology degree. His Libertarian beliefs in a regulation-free economic system appeal to Trump’s corporate backers. His politics are similar to a noisy handful of Republicans with the same educational pedigree—Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Ron DeSantis. They have a narrow view of benefits the government should provide for all citizens while having a broad perception of what behaviours a government should regulate. Would he fit in nicely with India’s upper-caste government outlook on economic and social growth?
Young conservatives see something novel, a Republican candidate who inspires and, in his case, also performs as “Da Vek” a rap musician (he is an Eminem fan). His spouse Apoorva is a surgeon, and they have two small children. Ramaswamy says his family and faith in God help keep him humble while running for the highest office in America. “I think I derive a lot of the humility from my wife, who is a leader in her own way, in her own unique world.” At age 38, he is barely past the minimum age for president of 35 and clearly from a different generation than most presidential aspirants.
However climate issues, highlighted these past few weeks by firestorms in Hawaii and hurricane conditions on the west coast of America, get little attention from Ramaswamy. Or when they do, he pivots to blame: “My heart goes out to those people—I think it is shameful that the Biden administration has not done more, that they’ll do more for Ukraine than they’re doing for our own fellow Americans in Hawaii right now,” criticizing Biden for not flying there immediately. Vivek could not have known that Biden was hosting an unpublicized historic meeting with leaders of Japan and South Korea at the White House for a joint approach to Pacific region (China) issues. After his diplomatic success, Biden flew to Hawaii to review recovery efforts.
Vivek’s strategy seems clear. He dismisses being a vice-president. “I’m not interested in a different position in the government,” Ramaswamy said on Fox News. “Frankly, I’d drive change through the private sector sooner than becoming number two or three in the federal government.” But if Trump isn’t the candidate, for whatever reason, Ramaswamy is positioning himself as the closest alternative. More intelligent, less antagonistic, a logical choice philosophically to lead MAGA Republicans to victory by attracting a wider circle of voters than even Trump could. As has so often been the case with business people looking at government as just another business to squeeze for profit, Ramaswamy wants to translate his ideology into less regulation, suggesting he would fire 75% of federal employees, abolish a raft of government agencies, including the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—which handled much of the US response to the Covid-19 pandemic—and the Department of Education. Signaling a growing closeness with Elon Musk, he told a Fox News interviewer, “What Musk did at Twitter is a good example of what I want to do to the administrative state.”
Many people of all political flavours in the USA think civic pride, identity and duty have diminished. The reasons vary widely, but for Ramaswamy, the blame comes down to affirmative action—efforts designed to ensure colleges and businesses offer equal opportunities to people of colour, people of all genders and sexual orientations. He called this “a cancer on our national soul.” Long-time political observers think his language choice has roots in Ronald Reagan’s losing the Republican nomination in 1976, which included the famous “war on welfare queens” speech. Campaigning with this language will disregard several blocks of voters in a nation on the leading edge of a significant demographic shift less perceptible 47 years ago. These ideas will not appeal to Black or Latino Americans. Census data suggests that by 2045, the nation will be minority white at 49.7 %. By 2034, the data suggests one in five Americans will be over 65 years of age, which makes the Republican desire to cut social security and other government programmes, not a good idea. Even when recycling old generalities, he seems to ignore reality. Claiming to reaffirm “those basic rules of the road: meritocracy, the idea that you get ahead in this country, not on the colour of your skin, but on the content of your character.” Fine, but that requires ignoring the proof that colour and ethnicity barriers lurked throughout society in housing, education, and jobs to keep people from doing just that.
He is also an outsider on foreign policy issues. Criticized for remarks about the Ukraine-Russia war, when he said: “the United States’ goal should ‘not be for Putin to lose’ the Russia-Ukraine war”. CNN anchor Jim Acosta asked Ramaswamy about Putin. “I would freeze the current lines of control, and that would leave parts of the Donbas region with Russia,” he responded. “I would also further make a commitment that NATO would not admit Ukraine to NATO.” Acosta told the presidential hopeful, “That sounds like a win for Putin?” Ramaswamy countered, “Our goal should not be for Putin to lose. Our goal should be for America to win.”
Ramaswamy is comfortable with people and happy to chat, unlike Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, another wannabe president who always seems ill at ease with strangers. Both appeared at the Iowa State Fair seeking votes in that state’s upcoming primary election. Onlookers seemed enthused by Ramaswamy’s combination of extreme rightwing populism and youthful energy and his ready willingness to engage with them directly.
Ramaswamy’s style and rise have attracted attention from a DeSantis advisor who wrote a document encouraging the Florida governor to “take a sledgehammer to Vivek Ramaswamy” in any debate and to name-call his competitor “‘Fake Vivek’ or ‘Vivek the Fake.’” In response, Ramaswamy said on Fox News, “We have a choice between super PAC puppets who are being propped up with prepped lines and millions of dollars to go along with it, versus, in my case, I’m an outsider.”
—The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels