Washington, DC – Vivek Ramaswamy wants to be the next Donald Trump: an outsider who will take on the United States political establishment, win the presidency and push a hard-right agenda from the Oval Office.
“I’m more similar to Trump in 2015 than Trump today is to Trump in 2015,” Ramaswamy said of the former president in an interview this month with British actor and podcast host Russell Brand.
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Brand replied, jokingly: “Trumper than Trump, trumping Trump on Trumpness.”
Two weeks later, Ramaswamy would deliver a Trump-like performance at the first Republican debate of the 2024 presidential election season – admonishing opponents, relishing attacks and advancing unorthodox policy proposals.
And political pundits and media commentators across the country took notice: When the customary post-debate analyses rolled out in the US media after the event on Wednesday, Ramaswamy was widely touted as the night’s winner.
“Ramaswamy, who really dominated a lot of the discussion and a lot of the vitriol – it was actually a good night for him,” John Feehery, a Republican pundit, told Al Jazeera in a television interview after the debate.
But for all the praise he has received, Ramaswamy is pushing numerous fringe ideas that liberals describe as dangerous, including climate change denialism and the prospect of military operations against drug dealers in Mexico.
Ramaswamy remains far behind Trump in the Republican nomination race, according to recent polls, but his rise highlights the party’s willingness to support candidates with unconventional, hardline ideas – and no previous experience in politics.
Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman who is now an outspoken critic of the party, said in a social media post on Friday that the Republican base is seeking a “bully” or an “authoritarian” candidate.
“That’s Trump. If not Trump, the only two other people on that stage the other night who fit that job description are [Florida Governor Ron] DeSantis & Ramaswamy. Nobody else.”
Who is Vivek Ramaswamy?
The son of Indian immigrants to the US, Ramaswamy, 38, made millions in pharmaceuticals and biotech before authoring a book in 2021 titled Woke, Inc, which put him on the map of right-wing politics.
In the book, he raged against the push for sustainable and equitable business policies, known as environmental, social and corporate governance, or ESG.
From there, the Ohio-born and -raised Ramaswamy began appearing on right-wing media, including Fox News, where he would admonish liberals’ focus on identity politics. His rhetoric also seized on conservatives’ anger against university affirmative action policies, in which race is a factor in admissions, that the Supreme Court banned in June.
Ramaswamy has promoted the idea of race-blind “meritocracy” in opposition to policies aimed at bolstering diversity. “Reverse racism is racism,” he often says.
Despite his media appearances, few people would have recognised Ramaswamy’s name when he launched his campaign for the White House this year.
In the span of a few months, however, he went from a largely unknown figure at the national level to competing with DeSantis for second place in opinion polls in the Republican presidential contest.
“To many Americans, the idea of an outsider being able to correct what’s wrong in Washington is very appealing, particularly – especially for Republicans – if that outsider is a successful businessperson,” said Todd Belt, professor and political management programme director at George Washington University.
“And I think that his youth and energy is appealing to people.”
What are his policies?
Ramaswamy has poured $15m of his own money into his campaign, according to federal election records.
A confident orator who nearly always appears to be smiling, the father of two emphasises faith, family and patriotism as the answer to the perceived ills of society. Although he is Hindu, he often stresses “Judeo-Christian values”.
The candidate studied biology at Harvard University and holds a degree from Yale Law School. Ramaswamy also has presented himself as a uniting candidate trying to take the Republican Party from merely expressing grievances to coming up with solutions.
Despite the vigour of his delivery, many of Ramaswamy’s ideas are impractical – if not outlandish – and go well beyond the powers of the presidency, his critics say.
For example, he has called for raising the voting age from 18 to 25 unless young people pass a civics exam or fulfil a “national service requirement” by serving in the military or as emergency responders. But that would require a constitutional amendment and is unlikely.
He also has said he would eliminate the Department of Education and the Internal Revenue Service, the US tax agency, and would shut down the FBI – the backbone of federal law enforcement in the US – and have its agents absorbed into other agencies. That, too, would be a tall order.
And at a time when the climate crisis is fuelling wildfires and extreme weather across the world, he is running on a pro-fossil fuel platform.
“Drill, frack & burn coal: abandon the climate cult & unshackle nuclear energy,” his campaign website says. He went even further at the debate on Wednesday, saying, “The climate change agenda is a hoax.”
‘Radical’ climate policy
Belt called Ramaswamy’s response to climate change shocking. “That just really showed a tremendous amount of misunderstanding of the issue and a really radical policy agenda,” he said.
Yet at the debate in Wisconsin, the audience consistently cheered for Ramaswamy, especially as he praised Trump and attacked the former president’s critics – namely ex-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
“Vivek Ramaswamy won tonight’s debate and should get a good debate bounce in the polls. He was articulate, comfortable, smiling, coherent, succinct and oozing intellect throughout,” conservative journalist David Brody wrote in a social media post.
But according to Belt, one of the reasons Ramaswamy’s debate performance drew so much attention may be due in part to his ability to benefit from the event’s format to maximise his air time. Moderators offered a 30-second rebuttal to candidates who were singled out by others.
“He was saying things that frankly exhibited a lack of understanding of how the government works and the powers of the presidency,” Belt said.
“The other candidates were trying to expose his ignorance and, in doing so, used his name and ended up giving him more time.”
Ramaswamy was at the centre of the most contentious moment of the debate when he said he would not send more funds to Ukraine if elected president.
The US has provided billions of dollars in military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine since Russia invaded the country last year. But Ramaswamy said that policy is “disastrous”, arguing that the US should focus on protecting its own southern border.
He went on to hit out at Christie and former Vice President Mike Pence, both of whom have visited Ukraine and met its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“I find it offensive that we have professional politicians who will make a pilgrimage to Kyiv, to their pope, Zelenskyy, without doing the same for the people in Maui or the south side of Chicago,” he said.
Former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley hit back, accusing Ramaswamy of favouring Russian President Vladimir Putin – whom she called “a murderer” – over a US ally.
1. God is real.
2. There are two genders.
3. Human flourishing requires fossil fuels.
4. Reverse racism is racism.
5. An open border is no border.
6. Parents determine the education of their children.
7. The nuclear family is the greatest form of governance known to… pic.twitter.com/MTjhqquwl4
— Vivek Ramaswamy (@VivekGRamaswamy) August 24, 2023
While Republicans in Congress have overwhelmingly supported aid to Ukraine, the party’s supporters are divided on the issue. So although Ramaswamy was in the minority on the debate stage, his stance on the conflict will appeal to some voters.
His campaign told The Associated Press news agency on Thursday that he raised $450,000 in mostly small donations in the hours after the debate.
Still, his fundraising remains far behind Trump and DeSantis. The Florida governor’s campaign raised $1m in the 24 hours following the debate, ABC News reported on Friday.
And the fact remains that Ramaswamy is unlikely to loosen Trump’s grip on the Republican nomination, even if the debate propelled his candidacy into the spotlight for now.
“Ramaswamy is having his moment,” Belt said.