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An Obnoxious, Bigoted Businessman Is Rising in GOP Polls — and It’s Not Trump

After the first GOP debate, Ramaswamy appears to be fighting DeSantis for second place in the Republican primary.

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy talks to members of the media in the spin room following the first debate of the GOP primary season hosted by FOX News at the Fiserv Forum on August 23, 2023, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

At last week’s GOP debate in Wisconsin, Mike Pence spoke for the most minutes, but the candidate who talked the loudest and tangled most aggressively with the rest of the presidential hopefuls was 38-year-old billionaire Vivek Ramaswamy. Ramaswamy railed against everything from the “hoax” of climate change, to U.S. aid to Ukraine, to “woke” politics and social justice movements, firmly claiming his stake in the modern GOP’s know-nothing firmament. In the wake of that debate, his support has solidified among a not-insignificant swath of likely GOP primary voters. In late July, a New York Times poll found Ramaswamy’s support at a mere 2 percent; in August, even before the debate, his numbers started moving up toward 10 percent. Since the debate, many polls have indicated that he has emerged as a credible candidate. He’s now the third-placed GOP contender, slightly behind Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and massively behind Donald Trump. Some polls have even shown him in second place.

Perhaps of more interest: According to some polls, nearly three-quarters of GOP voters who tuned into the debate thought that Ramaswamy performed very well. Others, including those conducted by The New York Times, showed that while a small plurality viewed DeSantis as having won the debate, Ramaswamy came in a close second. Whatever the exact numbers, it’s clear that Ramaswamy, a political neophyte, made large political waves on the stage in Wisconsin last week.

That is, surely, not because of the intellectual acuity of his policy positions: His debate performance showed an arrogant man of stunning opportunism, willing, like Trump, to say absolutely anything to flatter his base — and, on issues such as climate change, to advocate doing nothing in the face of a stunning risk to human well-being. He issued one platitude after another — rehashed from a post on LinkedIn — from “God is real,” to “human flourishing requires fossil fuels” to “the nuclear family is the greatest form of governance known to mankind.” Like an unruly, slightly spoiled child, he interrupted his opponents frequently, stole the spotlight whenever possible — often by simply reaching for the most outrageous line in his arsenal — and sought to combine ideas from Trump’s “American Carnage” inauguration speech with more sunny optimism, a la Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” rhetoric.

Ramaswamy seemed to delight in poking more traditionalist Republicans in the eye. He urged the militarization and closure of the southern border, and a retrenchment away from the U.S.’s global commitments. He issued pro forma celebrations of capitalism — as if his opponents on that GOP stage, those well-known Commies such as Chris Christie and DeSantis, were somehow wobbly on the whole capitalism thing. He leaned into every culture war issue on the books.

Ramaswamy has no political experience, but he does have plenty of soundbites at the ready, carefully tailored to meet the emotional needs of a large segment of the GOP base. Like Trump, he’s a flamboyant business personality, a man who made hundreds of millions of dollars in the biotech and hedge fund worlds, largely through buying up patents, for pennies on the dollar, on promising medicines that, for various reasons, other pharmaceutical companies hadn’t followed up on, and then bringing those drugs to market. Like Trump, he’s banking on a loud mouth and a sense of entitlement growing out of his personal fortune to float him up into the rarefied upper atmosphere of the U.S. political system.

There’s no doubt that the Ivy-League educated Ramaswamy (who has an undergraduate degree in biology from Harvard and a graduate degree in law from Yale) is very, very good at making money, and almost equally good at self-promotion. But there’s every doubt that he really understands the complexities of the political world — or that he really wants to. In fact, the idea that a politically untested businessman — a man who reduces complex public policy to the most banal, simplistic aphorisms — has any right to aspire to the most powerful job on Earth is an example of hubris of an equal, if not even greater, magnitude than that shown by Donald Trump.

In the debate, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence, in particular, forcefully critiqued Ramaswamy for his ultra-isolationist foreign policy, arguing that his proposal to abandon Ukraine to Russia’s tender mercies would ultimately make the world far less stable. Haley also made efforts to critique Ramaswamy’s extraordinarily dangerous position on climate change. Chris Christie used Ramaswamy as a stand-in for the absent Donald Trump, beating up on him forcefully whenever the chance presented itself.

But Ramaswamy didn’t flinch. In fact, the more his opponents critiqued him, the more he seemed to relish the fight. In the week after the debate, with Ramaswamy’s bump in the polls, his rivals have continued to critique him, arguing that his foreign policy ideas, in particular, are dangerous to U.S. security.

It’s hard to see how Ramaswamy can thread a path to victory in 2024. He’s too similar in tone and bombast to Trump to win over moderate voters. And it’s highly unlikely that large numbers of Trump’s cultist followers will suddenly shift their loyalties to a mini-Trump. So, what was happening on that debate stage?

Perhaps the wealthy young business mogul was auditioning for a spot as Trump’s vice presidential candidate — after all, The Donald is fixated on how his acolytes perform on TV. Or maybe he was angling for a cabinet position in a future GOP administration. He could simply be seeding the ground for a more plausible presidential run two or three election cycles down the road. Whatever his motivations, it was quite a show. Ramaswamy has arrived on the national stage with a splash. He’s loathsome in his policies, ignorant in his prescriptions, dangerous in his denial of science and his willingness to pour oil onto burning culture war fires. He is, in other words, a perfect fit for the GOP of the 2020s.

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