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Vivek Ramaswamy’s polite style masks his MAGA extremism

The outsider biotech executive has made a surprising splash with an unusual political persona.
Collage of GOP 2024 Candidate Vivek Ramaswamy overlaid with red and yellow square cutouts
Leila Register / NBC News; Getty Images

The first GOP primary debate features 8 candidates — and one Trump-sized elephant in the room. Are any of the hopefuls fit to be president? Read this installment of MSNBC’s 2024 profile series and find out.

Vivek Ramaswamy’s White House campaign has been the outsider success story of the Republican presidential primary season. Ramaswamy, a 37-year-old former biotech executive with no political experience, leaped from fledgling pundit last year to third place in primary polls this summer, outstripping more prominent Republican candidates like former Vice President Mike Pence.

Ideologically speaking, Ramaswamy has positioned himself in close alignment with or to the right of former President Donald Trump on most policies, and he has suggested that he’ll succeed where Trump failed with an “America First 2.0” policy agenda. In many ways, that places him in a similar camp with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has embraced a war on so-called wokeness in a bid to appeal to the core MAGA crowd.

Ramaswamy is a full-fledged MAGA zealot in the form of a sunny debate bro.

Yet at the same time, the way Ramaswamy has presented his candidacy also has some distinct features. Whereas DeSantis has been reluctant (until recently) to engage with the mainstream media, Ramaswamy has relished a “say yes to anything” media strategy, engaging directly — and critically — in interviews with major non-conservative media outlets, such as NBC News, CNN and MSNBC. Ramaswamy exudes confidence with his smooth rhetorical delivery and his ability to debate people in ideologically hostile territory, in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of Pete Buttigieg in the 2020 presidential primaries. Ramaswamy’s rhetoric is also couched politely in the language of unity and compassion, which can disguise his reactionary policies as a warmer, kinder, big tent-style conservatism. Make no mistake: Ramaswamy is a full-fledged MAGA zealot in the form of a sunny debate bro.

Like many right-wing populists, Ramaswamy has elite credentials. He studied at Harvard for his undergraduate degree and attended Yale Law School (where he met JD Vance, another man who would move from finance into right-wing politics). He worked at a hedge fund for many years, and then he founded a pharmaceutical company that helped him make a huge sum of money. Notably, in all his self-mythologizing, Ramaswamy tends not to linger on the fact that his company failed, in a rather spectacular way, to bring an Alzheimer’s drug to market. Forbes estimates his net worth at over $600 million, and he has lent his own campaign millions of dollars

Ramaswamy’s first major foray into political commentary was his 2021 book, “Woke Inc.,” in which he contends that corporations cynically cloak themselves in social justice politics. Many leftists would agree with that premise, but Ramaswamy’s fixation on liberal corporate hypocrisy is more of a gotcha than a coherent theory of the world, and it’s certainly not a serious reckoning with concentrated wealth. He criticizes socially conscious investing both as inappropriately political and as window dressing, but his solution embraces investment strategies that completely disregard corporations’ impacts on the world, and he champions shareholders’ financial interests above all. When The New Yorker’s Sheelah Kolhatkar pressed him on the question of how extreme concentration of wealth corrupts politics, he appeared bored and didn’t engage other than to imply it wasn’t a major problem.

The book made Ramaswamy a regular on Fox News and other right-wing media outlets. In February, he announced his bid for the White House on former Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s show.

Much like most of the MAGA political class, Ramaswamy centers his opening bid on resentment of rising anti-bigotry in mainstream liberal American culture. In his campaign video introducing himself to voters, Ramaswamy claims that his personal success would have been “impossible” had he been born just 20 years later, implying that today’s “woke” culture is at odds with meritocracy. America is plagued by a “national identity crisis,” Ramaswamy warns, in which “faith, patriotism, hard work and family have disappeared” and have been replaced by “one secular religion after another, from Covidism to climate-ism and gender ideology.”

Ramaswamy’s policy platform is filled with Trump-aligned MAGA orthodoxy, with sprinkles of libertarianism and some clickbait proposals tossed in to spice things up: He calls affirmative action “a cancer on our national soul” and wants to “end unlawful DEI education,” referring to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. He has promised to abolish the Education Department on his first day in office. He wants to destroy the social services that were passed into law under Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program. He calls climate change activists a “cult” and says the solution to global warming is to “drill, frack, burn coal.” He has pledged to launch military strikes in Mexico to deal with the influx of drugs into the country and to use drones to secure the border. On the war in Ukraine, he has proposed letting Russia keep the territory it has seized as part of a deal to end the war.

He has promised to carry on Trump’s legacy in office, and he has staunchly supported the former president and said he would pardon him if he were to be convicted of the crimes he has been charged with. (One exception: He claims he wouldn’t pardon Trump if he is convicted of “selling secrets for private personal gain to foreign adversaries.”) He has taken ambiguous positions on the Jan. 6 insurrection, arguing that Trump isn’t to blame for what happened that day, but also saying Trump behaved poorly that day. (Ramaswamy apparently believes “censorship” was responsible for Jan. 6 — no, I don’t understand, either.)

Ramaswamy is fully a MAGA creature, and, like Trump, he likes to use transgressive, incendiary statements to set off media buzz. But that’s not to say his rhetorical style is fundamentally Trumpian. His affect is more performatively intellectual, with references to Thomas Hobbes and Friedrich Hayek in his speeches. As Maya Bodnick has pointed out at the Slow Boring newsletter, Ramaswamy is far more polite and willing to create at least the appearance of respect for his interlocutors even when he “respectfully disagrees” with his centrist or liberal interviewers. Ramaswamy is also one of the few prominent candidates in the race who makes a point of characterizing his agenda as a potentially unifying one (even if that’s delusional). His campaign video opens and closes with references to Martin Luther King Jr. — an appalling appropriation, but it’s hard to imagine Trump doing the same. This style might make Ramaswamy appear to some party moderates as less extreme than he is while allowing him to strike a contrast with the race’s two front-runners, Trump and DeSantis.

Ramaswamy has made an unexpected splash through a unique presentation of his ideas. But ultimately his slickness and seeming politeness mask his commitment to hard-core MAGA principles. His policies would do a lot of damage to America regardless of how he dresses them up.

Read the rest of our GOP profile series here: