Politics / January 17, 2024

Vivek Ramaswamy Crashes and Burns

On Tuesday, the anti-woke entrepreneur dropped out of the GOP presidential race.

Chris Lehmann
Vivek Ramaswamy Holds His Caucus Night Party In Iowa

Vivek Ramaswamy, with his wife, Apoorva T. Ramaswamy, speaks at his caucus night event at the Surety Hotel on January 15, 2024, in Des Moines, Iowa.

(Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images)

It’s a tidy parable about GOP politics in the Trumpocene: A brash billionaire provocateur positions himself as the heroic guardian of the pieties of self-made success, and then collapses into a petulant litany of grievance, xenophobia, and conspiracy mongering. As of Tuesday, Vivek Ramaswamy, the sketchy biotech financier who ran his 2024 campaign for the presidency as Donald Trump’s Gen Z Mini-Me, has departed from the MAGA playbook for obtaining maximum national power: After a disappointing fourth-place showing in the Iowa caucuses, netting him just 8 percent of the vote in a race that allotted delegates by percentage results, Ramaswamy announced that he was pulling the plug on his candidacy.

Like the flailing campaign of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who wheezed his way toward an anemic second-place finish in Iowa, Ramaswamy’s presidential run points up the acute limitations of Trump mimicry as electoral strategy. But where DeSantis has run as a pluperfect ideological enhancement of Trumpism, Ramaswamy mostly followed the path of rhetorical belligerence and ever-expanding complements of camera-ready paranoia. There was always a core tension between Ramaswamy’s karaoke-style MAGA refrains about woke takeovers, border invasions, and deep-state perfidy and his pitch from the C-suites, based on his pledge to preserve the sainted American meritocracy. How could an achievement-based private sector spontaneously reclaim its prerogatives in a social order honeycombed with scheming elite apostles of CRT, DEI, and other acronymic affronts to libertarian orthodoxies?

Ramaswamy didn’t bother trying to explicate such analytic tensions; instead, he just amped up the MAGA sloganeering to 11, and tried to outshout and out-pander his non-Trump rivals in the GOP field. He told reporters prior to the third Republican presidential debate in Miami that his strategy was to be “unhinged,” and that was one campaign pledge that commanded his unyielding fidelity. In that performance alone, he called Ukraine President Voldymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, “a Nazi…in cargo pants” and, sensing that his rivals were running short on novel ways to bomb Mexico and kill cartel leaders there, pledged to enact similar draconian measures to militarize the country’s northern border with Canada, since “you have to skate to where the puck is.” He also darkly characterized January 6 as “an inside job” and cast doubt on official accounts of the 9/11 terror attacks—both feints into conspiracy mode that seemed to serve little electoral purpose beyond further stimulating the grievance-addled nerve ends of MAGA nation.

Such frenetic Trump cosplay never seemed likely to land in any serious way with the MAGA faithful. Ramaswamy faced an additional hurdle in appealing as a lifelong Hindu to an Iowa GOP electorate that’s two-thirds evangelical—a gap that he sought to bridge with frequent allusions to Bible verses, and a 10-truths stump speech that began with the affirmation “God is real.” Toward the end of his campaign, Ramaswamy’s usual manic lust for attention seemed to fade. Even his signature antigovernment vow to shitcan half the federal workforce (a proportion he later desperately upped to three-fourths) pretty much at random during his first year in office, felt like a tired riff on the master’s “You’re fired!” catchphrase from The Apprentice.

As he sought to punch through to the true-believing MAGA base in Iowa, Ramaswamy also took a big tactical risk in dismissing Trump’s own viability in the 2024 election, again darkly intoning that an all-powerful yet ill-specified political elite is determined “to eliminate Trump from contention and trot in their puppet to the White House.” Ramaswamy nonetheless awkwardly tried to telegraph his own fealty in making this pitch, circulating a photo on the platform formerly known as Twitter in which supporters sported T-shirts reading “Save Trump, Vote Vivek.” Such displays soon brought down the wrath of Trump, who notified his TruthSocial followers that the former MAGA lapdog was now working to “disguise his support in the form of deceitful campaign tricks. Very sly, but a vote for Vivek is a vote for the ‘other side’—don’t get duped by this. Vote for ‘TRUMP,’ don’t waste your vote! Vivek is not MAGA.” Trump campaign flacks took up the same refrain; senior Trump campaign Chris LaCivita groused on Twitter that Ramswamy was “this campaign’s number one fraud,” and that “if you support @realDonaldTrump, you sure as hell don’t vote for this FAKE.”

This explosion of MAGA-branded rancor has effectively closed off the one remaining rationale for a Ramaswamy candidacy—to position himself as a kind of MAGA-fied Dan Quayle, i.e., a next-generation-branded running mate on a presidential ticket seeking to convey some sort of symbolic appeal to a younger electorate. Yet that pitch was always going to be a hard sell to a terminally vain septuagenarian at the top of the ticket who gleefully recirculates videos, paintings, and social media posts depicting him as an ultrabuff superhero, wrestler, and all-purpose messiah. No, the final humiliation for arch-capitalist Vivek Ramaswamy was that his candidacy was a product that the market firmly rejected at every turn. That message was underlined in the deflating epilogue to the announcement of his suspended campaign: He was, of course, endorsing the very man who branded him an agent of non-MAGA deceit. Call it a crash course in the actual workings of the fabled American meritocracy.

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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