The Limits of Vivek Ramaswamy’s Racist Con Game

The Limits of Vivek Ramaswamy’s Racist Con Game

The Limits of Vivek Ramaswamy’s Racist Con Game

While the emerging GOP star benefits from the right’s version of affirmative action, his ugly response to the Jacksonville shootings shows the cost—and constraints—of his strategy.


Improbably, Vivek Ramaswamy is having his moment in the sun, emerging as the unexpected breakout star of the Republican presidential nomination race. Although Donald Trump remains the overwhelming favorite as front-runner, Ramaswamy is rapidly catching up with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for the number-two spot. This is a remarkable turn of events given that DeSantis enjoys overwhelming financial support from the GOP donor class and, until recently, robust cheerleading from Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. But the rise of Ramaswamy along with DeSantis’s manifest failure to consolidate the anti-Trump vote has given Murdoch and other GOP plutocrats pause.

In Wednesday night’s Trumpless debate, Ramaswamy took command of the stage as the most charismatic and glib speaker—­as well as the one most likely to be attacked by fellow candidates. These attacks, focusing on Ramaswamy’s lack of experience and heterodox skepticism of military assistance to Ukraine only served to strengthen the impression that he was emerging as a major threat to the more establishment candidates. On Thursday, Morning Consult released a post-debate poll showing that Trump retained a commanding lead of 58 percent in the primaries, with DeSantis trailing at 14 percent and Ramaswamy at 11 percent. All other candidates had single digits.

Being in a tight race for distant second might seem like a trivial achievement. But Ramaswamy’s rise means DeSantis’s chances of credibly challenging Trump are rapidly diminishing. That alone changes the dynamics of the race. Further, Ramaswamy now has a plausible chance to be Trump’s running mate—as well as a major GOP power player in future races.

As fate would have it, Ramaswamy’s surge coincided with a racist atrocity, which helped to clarify the source of the candidate’s popularity. On Saturday, a 21-year-old white man named Ryan Christopher Palmeter murdered three Black people in a Dollar Store in Jacksonville, Fla. The motive for the crime is no mystery. Palmeter, who took his own life after the attack, wrote racist manifestos and decorated his guns with swastikas. Prior to the attack, he had stalked a historically Black educational institution, Edward Waters university.

In television appearances on Sunday news programs, Ramaswamy made a number of incendiary and obscene statements that blamed the mass murder on anti-racism. Speaking on CNN, Ramaswamy said, “The reality is we’ve created such a racialized culture in this country in the last several years…. as the last few burning embers of racism were burning out, we have a culture in this country largely created by media and establishment and universities and politicians that throw kerosene on that racism.” He added, “And I can think of no better way to fuel racism in this country than to take something away from other people on the basis of their skin color.” Ramaswamy made similar remarks on NBC’s Meet the Press, where he claimed to be “genuinely worried that we’re seeing a new wave of anti-Black and anti-Hispanic racism as a consequence of the so-called anti-racist movements.”

These remarks, along with the general tenor of his campaign, make clear that Ramaswamy belongs to a particular political niche: the person of color who gains prominence by avowing an anti-anti-racist ideology that is gratifying to right-wing voters. As such, Ramaswamy is heir to presidential candidates like Alan Keyes (who ran in 1996, 2000, and 2008), Herman Cain (2000 and 2012), and Ben Carson (2016). All these candidates were Black men who affirmed a deeply conservative racial politics that cited their own meritocratic success as proof that systematic racism was no barrier to achievement. They all enjoyed brief flourishes of popularity in the presidential primaries—until Republican voters took a closer look. Arguably and ironically, all were thwarted in part by racism, being unable to convince either the majority or a plurality of the GOP to back a Black candidate.

Such candidates have had a niche in the GOP for nearly three decades, and Ramaswamy is satisfying the same perennial GOP appetite for a person of color who will bless the racial status quo as just. But there is one important distinction. Ramaswamy is a person of color—but he’s not Black. He’s of Tamil descent. As such, his message is a harsher one. He’s not saying as the earlier candidates did, “As a Black man who succeeded, I prove that America is not racist. Racism is a thing of the past.” Ramaswamy’s message rather is, “As a person of color, I prove that America is not racist. And if Black Americans are faltering, that is due to their own faults.”

This harsher twist on the narrative of minority success explains why Ramaswamy is the GOP’s POC star in the era of Trump and the backlash to Black Lives Matter (BLM). As Sheelah Kolhatkar noted in a 2022 profile in The New Yorker, “A strain of animus toward Black Americans runs through much of Ramaswamy’s public commentary.” He’s said BLM should mean “Big Lavish Mansions.” He claims that a portly white classmate at Harvard was lower on the social order than “some athletic Black kid who came and got a place on the basketball team.” He argues, “Affirmative action is the single biggest form of institutionalized racism in America today.”

Ramaswamy has strongly praised right-wing intellectual Richard Hanania, who only a few years ago echoed neo-Nazi ideology as a virulent advocate for a white ethnostate. Although he’s disavowed his earlier Nazi views, Hanania remains committed to scientific racism, now holding (reasonably enough) that the racist hierarchy he desires can be maintained in existing liberal capitalism.

Ramaswamy occupies an exposed position as a person of color openly flirting with the white nationalist politics that have been normalized under Trump. This is a precarious stance, and while his potential right-wing followers might love what Ramaswamy says, many of them still don’t like who he is. Among evangelical Christians, there is wariness of Ramaswamy’s Hinduism, which he’s tried to deflect by repeatedly affirming his monotheism.

In July, Ramaswamy tweeted, “Being American isn’t about whether you can ‘trace your ancestry to this land.’ It’s about whether you’re committed to our nation & it core ideal.” This banal assertion of civic nationalism led to a harsh response from a right-wing poster who wrote, “Below you see the limits of high IQ candidates who don’t actually feel rooted in this place.” Ramaswamy retweeted this exchange and described his xenophobic critic as “a thoughtful guy, grateful that he’s surfacing a debate we need to have on the right.” Because of his politics, Ramaswamy has become a sycophant to people who regard him with racist disdain.

This exchange illustrates the core of Ramaswamy’s problem: While there are many white racists who are gratified to hear their ideas echoed by a person of color, there are also many white racists who can never forget that Ramaswamy has brown skin. The racist con game Ramaswamy is playing might get you a seat at the table, but it can never win.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy