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Vivek Ramaswamy’s rise to semi-prominence, explained

Is he the GOP’s candidate of ideas — or a grifter?

Vivek Ramaswamy stands in a ballroom, wearing a suit, arms crossed.
Entrepreneur and political activist Vivek Ramaswamy waits to take the stage during the Vision 2024 National Conservative Forum at the Charleston Area Convention Center in Charleston, South Carolina, on March 18, 2023.
Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Donald Trump is a known quantity. Ron DeSantis is struggling. A plethora of other traditional GOP politicians, some declared and some not, have so far failed to catch on.

Into the void has stepped ... Vivek Ramaswamy.

The 37-year-old former biotech CEO and first-time candidate has been omnipresent in the media. He’s been campaigning vigorously in the early states. And in recent months, he’s pulled into third place in national polling, which will place him center stage with DeSantis at Wednesday’s first GOP primary debate (since Trump is not attending).

That is not exactly a poll surge that terrifies Trump just yet, but it’s still impressive for an unknown to rise to that level. Ramaswamy has gotten to this point through a combination of talent, message, and money. After making an estimated half-billion-dollar fortune from his biotech startup ($15 million of which he’s put into his campaign so far), Ramaswamy became an outspoken commentator criticizing “woke capitalism,” frequently spotlighted on Fox News. His pocketbook and networking ability also helped him get onto the conservative groups event circuit.

The mainstream media, meanwhile, has realized Ramaswamy is ready and willing to take any interview, and that he makes for good TV, though it could come at a cost for the journalist conducting the interview. During a CNN appearance, host Don Lemon became exasperated with Ramaswamy’s strange historical claims about the National Rifle Association’s role in the civil rights movement, and huffed, “It’s insulting that you’re sitting here, whatever ethnicity you are, ‘splaining to me what it’s like to be Black in America.” Lemon was fired by CNN days later, and the interview reportedly played a role. Ramaswamy had been talking nonsense, but what did that matter? He’d owned the lib.

Vivek Ramaswamy in a suit and tie sits at a glass table with a Meet the Press coffee mug before him.
Ramaswamy appears on Meet the Press on April 30, 2023.
William B. Plowman/NBC via Getty Images

Ramaswamy is viewed with contempt by DeSantis supporters, who note that he tends to criticize the Florida governor particularly harshly, and argue that he’s a grifter who’s effectively working to ensure Trump’s renomination. (“The thing I like about Vivek is that he only has good things to say about ‘President Trump,’” Trump wrote on Truth Social.) But Ramaswamy rose to political semi-prominence because he is effectively surfacing and articulating ideas that key into what some on the right are currently obsessed with.

To track the development of those ideas, I read Ramaswamy’s three books, reviewed much of his political commentary, and interviewed him. “I think I have great — perfect comfort in tackling some of the most touchy subjects relating to identity,” Ramaswamy told me in May.

He started his foray into politics by critiquing the intermingling of progressive politics with business, then moved on to rebut what he calls the left’s “identitarian vision grounded in race,” and is now arguing for a renewed focus on “merit” throughout society. The first two causes have been enthusiastically received on the right; the jury’s still out on the third.

But there’s a two-sidedness to Ramaswamy. He pledges that he wants to unite the country, yet his marquee campaign proposal is making sure Black people can no longer benefit from affirmative action. He has claimed that trans people “more often than not” have a “mental illness” and has denounced the “trans cult.” He styles himself as willing to speak “truths” on controversial issues, while offering a policy agenda untethered from legal restraint or practical reality — for instance, he’s proposed revoking voting rights for 18- to 24-year-olds, unless they meet certain qualifications.

In other words, he’s pushing the right buttons to gain a following in the Republican Party of 2023.

The critic of “woke capitalism”

Ramaswamy has long had an interest in politics. In college at Harvard, he called himself a libertarian, headed the Harvard Political Union, and wrote an op-ed opposing an activist campaign for higher wages for Harvard workers.

But that interest lay dormant for some time as he focused on getting rich. After a stint at a hedge fund focusing on biotech investing, and then Yale Law School (simultaneously with his hedge fund work), he started his own pharma company, Roivant, under the theory that the traditional industry giants were inefficient, poorly structured, and missing opportunities.

Ramaswamy proved very skilled at convincing people to invest in him, lining up about $93 million in backing for Roivant, purchasing an Alzheimer’s drug that a bigger company had given up on, and spinning off a separate company for that drug that became what was then the biggest biotech IPO in history. Forbes Magazine called Ramaswamy “the 30-year-old CEO conjuring drug companies from thin air.”

The only problem? The drug flopped in its trial two years later.

But by that point, Roivant had several other drugs in the works and had raised even more cash — most importantly, $1.1 billion from SoftBank’s Vision Fund, a massive fund that has become synonymous with tech investing excess in the easy money era. After trials for future drugs succeeded, Ramaswamy cut a $3 billion deal with a Japanese company for several of them in 2019, ensuring Roivant’s survival and getting him a massive payout.

As he gained his entrée into the business elite, a growing trend began to irk Ramaswamy — many companies and investment funds were saying they wanted their business decisions to help solve societal problems like racism, climate change, and sexism.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed early in 2020, he professed concern about this creeping of progressive politics into the business world, arguing that businesses should focus on their bottom lines instead.

But he wasn’t just annoyed at liberal business elites — he also clashed with his own employees. When the 2020 racial justice protests broke out, Ramaswamy later wrote, “The pressure to publicly support BLM [Black Lives Matter] started to weigh heavily on me personally.” Yet, he continued, he did not accept “the narrative of systemic racism,” so he issued a vague and noncommittal statement, and got criticized for it.

He faced more backlash when, days after the January 6, 2021, attacks, he co-wrote a Journal op-ed saying Facebook and Twitter shouldn’t have banned Trump from their platforms. Later that month, he stepped down from his CEO job — a few months before Roivant’s IPO, which helped make him a fortune now estimated by Forbes as at least $630 million.

Ramaswamy was now freed up to spend more time making his name in politics. With the anti-“wokeness” craze in full swing on the right, he carved out a niche as a former CEO who’d argue that big business was too woke. He played a significant part in fomenting conservative backlash toward “environmental, social, and corporate governance” investing — ESG for short — helping make it one of the new acronym-ed boogeymen for the right, alongside CRT (critical race theory) and DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion).

Stickers and pamphlets for Vivek Ramaswamy laid out on a table.
Literature and stickers for Vivek Ramaswamy at the Ohio Republican Pancake Breakfast in Cincinnati on March 11, 2023.
Maddie McGarvey/For The Washington Post via Getty

Telegenic and articulate, he was regularly featured on Fox News, even getting a one-hour Fox special to promote his new book on the topic, Woke, Inc., in 2021. Woke, Inc. is an odd hodgepodge. Half the time, Ramaswamy sounds almost populist, writing that “big business uses progressive-friendly values to deflect attention from its own monolithic pursuit of profit and power.”

But then he admits he’s not really a populist at all, writing, “As a society we should allow and even embrace the corporate pursuit of financial self-interest above all.” His loyalties, he writes, are not with the “hired hands,” but with “those who embody the essence of an institution” — namely, “founders and shareholders at companies.” Like those who wish athletes discussing politics would “stick to sports,” he wants employees and companies to stick to business.

The takeaway — that woke capitalism is bad and we should have less of it — was clear enough, and it was exactly what conservatives wanted to hear. Civil rights law, he argued, should protect political opinions, not just demographic identities. Ramaswamy’s adoption of the anti-ESG cause proved well-timed, as the backlash against such investing practices spread across much of the conservative movement and was even put into legislation in a few red states.

Most importantly for him, it put him on the map as a conservative political commentator — though to keep that going, he’d have to branch out.

Vivek Ramaswamy and the politics of race

Woke, Inc. was generally well-received on the right, but one reviewer was not so impressed. Writing in American Affairs, a journal founded to try and put intellectual heft behind Trump’s inchoate challenge to GOP establishment orthodoxy, the author, Richard Hanania, scoffed at Ramaswamy’s idea to extend civil rights law to cover political beliefs — civil rights law, he argued, was the cause of the wokeness problem, not the solution to it.

Hanania also pooh-poohed Ramaswamy’s half-baked theory that social-justice politics was created by the rich to distract from economic redistribution. Ramaswamy, he said, was avoiding “the uncomfort­able questions about civil rights overreach and the actual causes of racial and gender inequalities.” And he needed “an alternative vision” to wokeness, “such as one championing freedom and excellence.”

Hanania is a lapsed academic who had developed a following on the right (particularly in tech and libertarian circles) for his often mocking and politically incorrect criticisms of “wokeness,” and his attempts to explain where it came from. At the time, his big idea was that wokeness rose to power not because of the culture but from civil rights law and executive branch policy decisions. He often writes about “black crime” in commentary that regularly gets him denounced as racist, and not only by those on the left: Conservative writer Ben Domenech called him a “racist eugenicist.” (Update: After this article was initially published, the HuffPost reported that Hanania wrote extraordinarily extreme things for white supremacist sites in the early 2010s under a pseudonym, though he now says he finds his old beliefs “repulsive.”)

Back in 2021, Ramaswamy read Hanania’s negative review of his book and was impressed. He tweeted that though the review was “harsh,” it was “an excellent read with insightful ideas,” adding, “Thank you @RichardHanania for a brave piece.” Evidently, some of the criticisms had hit home. “You’re one of the rare people I have to thank for pushing me beyond where I was even as recently as two years ago,” Ramaswamy told Hanania during an interview for his podcast, The Vivek Show, this April. “Thoughtful criticism, that’s worth something.”

Going forward, Ramaswamy began trying to more directly rebut the liberal argument that systemic racism was responsible for disparities affecting Black people. Instead, he put more of the blame on Black people themselves — as well as on Democrats, citing the decline of marriage and two-parent households and arguing that benefits programs like welfare incentivized bad behavior. He fleshed out this line in his second book, Nation of Victims, in 2022, blaming an overall “victimhood narrative” for holding back too many Black Americans.

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy visits the 3rd Phase Barbershop in the South Shore neighborhood on May 19, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois.
Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy visits the 3rd Phase Barbershop in the South Shore neighborhood on May 19, 2023, in Chicago, Illinois.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

None of this is new for the right — arguing that it wasn’t racism or economics holding urban Black people back was a main preoccupation of conservative intellectuals in the 1980s and 1990s — but it hasn’t been center stage in US politics for some time. By the turn of the century, welfare had been reformed and crime rates were falling, and these topics had receded from the discourse. Donald Trump had a long history of anti-Black racism, but this played surprisingly little role in his first presidential campaign: His preferred targets for demagoguery were instead immigrants and Muslims.

But the rise of social justice politics, and especially the 2020 protests, put disparities faced by Black Americans center stage again, with progressives arguing systemic racism and white supremacy were at the center of everything. Conservatives like Ramaswamy didn’t buy that, and gravitated toward other explanations.

Ramaswamy also cites certain incidents in his life that he says have made him dwell on race. In eighth grade, he was attending public middle school when, he wrote in Nation of Victims, “a big black kid thought it would be amusing” to push him, “a nerdy high-achieving Indian kid,” down the stairs. He wrote that he became a conservative during middle school, as “a psychological defense mechanism against being victimized myself at a vulnerable time.”

In the book, he recounted another tense incident that occurred once he was an adult — a confrontation with his aunt’s Black neighbor over grass left by the neighbor’s lawnmower. In Ramaswamy’s telling, he threatened to get a “third party involved”; the neighbor took that as a threat to call the cops that would put him at risk of police violence, and responded with a furious threat to get his gun. Ramaswamy wrote that he feared for his life: “That experience changed me in many ways. I’ve thought about it many times.” He concluded he was partly in the wrong, but also blamed the neighbor for overreacting due to a “victimhood narrative.”

As his alternative vision to victimhood, Ramaswamy proposes a renewed national focus on merit. “I think everything should be more of a meritocracy,” he told me. “You get ahead and achieve your own God-given potential, whatever that is, in a way that’s unconstrained by any obstacles put in your way.” Indeed, as the child of immigrants who grew up in Cincinnati, attended Harvard and Yale Law, went into finance, started a company, and got fabulously rich, the meritocracy has worked out quite well for him.

The anti-affirmative action candidate

Ramaswamy’s biggest idea to restore “merit” is simply to wipe out racial preferences like affirmative action, which he’s called “a cancer on our national soul.” He’s opined that he thinks affirmative action is “creating a new wave of anti-black racism” among people who suspect Black students or coworkers benefited from these unfair preferences, and that it feeds into “black victimhood” by disincentivizing hard work.

Meanwhile, top universities, he argues, clearly discriminate against Asian American applicants, effectively setting a higher test score bar for them to get in. Here Ramaswamy may make for a more palatable critic than a white man who might be assumed to have sour grapes about losing his white privilege.

He told me he thought it was “completely unfair” to the “Indian American or Asian American or white kids, many of whom are taught that something is wrong with them because they’ve done everything that’s been asked of them and they still can’t get into the same institutions” as affirmative action beneficiaries, he told me. “It’s also not fair to many Black students and, in cases in the workplace, Black colleagues — I’ve seen this firsthand — who in many instances I think meritocratically would have held their positions anyway, but who are unfairly judged.”

Ramaswamy has said the president can roll back many affirmative action policies by executive order, but that previous GOP presidents have curiously failed to do so. “Everyone is hiding from this. I’m making it the tip of the spear of my policy agenda,” he told Hanania in his April podcast. Hanania had long singled out LBJ’s 1965 executive order requiring affirmative action for government contractors as starting the trend, and he urged Ramaswamy not just to rescind the order but to replace it with a new one stating “you can’t have an affirmative action program.” Ramaswamy laughed and said he liked that idea.

Here, too, the trend is broader than Ramaswamy. After a half-century or so in which conservatives intermittently criticized affirmative action but mostly left it alone in practice, the Supreme Court struck down racial preferences in university admissions this June.

Conservative elites are increasingly focused on this topic, with Hanania recently speaking to the Yale Federalist Society. Yet the sunny talk that getting rid of affirmative action will help racial harmony is unconvincing. The policy was originally created to ensure Black Americans weren’t excluded from elite institutions, and getting rid of it will likely lead to a society with more racial stratification.

Ramaswamy may be seeking to capitalize on white and Asian American resentment of racial preferences, but he’s an equal-opportunity capitalist. In May, after seeing a viral-on-the-right video of some Black Chicagoans angrily protesting the city’s policies toward arriving migrants, he arranged a campaign trip to the city’s South Side to talk about how the government was doing too much to help refugees and asylum seekers rather than Americans.

Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy visits the 3rd Phase Barbershop in the South Shore neighborhood on May 19, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. Ramaswamy got a haircut and visited with residents during his visit to the barbershop
Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy visits the 3rd Phase Barbershop in the South Shore neighborhood on May 19, 2023, in Chicago, Illinois. Ramaswamy got a haircut and visited with residents during his visit to the barbershop
Scott Olson/Getty Imagges

Then, while he was getting a fade at a barbershop, one person argued to him that the “descendants of slaves” needed particular help, not, say, immigrants from Nigeria. Hearing a favorite critique of affirmative action, Ramaswamy responded with excitement, “Exactly. And that’s the people who benefit from programs today.”

“America First 2.0”

Ramaswamy speaks frequently about wanting to unite the country in a way Trump couldn’t. Yet he’s also positioned himself as a sort of heir to Trumpism, even calling his agenda America First 2.0.

Following in Trump’s footsteps, Ramaswamy has reveled in blithely making proposals of dubious legality and practicality that sound like common sense to Republican primary voters but get tut-tutted by journalists. Strongmanism is hot on the right — conservative restraint, not so much.

To take a wrecking ball to the federal government, Ramaswamy says he’ll fire “at least half” of federal employees, impose eight-year term limits on federal employees, and shut down agencies like the Education Department and the FBI (replacing the bureau with “a new apparatus built from scratch”).

And he says he’ll do this by executive authority. This is illegal, since Congress funds those agencies and federal employees have civil service protections, but Ramaswamy claims he’ll try it anyway, making broad claims to presidential power, and gamble that the conservative Supreme Court will side with him.

His pledge for a mass federal firing spree may be the most extreme in the field, but he is hardly alone in the sentiment — both Trump and DeSantis say they’d use executive power to reclassify tens of thousands of civil servants as political appointees who could be fired and replaced. Much of the MAGA right is spoiling for a confrontation with the “deep state.” In one form or another, they may eventually get their way.

On foreign policy, Ramaswamy says he wants to ban most US companies from doing business in China — until, he says, the Chinese Communist Party falls or radically reforms, which obviously isn’t happening anytime soon. He says he would not give any more funding to Ukraine, and he recently announced his fanciful-sounding plan to end the war (forcing Ukraine to cede territory to Russia in exchange for Russia forswearing its military relationship with China).

Ramaswamy was also an early adopter of the new GOP craze for using the US military to attack drug cartels in Mexico, and says the military should be deployed to secure the US-Mexico border. Previous presidents have done this only in limited fashion because the Posse Comitatus Act places strict restrictions on how the military can be used on US territory, but Ramaswamy has declared that he’d go much further. In our interview, Ramaswamy argued that only hardline tactics to reestablish border security would “quell a lot of the otherwise misplaced frustration with immigration generally,” create “the conditions for people to think clearly again,” and let the country embrace merit-based legal immigration.

Another recent policy innovation is his proposal to take away voting rights from 18- to 24-year-olds, a demographic that overwhelmingly supports Democrats. These young adults should only be allowed to vote, Ramaswamy says, if they pass a civics test, serve in the military, or work as first responders. This is the most “obviously not going to happen” of all his ideas, since it would require a constitutional amendment and support from 38 states. It may be a cheap attention-getting stunt, but the logic is clear enough: Effectively, it’s an idea to take away some liberals’ voting rights so conservatives can more easily win.

Ramaswamy speaks outside the Miami courthouse where Trump is scheduled to be arraigned on on June 13, 2023.
Ramaswamy speaks outside the Miami courthouse where Trump is scheduled to be arraigned on on June 13, 2023
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The first-term agenda for President Ramaswamy will likely remain on the shelf. Yet his platform is perhaps less revealing of him personally than it is of where he thinks the energy in the GOP is right now.

It’s not exactly clear whether the party, increasingly dominated by non-college-educated whites, will really gravitate toward Ramaswamy’s Ivy League-inspired message of “merit.” It’s clear enough, though, that the GOP base can be mobilized by strongman fantasies, anti-trans rhetoric, opposition to wokeness, and rejection of the “systemic racism” explanation for America’s divisions. But Trump, DeSantis, and various other candidates are offering all that, too. And the more Ramaswamy tells his audience what they want to hear, the more he’ll sound just like everyone else.

Update, August 23, 9 pm ET: This article was originally published on June 28. It has been updated to reflect recent news developments in advance of the first Republican debate.

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